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.

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Katherine Anne Porter & the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, Part I: The Spanish Flu

“I think of my personal history as before the plague and since the plague.” 
– Katherine Anne Porter to Alfred Crosby, 13 June 1975

An unknown illness, shortage of hospital beds, fever induced hallucinations, and growing fear about a contagious and deadly plague. All of these frightening realities take place against the backdrop of young love and the First World War in Katherine Anne Porter’s “Pale Horse, Pale Rider.” “Pale Horse, Pale Rider”  tells the story of trauma and survival during the 1918 Influenza pandemic. A masterfully written short novel woven with poetic and, at times, surreal prose, “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” is also a personal story for Porter, recalling her experience contracting the illness in Colorado in October 1918. With striking similarities to the current pandemic, it is a beautiful, complex, and intimate glimpse into the experience of making it through the other side of a pandemic and the First World War.

Portrait of Katherine Anne Porter taken in early spring, Texas, 1918. Katherine Anne Porter papers, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Maryland Libraries.

In the years leading up to the 1918 influenza pandemic, Katherine Anne Porter (1890-1980) was a bright, aspiring writer who had already faced a tumultuous life. Born in Texas, she was largely self taught and moved often with her family following the deaths of her mother and grandmother in 1892 and 1901 respectively. She was married and divorced three times, briefly worked as a movie extra in Chicago, taught children in a Dallas hospital, and wrote for several newspapers. Although she had begun writing, she had yet to publish in earnest.

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Modernist Writers in Special Collections

For years, works by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Robert Frost have been staples of high school English classes across America.  While The Great Gatsby and “The Road Not Taken” may now be regarded as classics, modernism, the literary movement that Fitzgerald and Frost participated in, was originally considered to be a disruptive force against the literary establishment.

Modernist works by Fitzgerald and Frost, along with Katherine Anne Porter, Djuna Barnes, T.S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, William Faulkner, and Franz Kafka can all be found in the Literary and Rare Books Collections in Special Collections and University Archives at the University of Maryland.

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Staging the Politics and Popular Appeal of “Pale Horse, Pale Rider”

Katherine Anne Porter’s story “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” – the titular story of Porter’s 1939 collection – was written on the eve of World War II, but the focus of the story is the last few months of the first World War. Porter was actively involved in political discourse and social protests throughout her life – notably, Porter participated in the protests against the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti – but her political positions changed. Janis Stout notes, “The scholar who seeks to construct an account of her [Porter’s] political and social views is well advised to resist the urge to find, or to impose, an undue coherence.” Despite the shifts in Porter’s political thinking, scholars like Janis Stout and Darlene Harbour Unrue argue for the importance of understanding the radical politics of Porter’s literary circle, as well as the political turbulence during her career and lifetime, in reading and engaging with her work. Stout suggests that if we read the views outlined in “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” as Porter’s own “testimony” – Miranda’s critique of World War I, the senselessness of the violence of war, the manipulation of the Liberty Bond system – we can see Porter as “fresh from the scene of a powerful experience in dissent.” If we view Porter’s story, like Stout, as her testimony critiquing war and United States’ political agenda, what then might a McCarthy-era experimental off-Broadway adaptation make of this source material? How can we read Porter’s response to this particular adaptation of her story?

Porter was disappointed with F. W. Durkee’s 1956 television adaptation of her story, as outlined in the previous post in this series, but she was thrilled the following year, when the off-Broadway production of the stage adaptation premiered. Porter was aware of the difference between her own reaction to the play and that of the critics, as she wrote to David Locher:

Did I tell you that my story Pale Horse, Pale Rider, has been made into an experimental play and is now running off-Broadway, and has had not altogether counting pre-views, twenty-nine performances as of tonight. The critics didn’t like it but somebody does, because the people keep coming in, and my friends seem to love it, and I saw it twice and thought it most impressively done, and such old pros as the critic on Variety, and Tennessee Williams, and William Saroyan and my dear friend Robert Penn Warren rushed to the rescue and are being quoted in the advertisements. So it goes on, but I think it will not last very much longer, the audience for that sort of thing is limited, and nobody expected it to go as far as it has! (30 December 1957)

Unrue, Darlene Harbour, ed. Selected Letters of Katherine Anne Porter: Chronicles of a Modern Woman. University Press of Mississippi, 2012. pg. 259.

Porter keeps track of the reviews of the play in her correspondence, and she also created a scrapbook of various reviews and coverage of the play, including both positive and negative press.

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“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/

Katherine Anne Porter Correspondence Project: An Introduction

“She always kept things secret in such a public way.”

Katherine Anne Porter, “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” (1930)

        Katherine Anne Porter’s description of Cornelia, daughter of the titular Granny Weatherall, is apt considering the tensions between Porter’s own private and public personas. Porter, too, was a secretly-public person – she was forthcoming with information about her life and experience, though she sometimes elaborated on the facts, exaggerating details or creating new information.  The reality of her life became mysterious, as Callie Russell Porter became the Katherine Anne Porter who captivated the literary communities of which she was a part. In the margins of Katherine Anne’s books in Hornbake Library’s Porter Room, there are even notes from Katherine Anne’s sister, Gay, that call attention to the points at which Katherine Anne’s stories depart from or obscure the source material of her own life.


