“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/

Advertisements

Can you tell me how to get…to the Sesame Street exhibition?

Visit the Maryland Room in June and take a peek at some of our favorite items in from our Children’s Television Workshop records. The exhibition will be on display now through the end of July. Visit the Maryland Room in Hornbake Library during open hours to see it in person.

Fan mail and artwork

 

Continue reading

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

An Unknown Pioneer Takes Her Place in the Broadcast Archives

Mary Kelly, Today Show 1952Mary Ellen Agnes Kelly (1926-2005?) was an American television researcher, talent coordinator, and associate producer with the pioneering early morning television program Today on NBC. She was also a special assignments reporter, traveling far and wide to film feature segments. Kelly crisscrossed the United States many times and covered stories from Europe, Africa, Asia and South America. Newspaper articles from the period compared her to Nellie Bly, the intrepid 19th-century reporter known for her record-breaking trip around the world in 72 days. Kelly traveled around the world – on the first commercial flight over the North Pole in 1957 – in 71 hours and six minutes. Unfortunately, her remarkable career is little known today.

A remarkable collection of photographs and clippings from her career are now part of Special Collections in Mass Media and Culture. The journey of these materials to our collections is typical in how it was nearly discarded but later adopted by an appreciative collector. In the 1960s, Kelly sublet her New York City apartment to a man who subsequently discovered several boxes she left behind. He contacted her to offer to return the boxes, but she declined. However, he thought that the contents were fascinating and kept the boxes for over 50 years. When he passed away, his widow – realizing that Kelly must have been important as one of the few women working in early television – donated the material to the UMD libraries.

Early Career

Continue reading

International Women’s Day Feature: Mona Kent

Each month, the Special Collections displays rare, unique items from our collection that resonate with present-day events. On March 1st through March 31, 2013, visit the Maryland Room on the 1st floor of Hornbake Library and delve deeper into women’s history.

Our display honors International Women’s Day on March 8th.


mona_kent

I think how wonderful it would be if some writer could find a formula for giving women the substance and not the shadow of life.

 Mona Kent, in an interview with Time Magazine. September 12, 1949.

Mona Kent (1909-1990) was a radio and TV script writer. She wrote every episode of radio soap opera “Portia Faces Life.” Kent defines the problem driving the emotion in this soap opera as “a conflict between her wish to be a wife and mother, to keep a neat and cheerful home for her husband, Walter, and raise his children properly–and the ever-recurring necessity of being a lawyer and career woman in order to keep groceries in the kitchen.” Clearly, Kent had identified a relevant, divisive problem: an article in “Radio and Television Mirror” in 1950 asks readers, “Does a working wife cheat her family?” and encouraged women to write in with their opinions.

In an interview with Time Magazine, Kent criticizes the soap opera women for the success and power that derives from a set of self-sacrificing virtues. The writer speculated that “possibly, the American woman feels actually so dependent, economically and emotionally, that she has to appease her insecurity by identifying herself with one or more soap opera heroines.” In her novel, Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Kent writes, “how much should a woman sacrifice for the man she loves?” To Kent, a virtuous and self-sacrificing woman like Portia, defined only by her love for her husband and children, lives only as a formula for soap-opera heroines.

The World’s Fair Ephemeral and Graphic Material Collection

The World’s Fair Ephemeral and Graphic Material Collection is now available at the Maryland Room, 1st floor Hornbake Library. To celebrate, we are featuring four blog posts about World’s Fair history and the collection. Read the first post here.

Part 2 of 4

Centennial Exhibition (1876 : Philadelphia, Pa.). R. Magee & Son (Philadelphia, Pa.). Reproductions, Cards; 10.2 x 14.1 cm.

Centennial Exhibition (1876 : Philadelphia, Pa.). R. Magee & Son (Philadelphia, Pa.). Reproductions, Cards; 10.2 x 14.1 cm.

The 1852 London exposition set the precedent for the many international exhibitions or world’s fairs that have continued to be held to the present time. The character and focus of world expositions has evolved to keep up with the changing times, but they have always allowed people to experience ways of life outside their normal way of living.

Admission ticket, Abraham Lincon, World's Columbian Exposition, 1893.

Admission ticket, Abraham Lincon, World’s Columbian Exposition, 1893.

The fairs introduced the world to new scientific advancements and new inventions such as the Ferris wheel, telephone, zipper, Cracker Jacks, x-ray, fax machines and television. The world’s fairs also gave us some of the world’s most notable landmarks and buildings such as the Crystal Palace, the Eiffel Tower and the Space Needle.

Visit the recently expanded finding aid for the World’s Fair Ephemeral and Graphic Material Collection and A Treasury of World’s Fair Art & Architecture digital archive for more information.

Article by A. Moore, Historic Preservation Graduate Assistant.

Transmitter

Transmitter-Winter_2013_CoverB

This just in: the latest news from Special Collections in Mass Media and Culture! Read the Winter 2013 edition of Transmitter, the official bulletin of the Broadcasting Archives.

Revisit television’s early days with Max Morath… Learn about the family-friendly character of Pick Temple from his correspondence… Suit up in sequins with “Queen of Super CircusMary Hartline… celebrate with the 2012 Giants of Broadcasting… and more!

Stay tuned for more great updates from Transmitter.