Katherine Anne Porter & the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, Part II, “Pale Horse, Pale Rider”

Katherine Anne Porter was a young, aspiring writer when she contracted influenza during the 1918 pandemic in Denver, Colorado. Her case was so severe she was essentially given up for dead before making a surprising, albeit slow recovery. Read more about her experiences in “Katherine Anne Porter and the 1918 Influenza Pandemic Part I, The Influenza Pandemic in Colorado”. Shortly following her recovery, Porter moved to New York and began her professional writing career. By the 1930s, she waswell on her way to becoming an established author, publishing, among others, the short stories “Maria Concepcion” (1922) and “Flowering Judas (1930).

Katherine Anne Porter portrait, circa 1934-1935. Katherine Anne Porter papers, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Maryland Libraries.

Pale Horse, Pale Rider

Nearly two decades after surviving the 1918 influenza pandemic, Porter drew upon her experience for the short novel “Pale Horse, Pale Rider”. First published in 1938, it is a tragic, surreal, and striking portrayal of facing death during both a pandemic and a period of American history that was already dominated by the immense death and devastation of the First World War.

Porter, Katherine Anne. Pale Horse, Pale Rider: Three Short Novels. 1st Edition.  Harcourt, Brace, and Co.,1939. Katherine Anne Porter Library. Special Collections and University Archives, University of Maryland Libraries.

In a letter written to Alfred W. Crosby Jr. in 1975, Porter referred to “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” as “a purely biographical story” (Porter, Katherine Anne to Alfred W. Crosby Jr.). The plot contains clear parallels to Porter’s life. In the story, Miranda Gay is a young reporter for a Denver newspaper who meets Adam Barclay, a soldier who is about to leave for the war. Their romance is cut short when Miranda falls seriously ill from influenza during the growing pandemic.

Sickness is a foreboding presence as the story begins, with only passing, nonchalant references to the growing pandemic. At the same time, massive deaths overseas from the First World War adds to the tragic and morbid presence of death throughout the story. However, for Miranda and Adam, as seen in the following exchange, the horrors of the coming pandemic are not yet fully realized:

“I wonder,” said Miranda. “How did you manage to get an extension of leave?” 

“They just gave it,” said Adam, “for no reason. The men are dying like flies out there, anyway. This funny new disease. Simply knocks you into a cocked hat.” 

“It seems to be a plague,” said Miranda, “something out of the Middle Ages. Did you ever see so many funerals, ever?”

(Porter, Katherine Anne Pale Horse, Pale Rider 200)

There are also growing signs of Miranda’s own illness. She shows signs of exhaustion, uneasiness, and alienation that slowly builds until Miranda’s illness is fully revealed. A later exchange with Adam reads:

“There’s something terribly wrong,” she told Adam. “I feel too rotten. It can’t just be the weather, and the war.” 

“The weather is perfect,” said Adam, “and the war is simply too good to be true. But since when? You were all right yesterday.” 

“I don’t know,” she said slowly, her voice sounding small and thin. They stopped as always at the open door before the flight of littered steps leading up to the newspaper loft. Miranda listened for a moment to the rattle of typewriters above, the steady rumble of presses below. “I wish we were going to spend the whole afternoon on a park bench,” she said, “or drive to the mountains.” 

“I do too,” he said; “let’s do that tomorrow.” 

“Yes, tomorrow, unless something else happens. I’d like to run away,” she told him; “let’s both.”

(Porter, Katherine Anne Pale Horse, Pale Rider 202)

The story progresses and Miranda’s illness takes center stage, suddenly and gravely. Unable to get an ambulance to take her to a hospital, Adam stays by her side to take care of her. In Colorado, Porter herself was unable to secure a hospital bed when she first fell ill, as well as hostility from a panicked landlady who was prepared to kick her out of the house she lived in for fear of other’s discovering her illness. Perhaps due to these parallels, Porter’s descriptions in “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” provide rich details about the uncertainty and dangers of falling ill during a pandemic.

Danger, danger, danger, the voices said, and War, war, war. There was her door half open, Adam standing with his hand on the knob, and Miss Hobbe with her face all out of shape with terror was crying shrilly, “I tell you, they must come for her now, or I’ll put her on the sidewalk … I tell you, this is a plague, a plague, my God, and I’ve got a houseful of people to think about!” 

Adam said, “I know that. They’ll come for her tomorrow morning.” 

“Tomorrow morning, my God, they’d better come now! ’ 

“They can’t get an ambulance,” said Adam, “and there aren’t any beds. And we can’t find a doctor or a nurse. They’re all busy. That’s all there is to it. You stay out of the room, and I’ll look after her.” 

“Yes, you’ll look after her, I can see that,” said Miss Hobbe, in a particularly unpleasant tone. 

“Yes, that’s what I said,” answered Adam, drily, “and you keep out.”

