“What a History”: Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider at 80

“Let me tell you what I have been doing and you will know better why I have not been writing to you when my delight is to send you letters such as they are. Just now, within this quarter hour, I have finished Pale Horse, Pale Rider, and it would be quite useless to try to tell you what a thing it has been…

Katherine Anne Porter to Glenway Wescott, 3 December 1937

So begins Katherine Anne Porter’s letter to her friend Glenway Wescott, announcing her final victory over the manuscript that she had been drafting for years. Later in the letter to Wescott, Porter writes:

“Nearly twenty thousand words, darling, laid neatly in rows on paper, at last…. But most of them were written years ago, I almost know them by heart. I began this story in Mexico, went on with it in Berlin, Basel, Paris, New York, Doylestown, and now New Orleans… what a history.”

Porter’s long journey with “Pale Horse, Pale Rider”is not unusual in her career. She was famously flexible with deadlines and signed a handful of contracts with literary publishers that she never kept, including contracts for a collection of her favorite short stories and a biography of Cotton Mather. Yet “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” inspired a “steady energy” in Porter, as she tells Wescott, one that she notes, “I have had fits of it before, and it is the best thing in the world while it lasts.”

Before Porter finished “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” in 1937, her output in magazines and reviews was steady. She published one collection of short stories, Flowering Judas, in 1930; an expanded edition, Flowering Judas and Other Stories, with four additional works, appeared in 1935. But despite this rather limited output, Porter had a solid literary reputation. With only one published collection, Porter won her first Guggenheim in 1931, well before she debuted “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” – arguably her most famous story – in the Winter 1938 issue of the Southern Review. The experience from which Porter draws to craft “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” was gained decades before her literary career began in earnest, when she worked as a journalist in Denver at the Rocky Mountain News. It was in Colorado, one month into her job at the paper in October 1918, that the Spanish flu hit its peak in the United States. 

The pandemic is said to be the deadliest ever, a surprising fact to twenty-first century readers. The global death toll of the Spanish flu of 1918 is between 50 to 100 million in a time span of just fifteen months. However, this number is inherently incomplete, as there was no sustainable record system in place, but, in the United States, roughly 670,000 people died.[1] Porter experienced the flu firsthand, falling sick in October 1918. In “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” Porter uses her fictional proxy, Miranda, to demonstrate the effects of the flu in the course of a romance with a soon-to-be-deployed World War I soldier, Adam. Though Porter knew success before 1939, she saw a different degree of popularity with the Pale Horse, Pale Rider collection. Based on its lively transmission history, the title story of Porter’s 1939 collection is by far the most culturally resonant piece of her collected works. From the 1956 adaptation for television, to the 1957 off-Broadway performance, and its feature in a recent Literary Hub online article – what is it about this story that is so appealing to so many imaginations, over a lifetime of eighty years?

In honor of the eightieth publication anniversary of the Pale Horse, Pale Rider collection, and the eighty-first publication anniversary of the story “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” in the Southern Review, we are featuring a range of materials tracing the story’s adaptation to television and the stage. This first blog installment will consider the story’s reception and the television adaptation, with a closer look at the stage adaptation in a future blog post installment.

Images: L: Pale Horse, Pale Rider Advertisement with KAP annotation to her older sister, Gay (circa 1939). Katherine Anne Porter Papers. R: Cover of Mary Doherty’s first edition of Pale Horse, Pale Rider. Thomas Walsh Papers. Both: Special Collections and University Archives, University of Maryland Libraries.

After its initial publication in the Southern Review, “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” was published as the last of three stories – or as Porter preferred, short novels – in the 1939 collection of the same title, Pale Horse, Pale Rider. “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” rounded out the collection, following “Old Mortality” and “Noon Wine,” respectively. The collection was dedicated to Porter’s father, Harrison Boone Porter, as the first two stories draw heavily on Porter’s family life and her native state of Texas, while the third story was inspired by her time in Colorado. Porter’s sister Gay’s copy includes annotations in the margins of “Old Mortality” that identify to which family members each character corresponds, with fewer of the markings in the following two stories.

Images: L: Gay Porter Holloway’s inscribed edition of Pale Horse, Pale Rider, (1939). R: The cover of Gay Porter Holloway’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider. Both from Katherine Anne Porter Papers, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Maryland Libraries.

