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.

Porter saved a clipping of Frank Aston’s December 10, 1957 review for the New York World Herald, in which he writes: “Miss Porter speaks of the futility of war, of hypocrisy bred by war, of the appeal war extends to silly women… Everyone [the actors] does all right but shouldn’t have been implicated to begin with in this unfortunate canter of enthusiasm.” Though Aston critiques the overzealous acting, he accurately assess the heart of the play’s critique of war and propaganda, of hypocrisy in wartime, in the midst of the rampant propaganda of McCarthyism.

Porter collected her share of published reviews in the scrapbook, but she also received personal testimony. A few months into the off-Broadway production’s run, Porter’s friend and later agent, Cyrilly Abels, arranged for some of her staff members at Mademoiselle magazine to see the play. Abels forwarded multiple personal notes of thanks and praise for the play to Porter, whose letter to Abels in return expresses her delight at the varied responses to the play, with particular praise for Suzanne Wile’s letter.

Suzanne Wile, an employee at Mademoiselle, notes that the stage adaptation of “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” captured “popular appeal,” even as it differed from “ordinary Twentieth Century stage-presentation…” as it:

required a type of theatrical – and literary – appreciation a little different from the ordinary demands (or lack of them) of the successful plays–… for Pale Horse the ability to be absorbed in the fundamentals of life with the aid of  a high–or unfettered–imagination. It demanded a different use of the imagination than that which the theater normally requires, and evidently the critics felt that the popular audience was not up to it.


Suzanne Wile to Cyrilly Abels, 13 January 1958.

Porter was very pleased with Wile’s note, writing to Abels that “If you [at the magazine] ever put in a theatre department, give it to her!” Porter’s enthusiastic approval of Wile’s reading of the play suggests that her happiness with the stage adaptation could lie in part in its ability to challenge the imagination to examine the everyday intrusion of war into life beyond the battlefield, which the story forces readers to do as it intimately reveals the consequences of militarism and critiques of propaganda. What is the disconnect between the critics’ reviews and Wile’s experience, then? How might the play’s rendering of the everyday futility of war differ from the short story’s, while still retaining a recognizable critique of the hypocrisy, the futility of war?

The different adaptations, from stage to television, suggest that there is some ineffable quality about Porter’s story – even Tennessee Williams notes in his review of the play, which was subsequently blurbed in advertisements for the production, that he was “haunted” by the performance. Part of the long-lived success of the story, the motivation for the adaptations, is its relentless questioning of the forces that characterize American political life. What is war, but a chance to sell bonds, or a blunt reminder of the capacity for violence? Porter’s critique of American politics and militarism resonates to the present day, as a recent Literary Hub article argues that contemporary readers stand to gain from Porter’s ability to describe World War I-era “fake news,” and the uncanny resonance of her critique of national propaganda in today’s current moment. But, as Suzanne Wile suggests in the note that so impressed Porter, the draw of Porter’s story is how it explores the toll of war in the everyday, as the forces of war and influenza work hand in hand to separate the story’s young lovers. Even Porter’s sister Gay was pulled to lightly underline in pencil one of the last lines of the story, from Miranda’s internal narrative after her recovery, when she learns that Adam has died:

Adam, she said, now you need not die again, but still I wish you were here; I wish you had come back, what do you think I came back for, Adam, to be deceived like this?

Gay Porter Holloway’s inscribed edition of Pale Horse, Pale Rider, (1939). Katherine Anne Porter Papers, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Maryland Libraries.

Adam did not die in battle, and the war ended without him just the same. As Porter’s collection turns eighty years old this year and the story “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” reaches its eighty-first anniversary, it’s worth reflecting on why this story continues to haunt us. The story has been absent in recent years from American television screens and theater stages, but it resurfaces in syllabi and essays online. It is no surprise that this story – haunting as it is – returns to us in conversation with the current political discourse, as we continue to accumulate the dust of wars and ponder how little dazed silence has transpired between each war, each everyday death that has filled these eighty years since.


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, feminist theory, and ecocriticism.