He closed the door carefully. He was carrying an assortment of misshapen packages, and his face was astonishingly impassive. 

“Did you hear that?” he asked, leaning over and speaking very quietly. 

“Most of it,” said Miranda, “it’s a nice prospect, isn’t it?” 

“I’ve got your medicine,” said Adam, “and you’re to begin with it this minute. She can’t put you out.” 

“So it’s really as bad as that,” said Miranda. 

“It’s as bad as anything can be,” said Adam, “all the theaters and nearly all the shops and restaurants are closed, and the streets have been full of funerals all day and ambulances all night—” 

“But not one for me,” said Miranda, feeling hilarious and lightheaded. She sat up and beat her pillow into shape and reached for her robe.“I’m glad you’re here, I’ve been having a nightmare. Give me a cigarette, will you, and light one for yourself and open all the windows and sit near one of them. You’re running a risk,” she told him, “don’t you know that? Why do you do it?” 

“Never mind,” said Adam, “take your medicine,” and offered her two large cherry-colored pills. She swallowed them promptly and instantly vomited them up. “Do excuse me,” she said, beginning to laugh. “I’m so sorry.” Adam without a word and with a very concerned expression washed her face with a wet towel, gave her some cracked ice from one of the packages, and firmly offered her two more pills. “That’s what they always did at home,” she explained to him, “and it worked.” Crushed with humiliation, she put her hands over her face and laughed again, painfully. 

“There are two more kinds yet,” said Adam, pulling her hands from her face and lifting her chin. “You’ve hardly begun. And I’ve got other things, like orange juice and ice cream— they told me to feed you ice cream —and coffee in a thermos bottle, and a thermometer. You have to work through the whole lot so you’d better take it easy.”

(Porter, Katherine Anne Pale Horse, Pale Rider 232-234)

As Miranda’s health rapidly declines, she suffers nightmares and fever induced hallucinations that mingle images of the war, her childhood, and the doctors taking care of her in the hospital. Memories of the deeply personal trauma Porter experienced in 1918, is perhaps what makes these long passages of inner dialogue so striking to read, especially as Miranda’s illness intensifies. As Porter describes:

I did experience, as nearly as you can, death. And I had this strange, utterly wonderful vision, that I have never been able to describe, I did as well as I could in the story itself….this wonderful shot of camphor oil that these young interns thought of destroyed that one and brought me back down that terrible other side.

(“Day at Night”)

The truth behind the man who helped care for Porter in 1918 is unclear. Porter recalled later in life that she met and fell in love with a soldier named Alexander Barclay in Denver, shortly before she caught influenza, stating “our time was so short and we were much in love” (Givner 128).  Like Adam in “Pale Horse, Pale Rider”, “Alexander” watched over Porter as she waited to be admitted into the hospital, some 4-5 days in total. In a 1969 interview with the Baltimore Sun, she describes how he sent her flowers while she was in the hospital, but “they took the roses away from me because they said flowers used up oxygen” (Givner 128). She refers to him in several interviews later in her life, but not much has been found in the archive that illuminates their relationship in 1918. Coincidentally, Alexander Barclay is also the name of Scottish poet and translator of the 15th century German allegory Ship of Fools, a title Porter borrowed for her only full length novel published in 1962 (Givner, 128).

In contrast to this portrayal of two lovers in a whirlwind romance, in a 1933 letter written to her father, Harrison Boone Porter, the nature of Porer’s relationship with the young man who helped her during the pandemic is portrayed as more distant. According to Porter:

When I was so desperately sick in Denver, in 1918, a young boy twenty one years old, whom I did not know at all, who happened to be living in the same house with me, took care of me for three days before a doctor or a bed in the hospital could be found for me. Nursed me and gave me my medicine and came in three times every night to see how I was.

(Porter, Katherine Anne to Harrison Boone Porter)

Whichever version of the truth rings true, it is evident that the encounter was meaningful for Porter. In another correlation, the man who stayed by her sick bed in 1918 and Miranda’s Adam in “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” shared a common fate. 

In “Pale Horse, Pale Rider”, as Miranda’s fever breaks and she begins to recover, she receives news that Adam died of influenza at the army hospital a month earlier. His death has already occurred, quietly and tragically at the same time Miranda was fighting death and delirium in the hospital.  Miranda experiences a profound loss at the news of his death:

At once he was there beside her, invisible but urgently present, a ghost but more alive than she was, the last intolerable cheat of her heart; for knowing it was false she still clung to the lie, the unpardonable lie of her bitter desire. She said, “I love you,” and stood up trembling, trying by the mere act of her will to bring him to sight before her. If I could call you up from the grave I would, she said, if I could see your ghost I would say, I believe … “I believe,” she said aloud. “Oh, let me see you once more.” The room was silent, empty, the shade was gone from it, struck away by the sudden violence of her rising and speaking aloud. She came to herself as if out of sleep. Oh, no, that is not the way, I must never do that, she warned herself.