Following its publication on April 1, 1939, Pale Horse, Pale Rider was met with positive reviews, as documented in Porter’s April 9 letter to her friend, Monroe Wheeler, “The reviews have been very lively. Oh I hope they sell the book!” Later that month, she writes to husband, Albert Erskine: “PARTY QUITE WONDERFUL 100 BOOKS SOLD… MARGARET MITCHELL [author of Gone with the Wind] HAS COPY”

Image: Telegram, Katherine Anne Porter to Albert Erskine 22 April 1939. Katherine Anne Porter Papers, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Maryland Libraries.

In addition to her correspondence with friends and family about the success of the collection, Porter collected clippings of the book’s reviews, including this one from the New York Times that notes in the second paragraph: “The best [story] by far seems to me the title piece, which is an extraordinary account of a young woman’s sensations and emotions during a dangerous illness – a little triumph in its way.”

Image: Clipping, The New York Times, 30 March 1939. Katherine Anne Porter Papers, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Maryland Libraries.

The collection’s success solidified Porter’s already strong literary reputation, and about seventeen years after its initial publication, the story was adapted for television by F. W. Durkee, Jr. This adaptation was a disappointment to Porter and critics alike. Her annotations of her copy of the show’s script note, on the first page of the credits, that it is “a little horror of a thing.”

Image: Porter copy, F. W. Durkee, Jr. “Pale Horse, Pale Rider.” Katherine Anne Porter Papers, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Maryland Libraries.

Porter agreed with the critics’ evaluation of the television adaptation, as she writes to John Malcolm Brinnin: “I loathed the TV version of Pale Horse, Pale Rider – how how [sic] right you are that they not only missed my point, but failed to supply one of their own. For some reason I had hoped it might be good, and now I wonder on what delusion I was building…” (10 April 1956). Some of the clippings of negative reviews of the show are marked up, indicating that Porter could have been paying special attention to how the critics evaluated the show’s weaknesses.

Images: L: Clipping, R: Advertisement. Both: Katherine Anne Porter Papers, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Maryland Libraries.

It is interesting, however, that in the clipping featured above left, that this particular reviewer segues into the discussion of the Climax! adaptation of Porter’s story following a discussion of one entry in “the usual run of TV’s anti-Communist dramas.” How intentional is this placement of Porter’s “story of love and loss in World War I,” after a discussion of an anti-Communist drama? By the time the adaptation aired and the reviews were written in March 1956, Porter had engaged with and examined radical politics and Communism in the U.S. for three decades. Many of her friends – and many of those in Porter’s literary circles in general – were connected to the Communist party, including her once-close friend and fellow author Josephine Herbst. Porter wrote to Herbst about her perspectives regarding Communism in America throughout their friendship, but this moment from a July 20, 1947 letter provides insight into Porter’s political affinities:

When I read about the Communist-hunt in Washington, I remember that you were one of the early victims. You know I don’t like Communists, the american brand. But I hate to my bootsoles the Fascists who are doing so successfully just what Hitler did: using the popular fear of Communism to cover the trail of his intentions, giving the people an enemy to distract their minds from the worse and real enemy in their own country…

It’s useful to remember that the story “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” – itself a flashback to the tail end of World War I – debuted on the eve of the World War II. Likewise, the television adaptation of the story debuted two years after Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy – known today for his role in the anti-Communist Red Scare, the man from which “McCarthyism” takes its name – was condemned by the Senate for “conduct… unbecoming of a Member of the United States Senate.”  What did the television adaptation of Porter’s story – one of war, of epidemic, of lost love – offer American audiences in the 1950s? We’ll continue to follow this question as we consider the 1957 stage adaptation of Porter’s story, an adaptation that, unlike the television show, Porter enjoyed.


Jeannette Schollaert is a graduate assistant in Special Collections and University Archives who works with the Katherine Anne Porter Correspondence Project. There, she assists with compiling and organizing metadata and contributing to the Project’s online exhibitions. She is pursuing a PhD in English, and her research focuses on twentieth century American writers and ecofeminism.


[1] Barry, John M. “How the Horrific 1918 Flu Spread Across America.” Smithsonian Magazine, November 2017. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/journal-plague-year-180965222/

One thought on ““What a History”: Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider at 80

  1. Pingback: Staging the Politics and Popular Appeal of “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” | UMD Special Collections & University Archives

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