[1] Stout, Janis. “‘Something of a Reputation as a Radical’: Katherine Anne Porter’s Shifting Politics.” South Central Review, vol. 10, no. 1, 1993, pp. 49-66.

Sounds of the Silent Majority: Digitizing the Recordings of Political Culture in the Spiro T. Agnew Papers

“In the United States today, we have more than our share of the nattering nabobs of negativism.”

Rhetoric like this, found scattered throughout the hundreds of speeches performed by Vice President Spiro T. Agnew illustrates the quotable, and sometimes comedic, aspects of the nation’s most vocal Vice President. As a man of controversy and alliteration, Vice President Agnew’s voice called out to the theoretical “Silent Majority” from 1968 to 1973 to speak up about their opinions opposing “corrupted” national news media and supporting President Richard Nixon’s withdrawal from the Vietnam War among other social and political topics.

The audio recordings after being returned from vendor.
Photo by Jen Piegols.

In October 2018, Special Collections and University Archives (SCUA) began a twelve month project to digitize, describe, and make accessible 559 audio recordings (407 ¼” open real tapes and 152 cassette tapes) found in the Spiro T. Agnew papers . With the support of a Council on Library and Information Sources (CLIR) Recordings at Risk grant, SCUA has added approximately 253 hours of recorded speeches, press conferences, broadcasts, and constituent-created content to the University Libraries’ Digital Collections.

Starting in 1977, Agnew began donating his personal collection of over 500 linear feet of materials to the University of Maryland Libraries. Included in those materials, were 1,368 audiotapes spanning Agnew’s time as Governor of Maryland, the 39th Vice President of the United States, and his post-resignation career. Identified as preservation concerns and potentially high- use items, the audio recordings became a digitization priority for the University Libraries. In 2017, SCUA unit ran a pilot digitization program converting 173 of the tapes to digital recordings and making them accessible to patrons visiting the Maryland Room in Hornbake Library. In 2018, curators identified an additional 559 audio recordings within the Spiro T. Agnew papers to be digitized and made accessible to researchers.

Obtaining funds and selecting recordings was only the beginning. In November and December 2018, the 559 open reels and cassette tapes were pulled from various boxes in the Spiro T. Agnew papers. This process included verifying metadata for the materials confirming the correct material was pulled. The reels and tapes were then packed in shipping boxes and prepared for shipment to the vendor. About 40 of the open reels were previously identified as mold risks and were packaged separately with new containers for their return. The digitization vendor baked the tapes to prevent further mold damage as part of their work. We received our newly created digital files and physical materials in April. The files were then checked by staff in our Digital Conversion and Media Reformatting Lab to ensure the accuracy and integrity of the files. At that time, issues with speed, pitch, and volume were identified.

From June through August, I listened to each of the 559 audio recordings to create an accurate and searchable title and a description that informed researchers of what kind of topics were addressed during that recording. Some of the recordings were short, while others were as long as 90 minutes. While this process was tedious, all our newly digitized recordings now have unique and searchable titles and descriptions that will allow researchers to discover these material and learn more about the political climate between 1969 and 1973.

Notes made while listening to the recordings.
Photo by Jen Piegols.

Once the metadata was complete and reviewed by our metadata librarian, the files were ingested to University Libraries’ Digital Collections and the finding aid to the collection was updated. Researchers now have access to these recordings online. Recordings with copyright protection are available for education use only on campus at the University of Maryland.

Topics of these recordings range from

  • the Vietnam War
  • urban renewal plans
  • dissent on college campuses
  • the flights of Apollo 8, 9, 10, 11, 13, and 14
  • revenue sharing plans
  • the 1968, 1970, and 1972 campaigns
  • the SALT talks
  • foreign relations between the United States, the Soviet Union, and Soviet China
  • and many other political and social issues.

The recordings also demonstrate the support Agnew received from constituents, including homemade songs and voice recordings praising the Vice President for his integrity and candor.

The breadth of information that these recordings hold are not only valuable to Vice Presidential scholars and Agnew supporters, but for anyone interested in learning about the United States at the turn of the decade.

More information about the CLIR grant program, made possible by funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.


Post by Jennifer Piegols, Special Collections Services Specialist.

