Disease is thought to be a great leveler of humanity, but in antebellum New Orleans acquiring immunity from the scourge of yellow fever magnified the brutal inequities of slave-powered capitalism.
Antebellum New Orleans sat at the heart of America’s slave and cotton kingdoms. It was also where yellow fever epidemics killed as many as 150,000 people during the nineteenth century. With little understanding of mosquito-borne viruses—and meager public health infrastructure—a person’s only protection against the scourge was to “get acclimated” by surviving the disease. About half of those who contracted yellow fever died.
Repeated epidemics bolstered New Orleans’s strict racial hierarchy by introducing another hierarchy, what Kathryn Olivarius terms “immunocapital.” As this highly original analysis shows, white survivors could leverage their immunity as evidence that they had paid their biological dues and could then pursue economic and political advancement. For enslaved Blacks, the story was different. Immunity protected them from yellow fever, but as embodied capital, they saw the social and monetary value of their acclimation accrue to their white owners. Whereas immunity conferred opportunity and privilege on whites, it relegated enslaved people to the most grueling labor.
The question of good health—who has it, who doesn’t, and why—is always in part political. Necropolis shows how powerful nineteenth-century white Orleanians—all allegedly immune—pushed this politics to the extreme. They constructed a society that capitalized mortal risk and equated perceived immunity with creditworthiness and reliability. Instead of trying to curb yellow fever through sanitation or quarantines, immune white Orleanians took advantage of the chaos disease caused. Immunological discrimination therefore became one more form of bias in a society premised on inequality, one more channel by which capital disciplined and divided the population.
This book is prescient for the questions it provokes about our experiences of COVID-19…Necropolis shows how elite white people exploited disease in this uniquely unhealthy space for their own personal gain…Olivarius’s new perspectives on yellow fever, immunocapitalism, and the politics of acclimation are a powerful addition to this important body of scholarship that will influence a generation of scholars to come on the intersections of racism, slavery, and public health.
More than two years into the Covid-19 pandemic, the social, economic and political implications of public health crises are more apparent than ever—as is the fact that people of color and poorer communities often bear the brunt of these contagions’ consequences. [This] new analysis of yellow fever in antebellum New Orleans highlights striking parallels with the ongoing pandemic.
Olivarius’s account is rich in thick descriptions of this fevered environment. She adeptly resurrects voices not just from elite men but from women, the impoverished, and even from former slaves…An excellent reconsideration of the impact of yellow fever on a major southern trading port in the antebellum era.
Necropolis makes a compelling argument for the near-determinative nature of disease in antebellum New Orleans…It is also hard to imagine [a book] more thought-provoking or more appropriate as a mirror to our current moment. Thus, Necropolis will stimulate all readers—as much the general public as students of medical history, American slavery, capitalism, or the South writ large.
Necropolis offers revelatory insights into how capitalism controls responses to disease, and how disease exacerbates inequalities, arguments that feel particularly prescient in the midst of an ongoing coronavirus pandemic…An engrossing and timely work of scholarship.
Olivarius puts a rich trove of primary sources to good use, lending the volume authenticity in its arguments and engaging readability while demonstrating the lengths to which New Orleans residents went to preserve the cyclical epidemic status quo, which preserved Creole dominance and limited the success of American and European immigrants.
Captivating…Olivarius illuminates the complex workings of ‘immunocapitalism’ and paints a vivid picture of antebellum New Orleans. This is a timely and thought-provoking look at how disease outbreaks have exacerbated inequality in America.
A brilliant book. Olivarius’s insightful reading of sources and beautiful writing give us a new and important way to think about slavery, race, health, and hierarchy. This transformative work is a pivotal addition to the scholarship on American slavery.
Olivarius delivers a stunning account of ‘high-risk, high-reward’ profiteering in the yellow fever–ridden Crescent City. Nineteenth-century New Orleans appears as a world in which a deadly virus altered every aspect of a brutal social system, exacerbating savage inequalities of enslavement, race, and class—inequalities that will have readers pondering the choices we make as a society in epidemics of our own.
A real page-turner. Necropolis propels the reader along, not least because the parallels to our coronavirus pandemic are impossible to ignore. Olivarius is convincing in her argument that disease was an important way to wield power—political, economic, and racial. This fresh, beautifully written book makes original contributions to the literatures on medicine, capitalism, politics, and welfare.
In flowing prose, Olivarius offers an intriguing account of the systematic relationship between yellow fever and power in nineteenth-century New Orleans. Her innovative term ‘immunocapitalism’ brings together multiple threads to show the ways in which yellow fever was not simply a natural phenomenon, no matter how much those who profited because of its inequitable impact tried to naturalize it. Deeply researched, extremely well written, and provocatively argued, Necropolis is a rich and fascinating book.
The remarkable thing about Necropolis is that its subject has been hiding in plain sight all along. In nineteenth-century New Orleans, yellow fever was more than an episodic worry; it saturated everyday consciousness, splitting the world between those who had gained immunity and those who had not. No effort was spared to prove that the scourge’s supposedly deterministic properties not only necessitated African enslavement, but also produced the foreign exchange that kept the urban economy humming. Olivarius unpacks this story with skill and feeling in a book of truly impressive research and scope.
- 2023, Winner of the Frederick Jackson Turner Award
- 2023, Winner of the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities Book of the Year Award
- 2023, Winner of the PROSE Awards
- 2023, Winner of the Kemper and Leila Williams Prize
- 2023, Winner of the Francis B. Simkins Award
- 2023, Winner of the SHEAR Book Prizes
- 2023, Winner of the James H. Broussard First Book Prize
- 2023, Winner of the AHA Prize in American History
- 352 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Belknap Press
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