An American Plague By Jim Murphy
In An American Plague, Jim Murphy brings to light a dark period of our country’s history—the struggle with yellow fever, a disease that struck thousands living in our nation’s growing cities during the 18th and 19th centuries, but which few people understood at the time. Focusing on the outbreak that quickly spread through Philadelphia in 1793, Murphy explores the social, political, and personal consequences of yellow fever with fascinating detail and primary source information.
The first chapter of An American Plague focuses on what Philadelphia was like when the disease struck—and why the first cases went unnoticed. By listening to this audio sample, students can focus on the sensory detail Murphy uses to make readers feel like they are walking the streets of Philadelphia.
As they listen, ask students to pay attention to the different sights, smells, and sounds Murphy describes. Then discuss the questions below.
- What are three visual details that Murphy included? Three aural ones? Three different smells? Why do you think Murphy chose to include those particular details?
- What was the most surprising detail? Why?
- How does Murphy’s use of detail affect you as you listened? Did you feel like you could see the streets of Philadelphia? Why or why not?
- Do you think Murphy made up any of the details in the story? Why or why not? If not, where do you think he got his information?
- What do you think will happen next? Are there any details that serve as clues to support your theory?
Next, try this activity:
Murphy explains that there is no visual record of the 1793 yellow fever outbreak. Why not create one now? Distribute The Yellow Fever Times reproducible . Then invite students to draw a scene from the epidemic, based on the details Murphy uses in the audio sample. Challenge students to depict images that might have appeared in a newspaper story at the time. Then have them write headlines and short articles to accompany their illustrations. Compile the articles in a class newspaper entitled “The Yellow Fever Times.”
Encourage students to use the same level of sensory detail in their own nonfiction writing. To see if all the senses were used, peer editors can make notes on a simple outline of a human face, writing in visual details for the eyes, edible ones for the mouth, aural ones for the ears, and olfactory ones for the nose. If any of these elements are missing, writers can go back and layer them into their work.