His Nemesis Was Polio

I am a big Philip Roth fan. I’ve read everything he’s written since and including the haunting American Pastoral and a lot before that. Even the so-called lesser works, including his spate of novellas in recent years, have not failed to engage. But his latest, Nemesis (with a minimalist cover designed by Milton Glaser), takes the prize — whatever prize(s) can be bestowed.

The plot centers around Eugene “Bucky” Cantor, a 23-year old physical ed teacher in Newark during the devastating polio outbreak of the sweltering summer 1944. It’s at once a love story and a horror tale (read the Times review here) that addresses the eternal question of what is ethical, moral, and theological in the face of fateful calamity, and how the decisions and actions that alter lives are made. The main character is shadowed throughout the book by polio, a disease which for most of you reading this is a thing of the past, like the Black Plague. Even when I was a kid, we were vaccinated every year like clockwork in school with either the Salk or Sabin vaccines (miracles to be sure). We had to worry about the A- and H-bombs, but not polio.

For the generation just prior, polio was a scourge of huge proportions. Children, the primary but not the only targets, were healthy one minute and often paralyzed or dead the next. It was a time when, like AIDS today, designers were called upon to create awareness posters — and they were posted everywhere.

At MoMA in 1949, assistant design curator Mildred “Connie” Constantine organized a polio poster competition and exhibit. While reading Nemesis, I was reminded of her show (which I’ve only read about) and of the Herbert Matter (below) and Herbert Bayer (bottom) posters that are also now modernist classics.

I know a few people who survived polio relatively unscathed, yet today they are currently feeling some residual problems. The disease, as Roth’s narrator notes, is prone to return in muscles and bones that had been affected 30, 40, even 50 years earlier. So, as a compliment to Roth’s brilliant Nemesis, here are some vintage posters.

4 thoughts on “His Nemesis Was Polio

  1. John Bryan

    I was a polio victim in 1959. I spent two months in the hospital and endured eighteen months of physical therapy. Five years later I joined the Army. I was initially rejected due to physical restraints but talked my way in. I retired as an Army colonel forty one years later. I have the typical post polio weakness now and wear a leg brace. I am just thankful that I had fifty one years before bracing up.

  2. Bobbi

    Wow. That post brought back memories. I grew up on a military base. For amusement, we would use big cardboard boxes to slide down hills or create forts, play kick the can, or… get out the water hoses. One of the neighbors saw us drinking from the water hose and sat us all down to tell us how her husband had contracted polio that way. True or not, we went inside to get kool-aid from that point on….

    A huge backflip from the video-gaming, Red Bull drinking, texting youth of today.

  3. Pingback: speaking of posters | Jboydbrent's Blog

  4. Jean Dahlgren

    Great posting Steve. As a fellow Roth fan, I moved Nemesis to my short list of “must-reads.” My mother had polio as a child and was paralyzed on her left side for over a year. Her father gave her drawing materials and she spent her days sketching in a wide-armed Stickley rocking chair. She later went to Syracuse University on a full scholarship for art. Polio’s fury did return to affect her mobility years later, and I understand this is called post-polio syndrome. The posters remind us of the important role scientific research played in effectively crushing this disease in the U.S.

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