There’s a scene early in Katherine Anne Porter’s 1939 novel Pale Horse, Pale Rider in which two young lovers take a walk outside the rooming house where they’ve met and enjoy the beautiful fall afternoon. As Adam and Miranda exchange the charged and pleasant small talk of the recently enamored, their stroll is interrupted by one funeral procession, then another.
“It seems to be a plague,” Miranda remarks, “something out of the Middle Ages. Did you ever see so many funerals, ever?”
Reading this passage in 2020, one could be forgiven for wanting to shake Adam and Miranda by the shoulders and shout, “Social distancing! Use hand sanitizer! And for God’s sake, don’t kiss!”
Porter’s short novel is set a century ago, at the dawn of the last fast-moving respiratory pandemic to sweep the United States: the so-called Spanish flu, which lasted nearly three years, from January 1918 to December 1920. Though the characters don’t know it yet, tens of millions of people will eventually die from the emerging influenza strain, including about 675,000 people in the United States. Epidemiology is in its infancy, and young people like Adam and Miranda—unlike, say, this year’s spring break partiers in Port Aransas and Cabo San Lucas—have little idea that they may be carrying and transmitting a deadly disease.
Also, Adam and Miranda are in love, and love sometimes supersedes the fear of death—or even death itself. Pale Horse, Pale Rider is not a sentimental book, nor is it the sort of book that would have its readers rooting for its hero and heroine not to kiss. It’s a serious book about love during wartime, what lies beyond the veil of good health, and what matters to us when we find ourselves there. The story tracks Adam and Miranda’s star-crossed romance against the backdrop of the tragedy they know and expect—Adam’s impending deployment to serve in World War I—and the pandemic that takes them by surprise. The book’s enduring reputation perhaps stems from Porter’s willingness to look death in the face through a masterfully psychedelic fever sequence set in an overcrowded hospital.
Don Graham, the late giant of Texas literary criticism, called Porter “the best writer the Lone Star State has produced” and Pale Horse, Pale Rider “perhaps the greatest work of fiction by a Texas-born author.” Her peers admired the book too; writing for the New Yorker in 1944, Edmund Wilson lauded Porter as “a first-rate artist” whose work was animated by a literary spirit both sophisticated and subtle that “may be able, as in Pale Horse, Pale Rider, to assert itself only in the delirium that lights up at the edge of death.”
Unfortunately, the novel could not be a timelier read. Given the anxiety, loneliness, and grief that accompany the coronavirus’s spread, it’s understandable if our instinct is to distract ourselves with lighter entertainment—goofy comedies, reassuringly solvable mysteries, mouthwatering cooking shows, and happy-ending romances. But we shouldn’t miss the chance to also explore art that helps us understand that the extraordinary moment we’re living through is not entirely unique. People not so different from us lived through something similar a hundred years ago. What was it like for them? How did they cope? And what might this look and feel like from the other side, when the worst is behind us?
The Spanish flu isn’t well represented in the American literary canon—in fact, a 2017 Smithsonian Magazine article by Patricia Clifford asked, “Why Did So Few Novels Tackle the 1918 Pandemic?” Perhaps it was forgotten as the United States’ attention moved on from the Depression to World War II, and then to a new society of affluence that doubted such plagues could ever touch it again. Though major writers of the era, such as Willa Cather, William Maxwell, and Thomas Wolfe, took on the pandemic, Pale Horse, Pale Rider likely leads the pack in terms of modern-day readership; in Clifford’s article, the literature professor Caroline Hovanec calls Porter’s book “perhaps the best-known fictional account of the epidemic.”
It helps that it’s an extremely readable novel. Many would be tempted to call the ultra-slim Pale Horse, Pale Rider, only fifty pages long in my small-type Library of America edition, a long story or even a novella—a term Porter hated. Still, its inclusion in The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter surely helped that volume win both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in 1966.
Pale Horse, Pale Rider is central to the way critics and audiences have read and understood Porter, in part because it is so closely tied to dramatic events in her own life. Porter was born Callista Russell Porter, in 1890, in tiny Indian Creek, near Brownwood. She grew up mostly in Kyle; Texas State University now maintains her childhood home as a historic site and venue for literary readings. As a young newspaper reporter recently transplanted from Texas to Denver for a job at the Rocky Mountain News, she fell so gravely ill with the 1918 flu that funeral arrangements were made for her. She drew on her near-death experience in Pale Horse, Pale Rider, describing much of the book as “nearly pure autobiography.”
