Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Adventure classics -- Capturing the plague at war's end

Pale Horse, Pale Rider

by Katherine Anne Porter


I’ve gone back and forth this year about which novel to include from the woman who may be the best writer ever to come out of Texas. Should it be 1962’s Ship of Fools, the best seller that finally brought popular acclaim and financial stability to Katherine Anne Porter? Or Pale Horse, Pale Rider, the April 1939 publication The London Times Literary Supplement recommended as a “first choice” of novels? (Porter’s home state of Texas was less impressed. The Texas Institute of Letters passed over Pale Horse later that year, awarding its annual prize to folklorist J. Frank Dobie.)

I hadn’t read Pale Horse, Pale Rider (actually, one of three short novels published in a single volume), so one afternoon this past week I decided to leaf through it. I couldn’t stop reading, blitzing through in less than an hour (it only runs about fifty pages in Katherine Anne Porter: Collected Stories and Other Writings). Despite its literal description of the protagonist’s delirium during a near-fatal bout with the 1918 influenza, Pale Horse, Pale Rider is a far more accessible story than Ship of Fools. Still better for this centenary year of the beginning of World War I, Pale Horse, Pale Rider is one of the few literary depictions of a pandemic that took more lives than the war did.

Porter contracted the virulent influenza strain in early October 1918, while she was a reporter for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, Colorado. She was so ill that her colleagues had her obituary set in type, preparing for the death which sometimes occurred within two days of the flu’s onset.

The experience “simply divided my life, cut across it like that,” Porter would later write. “So that everything before that was just getting ready, and after that I was in some strange way altered, really. It took me a long time to go out and live in the world again.”

During the course of the disease, her thick black hair fell out. When it grew back, it was completely white. She was twenty-eight years old.

“The road to death is a long march beset with all evils,” Porter’s protagonist Miranda dreams between her periods of delirium. “The heart fails little by little at each new terror, the bones rebel at each step, the mind sets up is own bitter resistance and to what end? The barriers sink one by one, and no covering of the eyes shuts out the landscape of disaster, nor the sight of crimes committed there.”

Porter rendered the symptoms of her disease so precisely that the Centers for Disease Control discussed her book in its April 2013 publication, “Emerging Infectious Diseases: Emerging Viruses.” As John M. Barry writes in his 2004 The Great Influenza, the disease’s victims “came with an extraordinary array of symptoms, symptoms either previously unknown entirely in influenza or experienced with previously unknown intensity. Initially, physicians, good physicians, intelligent physicians searching for a disease that fitted the clues before them--and influenza did not fit the clues--routinely misdiagnosed the disease,” as dengue, malaria, cholera, typhoid.

Barry writes as a testament to the collision between modern science and epidemic disease. Porter writes as a testament to the strength of one woman’s spirit, and to the ability of art to transmute horror. It was a lesson the world would soon need again. Five months after the publication of Pale Horse, Pale Rider, Hitler invaded Poland. The next world war had begun.

Porter’s and Barry’s books are readily available. For the text of the CDC article, see

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics continues a June of stories by Southwestern authors with Tony Hillerman’s The Great Taos Bank Robbery and Other Indian Country Affairs.)

No comments:

Post a Comment