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.