(Porter, Katherine Anne Pale Horse, Pale Rider 264)

For Porter, the impact of the anonymous young man’s death was also significant:

That boy came and took care of me, just as I said, when we couldn’t get a real place in a hospital, no doctor could come to visit me, and he was just a young man that I had met… He was on his way to the war… just a few days before he was expected to go, and we met each other, and we fell in love. The day we met I was already stricken with this disease. For a long time I had the feeling, I was guilty that he got that plague from me.

(“Day at Night”)

Porter’s 1933 letter to her father also recounts the deep guilt Porter felt regarding the young man’s death. It was written at a time Porter had recently recovered from another bout of influenza, this time in Paris, France. She was sick for 8 days, with the last four days spent “sitting holding my head and wishing I had died” (Porter, Katherine Anne to Harrison Boon Porter). Back in good health, she reminisced about her feelings of guilt towards the young man and her own recovery in 1918:

Ten days later while I was unconscious in the hospital, he died of influenza. I cannot forget this, it is terrible that he should have saved my life and lost his own. In this case, I feel directly responsible, for he was a big healthy fellow who lived out of doors, and need never have come in contact with the epidemic at all.

(Porter, Katherine Anne to Harrison Boone Porter)

In “Pale Horse, Pale Rider”, the trauma and loss Miranda experiences as a result of the pandemic occurs alongside the trauma and loss of the First World War. Even as the flu overruns her body, the war preoccupies her mind in nightmares and hallucinations, both becoming haunting ordeals in which death takes a seemingly meaningless toll on everyday life. In her 1975 letter written to Alfred W. Crosby, Jr, Porter looks back on the 1918 pandemic and how it has become overshadowed by the First World War in the collective memory, and yet inextricably linked. She writes, “I always had the idea that the war and that epidemic were hand in hand as a great disaster to this country and to everybody in it and for once the individual and the institution suffered together” (Porter, Katherine Anne to Alfred W. Crosby Jr.).

Letter from Katherine Anne Porter to Alfred W. Crosby, Jr., 06/13/1975. Katherine Anne Porter papers, Special Collections and University Archives.

Porter concludes “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” on a haunting tone, leaving the reader with the void left by two major disasters inflicted upon the world:

No more war, no more plague, only the dazed silence that follows the ceasing of the heavy guns; noiseless houses with the shades drawn, empty streets, the dead cold light of tomorrow. Now there would be time for everything.

(Porter, Katherine Anne Pale Horse, Pale Rider 264)

So what can we make of Porter’s self described autobiographical narrative of the 1918 influenza pandemic? It is one of the few works of literature about the pandemic, providing an invaluable narrative of the complex emotions of uncertainty, grief, alienation, death, and ultimately recovery. “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” is also a story that lends itself to greater authenticity because of Porter’s personal experiences. It is a work of fiction that nevertheless offers readers an unique glimpse into the individual experience of directly confronting the influenza pandemic while the First World War looms ever present in the background. 

Small details ring true in the story, and at times bring us into comparisons with the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. From the panic stricken landlady ready to evict a sick Miranda out of fear of infection to the shortages of fresh oranges in Denver hospitals. “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” offers a glimpse into the everyday realities that can be forgotten over time. Miranda’s inner dialogue, which slowly devolves into delirium as she becomes sicker, is illuminating to read Porter attempts to capture the very personal, and, at the same time, collective trauma of confronting mortality in 1918. It is a fascinating and devastating piece of modernist literature that is also accessible, particularly as we find ourselves facing a worldwide pandemic just over a century later.

“Pale Horse, Pale Rider” Online


Amber Kohl, is the Curator of Literature and Rare Books in Special Collections and University Archives at the University of Maryland. Special Collections and University Archives is home to the Katherine Anne Porter papers.

Works Cited

  • Porter, Katherine Anne to Alfred W. Crosby Jr., 13 June 1975, College Park, Maryland. Series 1, Box: 25, Folder: 13.0. Katherine Anne Porter papers. Special Collections and University Archives. University of Maryland Libraries.
  • Porter, Katherine Anne. Pale Horse, Pale Rider: Three Short Novels. Modern Library, 1939.
  • Givner, Joan. Katherine Anne Porter: a Life. University of Georgia Press, 1993.
  • Porter, Katherine Anne to Harrison Boone Porter, 21 Jan. 1933, Paris, France. Series 1, Subseries 6, Box 62, Folder 1. Katherine Anne Porter papers. Special Collections and University Archives. University of Maryland Libraries. 

One thought on “Katherine Anne Porter & the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, Part II, “Pale Horse, Pale Rider”

  1. Pingback: Katherine Anne Porter & the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, Part I: The Spanish Flu | Special Collections & University Archives

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