Katherine Anne Porter with hair down in garden, Mixcoac, Mexico. Back inscription: “Ophelia in Mixcoac, March 1931.”
Katherine Anne Porter Papers, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Maryland Libraries
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The Letters of Katherine Anne Porter Now Available Online!

We are proud to announce a new online resource exploring the life and work American author Katherine Anne Porter is now available!

Katherine Anne Porter: Correspondence from the Archives, 1912-1977  provides access to digitized correspondence written by Porter, whose literary archives is held in Special Collections and University Archives in Hornbake Library. Previously, researchers interested in reading her letters visited the Maryland Room (the reading room for special collections and University Archives) in person or requested photocopies/scans of the materials. Now, users have instant access to approximately 3800 items of her correspondence, which have been digitized and made accessible online, via a searchable and browsable database .

This online resource is the result of an extensive digitization project in the Libraries. The Katherine Anne Porter Correspondence Project is an ongoing collaboration between the University of Maryland Libraries Special Collections and University Archives and Digital System and Stewardship units, supported by a grant from the Katherine Anne Porter Literary Trust. 

Katherine Anne Porter (1890-1980) is known primarily for her short stories and novel, Ship of Fools. She was awarded a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in 1966 for The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter. She lived a rich life, traveling across the United States and abroad while writing both fiction and nonfiction. Her correspondence highlights her interests in writing, travel, politics, and current events, as well as documenting her private life and career.

Katherine Anne Porter: Correspondence from the Archives, 1912-1977  offers a glimpse into her bustling life and career, providing background information and historical context for both Porter enthusiasts and those unfamiliar with her work.

Along with images of Porter throughout her life, users can explore details of Porter’s life by decade, as well as by the places she lived and visited, both in the US and abroad. These glimpses into her biography reveal fascinating aspects of her life. For example, did you know Katherine Anne Porter contracted the Spanish Influenza while working as a reporter in Denver? That she lived in Berlin during the rise of the Nazi Party? Did you know Porter lived in College Park, MD? And she lived in Washington D.C. at the time of the Kennedy inauguration?

Visit Katherine Anne Porter: Correspondence from the Archives, 1912-1977 and discover more!

The Armed Services Editions: Books for Soldiers in World War II

Between 1943 and 1947, the Council on Books in Wartime shipped nearly 123 million books to American soldiers. Not just any books, the specially designed Armed Services Editions were lightweight paperbacks designed to easily fit in a soldier’s pocket. The 1,227 unique titles in the series were selected to appeal to a wide variety of interests, including literary classics, contemporary bestsellers, and various works of nonfiction.

At a time when books were banned or burned in Nazi Germany, sending books to soldiers overseas was seen as patriotic act. The slogan of the Council on Books in Wartime, “Books are weapons in the war of ideas,” reflected their belief that books were important for spreading the ideals of freedom and democracy. The books selected need not have lofty themes to be a part of the program, however, they simply had to be something that soldiers wanted to read. Books, the military discovered, were excellent morale boosters. A book could entertain a soldier anxiously waiting during long periods of inactivity, or it might be a soothing distraction for a soldier who had recently endured the agonies of battle.

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“Books are weapons in the war of ideas,”
Records of the Office of Government Reports, 1932 – 1947, World War II Posters, 1942 – 1945, National Archives at College Park. Reference URL: https://catalog.archives.gov/id/513575#.WgTBlBNfLiw.link

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Newsletter of the Katherine Anne Porter Society – May 2017

Newsletter of the Katherine Anne Porter Society – May 2017

Special Collections and University Archives is home to the Katherine Anne Porter papers and other related collections. The Newsletter of the Katherine Anne Porter Society features updates on Porter activities at the University of Maryland Libraries, articles, meeting summaries, announcements of conferences and literary prizes, and other updates relevant to Porter’s life and work.

Learn more about the Katherine Anne Porter Society online.

Remembering E. Barrett Prettyman

On November 4, 2016, E. Barret Prettyman Jr. (1925-2016) passed away. He was a well-known attorney with an impressive legacy that spans international relations, civil rights, literature, and more. He also holds an interesting connection to American author Katherine Anne Porter and the University of Maryland.

You care about Prettyman if you care about important Supreme Court cases like Brown versus Board of Education, the landmark case that desegregated public schools, and for which Prettyman served as on the advisory council for in 1954. You care about Prettyman if you care about the 1962 release of American prisoners taken during Bay of Pigs crisis during which Prettyman successfully negotiated with then Cuban President Fidel Castro for their return and safe release. You care about Prettyman if you are at all concerned with the House Ethics committee, the First Ammendment, and the death penalty. Over the course of his long legal career, Prettyman became heavily involved with all of these areas of the legal system. The obituaries in the Washington Post and New York Times illustrate his storied career and commitment to the legal system.

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Portrait of Prettyman inscribed to Porter: “For Katherine Anne, With happy memories of lovely, relaxed, and fiery reminiscent afternoons of good talk in the best of company, and with love, Barrett”

As the one of the repositories of Prettyman’s personal papers, Special Collections and University Archives at UMD holds not only the documents that reveal Prettyman’s legal Continue reading