Download LIAM'S GIFT, for Free! Here's how...Claim Your Free Book.

A classic novella for our times

A book from the past helps us understand the present

Few references to the Spanish flu exist in literature. Even history books glide over an event that devastated families and claimed more lives than were lost in World War I.

History looks back and searches for causes and effects. Historians can tell us where and how the pandemic began. It can chronicle the spread of a disease that swept the nation. But for all its benefits in providing insight into our past, history as a discipline is data driven. It’s analytical and often concerned with geopolitical forces—the economy, unemployment, etc. That’s not true of literature.

Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider is subjective and autobiographical. In places, the work comes close to poetry, as defined by Wordsworth. Porter’s purpose is not to “report” on this historical event. Her purpose is to take us inside it, to put us in the moment and allow us to live vicariously, to see as she saw and feel as she felt.

“Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.”

— William Wordsworth

But why did she let years go by before writing an autobiographical story about this turning point in her life? Perhaps, as Wordsworth said, she needed to have some emotional distance.

A Biblical Reference

The novella plunges us into the “fever dream” of a young woman racing away from Death, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse described in the Bible’s book of Revelation. Porter had grown up in Texas, and horses had played a big part in her early life. The metaphor of galloping on a horse and trying to outrace death would have seemed natural to her.

The novella’s title refers to Death, the pale rider of the Apocalypse.

Although she nearly died of the flu herself, she lived to tell the tale. Thirteen years after her near-death experience, she was able to write about the life-altering episode that left lasting marks on her soul. “It simply divided my life, cut across it like that. So that everything before that was just getting ready, and after that I was in some strange way altered, really,” she wrote. “It took me a long time to go out and live in the world again.”

Not until 1931 was she able to tackle the subject of influenza and what it meant to be a survivor. She had left the chaos of Nazi Germany and taken refuge in Basel, Switzerland. When asked why she wrote the story when she did, she said that the snow-covered Alps surrounding city reminded her of Denver.

Denver was where she had fallen ill in 1918. She had been a young reporter in the prime of life. Then, suddenly, she was so ill, she had to be taken by ambulance to the hospital. And, the hospitals were full. Her fever was so high, her hair turned white. Her boss wrote her obituary. After months in bed, she was so weak that when she stood, she fell and broke her arm. To me, this sounds like the stories of patients who’ve been intubated and spent months trying to recover their health.

A Public Health Emergency

How long will it take us to develop perspective on the COVID pandemic, to understand what happened to us individually, but also what happened to us as a nation and a world? Many years, I should imagine. We have all been affected in multiple ways, and we have not yet conquered this scourge.

The black-and-white images below only hint at the extreme public health measures put in place to try to halt the spread of the Spanish flu. There are more images in the book, including baseball players wearing masks and anti-masking proponents protesting that they’re tired of masking protocols.

If you’d like to read my thoughts about Katherine Anne Porter, see archival images of the Spanish flu, and read an annotated edition of her novella, then click here to download the book.

soldier inside a tent and a man in a doctor's uniform is spraying his throat. Two soldiers with rifles guard the tent.
Figure 1. Love Field, Dallas, Texas. Preventative treatment against influenza, spraying the throat. (National Archives. ARC Identifier: 45499289)
to prevent the  spread of Spanish flu soldiers are gargling salt water and spitting it on the ground
Figure 2. Protection against influenza. Men gargling with saltwater after a day working in the War Garden at Camp Dix. (National Archives. ARC Identifier: 45499299)
masked soldiers in knee length winter coats march down a rainy street in Seattle
Figure 3. The 39th Regiment on its way to France marched through the streets of Seattle, WA. Everyone was provided with a mask made by the Seattle Chapter of the Red Cross. (National Archives. Local Identifier; 165-WW-269B-8)
 policemen and judges gather around three desks, an outdoor courtroom to prevent the spread of Spanish flu
Figure 4. Police court officials in San Francisco holding a session in the open as a precaution against the spreading influenza epidemic. (National Archives. Local Identifier: 165-WW-269B-13)
women in uniform stand at the head and foot of wooden cots used to transport patients sick with the Spanish flu
Figure 5. Members of the St. Louis Red Cross Motor Corps on duty. These women were responsible for five ambulances. Influenza Epidemic, St. Louis, MO, 1918. Photograph.

This is a teaching edition I’ve used in writing groups. It is not available elsewhere. However, it’s a book that has been meaningful to me. All writers, me included, need to spend time thinking about which what they will write next. Which stories demand to be told? Which stories will not let us rest?

Learn how and when Katherine Anne Porter contracted influenza. Read about the horrifying strychnine shot that doctors used for patients with severe pulmonary problems. Treat yourself to a timeless work of literature.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: