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) 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 her work in earnest.

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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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