There’s a scene early in Pale Horse, Pale Rider, the 1939 novel by Katherine Anne Porter, in which two young lovers take a walk from the rooming house where they’ve met out into a beautiful fall afternoon. As Adam and Miranda enjoy 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 March 2020, as we all strap in for the uncertain initial uphill of the COVID-19 roller coaster, one can be forgiven for wanting to shake Adam (a soldier about to ship out to World War I) and Miranda (a hard-boiled newspaper reporter) by their shoulders and shout: “Social distancing! Use hand sanitizer! And for God’s sake, don’t kiss!”
Porter’s novella takes place more than one hundred years ago, at the dawn of the last fast-moving respiratory pandemic to sweep the United States: the so-called Spanish Flu. Though the characters don’t know it yet, at least 17 million people (perhaps several times that number—estimates are rough) will eventually die from the emerging influenza strain worldwide, including around 670,000 people in the United States. Epidemiology is in its infancy, and young people like Adam and Miranda—unlike, say, today’s spring-break partiers in Port Aransas and Miami Beach—have little idea what kind of disease they’re transmitting or how.
Also, importantly, Adam and Miranda are in love, and love sometimes supersedes fear of death—or even death itself. Pale Horse, Pale Rider is not a sentimental book, but nor is it the sort of book that would have its readers rooting for its hero not to kiss its heroine. It’s a serious book about what matters in life and death, and what lies beyond the veil of good health for society and the individual. The story tracks Adam and Miranda’s star-crossed romance against the backdrop of the tragedy they know and expect—the war and Adam’s impending deployment—and the pandemic that takes them by surprise.
Pale Horse, Pale Rider’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. Writing for the New Yorker in 1944, the critic Edmund Wilson lauded Porter as “a first-rate artist,” with a literary project 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, Pale Horse, Pale Rider could not be a timelier read today. Given our present and overwhelming anxieties about the novel coronavirus, it’s understandable if our instinct is to distract ourselves with lighter entertainments—goofy comedies, reassuringly solvable mysteries, happy-ending romances, or whatever cheerful junk we can find on TV. (My drugs of choice lately have included Curb Your Enthusiasm and the Mister Rogers documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?)
It can also be worthwhile, though, to explore art that helps us understand how this extraordinary moment we’re living through is not entirely unique. People not so different from us lived through something sort of 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 wave has crested?
The Spanish Flu isn’t well represented in the Western literary canon—in fact, a November 2017 article by Patricia Clifford in Smithsonian Magazine asked “Why Did So Few Novels Tackle the 1918 Pandemic?” Perhaps it was forgotten as the United States’s 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 from Porter’s era who took on the 1918 pandemic include the likes of Willa Cather, William Maxwell, and Thomas Wolfe, Pale Horse, Pale Rider likely leads the pack in terms of modern-day readership; Clifford quotes scholar Catherine Hovanec, who calls Porter’s book “perhaps the best-known fictional account of the epidemic.”
It helps that it is 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 1965 Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter surely helped that volume win both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award.
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 Callie Russel Porter in 1890 in tiny Indian Creek, Texas, 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 ahead of time. She detailed her near-death experience in Pale Horse, Pale Rider, describing it as a “nearly pure autobiography.”
It’s hard to imagine that certain passages of Pale Horse, Pale Rider could have been written by someone who was not a survivor of the worst the 1918 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 black hair turned entirely white because of the Spanish flu and the fever she developed from it. She was 28 years old.
As resonant as Pale Horse, Pale Rider is today, revisiting this book also reveals stark differences between the 1918 flu and the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. 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—instead, there’s vague mentions of soldiers in other cities “dropping like flies,” Miranda’s premonition while dancing with Adam that she is truly ill 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, surrounded by media-savvy voices in my Twitter feed and social life, my own dread was building long before Austin, where I live, announced its first cases of coronavirus. And while there’s no talk in Porter’s novel of the pandemic causing an economic crash, there is plenty of mention of mounting pressure to buy war bonds.
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 each other, with various levels of exaggeration and outright lies, for COVID-19. And in both cases, there’s a sense of an old, stable ruling order that has destroyed itself in recent years—in Porter’s novel, via the self-immolation of Europe in World War I—leaving the door open to unmanageable pandemic.
Pale Horse, Pale Rider does not have a happy ending, but it is still a 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 too late reading about the novel coronavirus can theoretically help one feel prepared, but it also feeds anxiety. Great art like Pale Horse, Pale Rider offers something else: catharsis. Not all the key characters in Porter’s book make it out alive, but the novel builds to an emotional fullness—the opposite of the frantic worry and speculation of our present moment. It’s 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, and 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 was loosened.
This serves as an important reminder to contemporary readers to keep our crisis in perspective, both epidemiologically and geopolitically. And it brings to mind another good reason to read old books when we have, fortuitously or not, a bit of extra time on our hands: to learn from the past, so as not to be doomed to repeat it.