Jen Piegols graduated in May 2019 with her MLIS from the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland. She works in the State of Maryland and Historical Collections at UMD’s Special Collections and University Archives, and is assisting with the digitization of the collections’ unique audio recordings.

Broadcasting the Cold War Era: Five Documents from the Craig B. Fisher Papers

Between 1945 to 1960, the number of television sets in the United States skyrocketed from an estimated ten thousand to sixty million. What was once a novelty became an integral part of everyday life for the average American. By 1960, almost ninety percent of American households had at least one television and the average person watched approximately five hours of programming each day. Television became the dominant medium for information and entertainment at the same time that Americans were engaged in the Cold War against the Soviet Union and experiencing major social and cultural transformations like the civil rights movement, second-wave feminism, the emergence of youth culture, and the environmental movement. In a time of change and uncertainty, television played an important role in shaping the political and cultural landscape.

General Electric Model 9T001 television

This General Electric Model 9T001 television from the mid-1950s is currently on display in the Mass Media & Culture meeting room.

The Craig B. Fisher papers, a recently processed addition to the Mass Media & Culture collection, documents what television was like during that pivotal era. Fisher graduated from the University of Maryland in 1954, and became an accomplished television writer, producer, and director. The collection pertains to a period of his career from 1956 to 1970 when he worked for CBS and NBC. It includes research materials, notes, outlines, proposals, scripts, budgets, press clippings, and other materials related to programs in which he was a creator or contributor. During his career, he produced television shows on a broad range of subjects, including politics, social issues, history, science, and art. This post will highlight five particularly interesting documents that are representative of the Cold War era. Continue reading

Fifty Years Ago: Cynthia Rosenwald and the Newspapers’ Image of a Female Speechwriter

 Twenty years before Peggy Noonan and Mary Kate Cary – speechwriters for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, respectively – there was Cynthia Rosenwald. From 1966 to 1970, she formed a speechwriting partnership with Spiro T. Agnew, whose papers are housed within the Maryland and Historical Collections unit in Special Collections and University Archives at the University of Maryland libraries. Contained with the Agnew papers are manuscript speeches – some never delivered – which help illuminate the work of Rosenwald. She served as Agnew’s main speechwriter, throughout his years as Maryland’s Governor (1967-1968) and during the first year in which he served as Vice President (1969-1973). Continue reading

Bobby Seale and the Black Panther Party in the Archives

Bobby Seale, one of the founders of the Black Panther Party, will visit UMD on February 1st as part of the Arts and Humanities “2017-2018 Dean’s Lecture Series: Courageous Conversations”. Seale’s visit prompted us at Special Collections and University Archives to look in our collections for information on Seale and the Black Panther Party.

Student newspapers such as the Diamondback and The Eclipse tell us that Seale spoke at UMD in Ritchie Coliseum in 1972 and in Hoff Theater in 1995. Seale also spoke at the STamp Studnet Union in 1974.

Continue reading

An Archive of International Gifts:  Objects from the Spiro T. Agnew Papers (A Blog Series: Part 3)

As stated in an earlier blog post, members of the Maryland and Historical Collections unit at the University of Maryland libraries have been inventorying physical objects within the Spiro T. Agnew papers.  One of the interesting aspects about processing a presidential or vice presidential collection is its inclusion of gifts from foreign leaders. The Spiro T. Agnew papers, for example, includes numerous  gifts to the Vice President of the United States from Mohammad Rezā Pahlavi, who was the last Shah (or king) of Iran between 1941 and 1979.  It is difficult to say whether this relationship extended beyond what was typical of two government officials during the Cold War, but it is clear that Agnew received gifts and commemorative literature from Pahlavi on several occasions. Increased American involvement in Iran dated to at least the early 1940s, Continue reading

The Unusual, the Unexpected, and the Downright Strange: Object from the Spiro T. Agnew Papers (A Blog Series: Part 2)

As stated in an earlier blog post, members of the Maryland and Historical Collections unit at the University of Maryland libraries have been creating an inventory of memorabilia within the Spiro T. Agnew papers.  In this blog post, we will be looking at some of the fascinating items in the collection related to space travel.