It’s hard to imagine that certain passages of the book could have been written by someone who was not a survivor of the worst the Spanish flu had to offer:
Silenced she sank easily through deeps under deeps of darkness until she lay like a stone at the farthest bottom of life, knowing herself to be blind, deaf, speechless, no longer aware of the members of her own body, entirely withdrawn from all human concerns, yet alive with a peculiar lucidity and coherence; all notions of the mind, the reasonable inquiries of doubt, all ties of blood and the desires of the heart, dissolved and fell away from her, and there remained of her only a minute fiercely burning particle of being that knew itself alone, that relied upon nothing beyond itself for its strength; not susceptible to any appeal or inducement, being itself composed entirely of one single motive, the stubborn will to live. This fiery motionless particle set itself unaided to resist destruction, to survive and to be in its own madness of being, motiveless and planless beyond that one essential end. Trust me, the hard unwinking angry point of light said. Trust me. I stay.
The legend goes that Porter’s curly dark hair turned entirely white because of the intense fever she experienced while she was bedridden. She was 28 years old.
As resonant as Pale Horse, Pale Rider is today, revisiting it also reveals stark differences between the 1918 flu and our current pandemic. Perhaps most notably, concerns about job losses and the economy are paramount today, but they were nowhere near the forefront of anyone’s mind in Miranda and Adam’s world. Also, for Porter’s generation, even for the characters who work at Miranda’s newspaper, there’s little dread leading up to the local explosion of cases—
just vague mentions of soldiers in other cities “dying like flies.” Miranda has a premonition while dancing with Adam that she is sick and putting him in danger, and then suddenly everything is closed and the streets are “full of funerals all day and ambulances all night.” In 2020 the early warning system of social media had all of us feeling a mounting sense of dread even before the first cases arrived in our towns.
Other elements of today’s crisis feel similar to Porter’s depiction of 1918. Patriotic types in Porter’s novel attempt to blame the flu on German spies, just as leaders in the United States and China have strained to blame one another for the pandemic, with various levels of exaggeration and outright lies. And in both cases, there’s a sense of an old, stable ruling order that was already in the process of dismantling itself, leaving the door open to unmanageable pathogen-
borne disaster. In Porter’s novel, this happens via the self-immolation of Europe in World War I; today, it occurs through the decline of international institutions and the United States’ abdication of global leadership.
Pale Horse, Pale Rider doesn’t have a happy ending, but even so, there’s consolation for those of us living through the current pandemic to be given any sense of an ending at all. Following the news and staying up late reading about the coronavirus can help one feel prepared, but it might also feed anxiety. Great art like Pale Horse, Pale Rider offers something else: catharsis. Not all the central characters in Porter’s book make it out alive, but the novel builds swiftly to a breathtaking emotional fullness—the opposite of the drawn-out worry and speculation of our present moment. The story is rich enough with life that we can bear the sadness.
Porter wouldn’t want us to take too much solace in her book, however. She ends it with the Armistice, the close of World War I. It’s an ironic backdrop, given that she wrote Pale Horse, Pale Rider in the late thirties, as World War II was taking form. The hospital’s lucky survivors emerge into a world substantially healed, with “the war to end all wars” in the past. Still, they’re ignorant of an even greater military calamity to come. Similarly, in Denver, where Pale Horse, Pale Rider is set, the 1918 flu pandemic subsided around November of that year, only to spike again soon after social-distancing rules were loosened—that is, just after the book’s ending.
Porter weaves together the personal, the geopolitical, and the epidemiological with uncanny grace. The hell of pandemic, she seems to imply, like the hell of war, may be an inevitable fact of life. Life is what we make of the time we’re given between such disasters. The final paragraph of Pale Horse, Pale Rider summons the feeling of coming out of a long fever to the shock of a wide-open life ahead, shadowed by loss:
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.
This article originally appeared in the June 2020 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “The Great Texas Novel About the Spanish Flu.” Subscribe today.