When Agnew entered office on January 20, 1969 the space race between the United States and the USSR was in full swing.  Just a month prior, the Apollo 8 mission had successfully become the first spacecraft with a human crew to leave the Earth’s orbit.  Six months into office, Agnew would be able to celebrate the first man to walk on the moon with the success of the Apollo 11 mission in July 1969.  The Nixon/Agnew administration would forever be associated with this success and the prevalence of space memorabilia in the collection shows that Vice President Agnew had quite an interest in the subject.

As Vice President of the United States, Agnew had access to a number of unique space memorabilia.  He had signed photographs from crew of the Apollo 7, 8, 9, and 12 missions.  The signed photograph from the Apollo 8 mission is a print copy of the famous photograph called “Earthrise” which astronaut Bill Anders took from lunar orbit.  The Agnew papers includes the commemorative certificate which indicates that Agnew watched the takeoff of Apollo 11 at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where he sat next to President Lyndon B. Johnson.  Agnew even received a model of a US space rocket ship.

Earthrise_Apollo8

“Earthrise” photograph by Bill Anders, signed by the three members of the Apollo 8 crew.

Agnew’s enjoyment of these accomplishments of space flight must have been well known by his supporters because they sent Agnew a number of items related to space exploration.  One of these items is a commemorative coin and stamp celebrating the Apollo 11 mission, which was sent by the company that manufactured them.  Another gift was a poster that featured the front page of a newspaper from every state on the day that the Apollo 11 mission landed on the moon.  Agnew also received drawings and paintings depicting astronauts on the moon from various citizens.

Crockett_cartoon

Political Cartoon by Gib Crockett of the Washington Star, 1969.  Gib Crockett’s drawings are protected by copyright.

Agnew’s interest in space was not just a hobby, but became part of his Vice Presidential duties.  In February 1969, Nixon created a Space Task Group to create an outline of a post-Apollo spaceflight strategy, with Agnew chairing the group.  This group drew up some rather ambitious plans, such as the establishment of a near-Earth space station, further explorations of the lunar surface, and a manned landing on Mars by 1986.  Not all of these plans came to fruition, mainly due to monetary concerns.  However, the group was partly responsible for the creation of the shuttle program which began on January 5, 1972 (1).  Some files relate to Agnew’s time on this group, including a press release on the report of the Space Task Group from September 17, 1969, and a transcript of a speech he gave to invited contributors to the Space Task Group from July 17, 1969.  Agnew was also head of the National Aeronautics and Space Council, for which the Agnew papers also provides an access point.

The reactions to Agnew’s rather wild Mars plans can be seen by two political cartoons that were sent to the Vice President.  In one, Agnew can be seen wearing a space suit and holding a briefcase which reads “Mars or Bust.”  The cartoon was drawn by Gib Crockett from the Washington Star, a newspaper in Washington D.C..  The other cartoon shows a Mars populated with aliens whose faces look like Agnew and at the bottom the cartoon reads “Our Earth Contact, Spiro, is pushing for a landing here by 1986.”  This cartoon was drawn by Pat Oliphant while he was at the Denver Post.

Oliphant_cartoon

Political Cartoon captioned “Our Earth Contact, Spiro, is Pushing for a Landing Here by 1986” by Pat Oliphant of the Denver Post, 1969.  Pat Oliphant’s drawings are protected by copyright.

The items discussed here represent just a small portion of the hundreds of linear feet of materials in the Spiro T. Agnew papers.  Interested researchers may visit the Maryland Room in Hornbake Library to view the memorabilia collection in person, and a preliminary inventory of the Agnew memorabilia is available upon request.  Please be sure to contact the Maryland Room at least 3 days in advance of your visit so that we can accommodate memorabilia requests in a timely manner.  If you want to learn more about the Spiro T. Agnew papers, please consult the finding aid for the collection.

  1. Kluger, Jeffrey. “NASA’s Final Shuttle: The End of an Error?” Time, 5 July 2011.

Harrison Gage is a second year MLIS student in the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland.  She works in the State of Maryland and Historical Collections at UMD’s Special Collections and University Archives.