Weathering the COVID-19 pandemic in Fort Worth, Texas, I’m continually dismayed by the ways that money and politics are prioritized over human life all around me. In November, for example, our mayor cheerfully hosted a national rodeo competition, bringing in thousands of tourists during a period when we had fewer than twenty available ICU beds countywide. As 2021 begins with appropriate celebration over the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine, I fear that the stories we tell about the pandemic will become stories of scientific triumph, punctuated by personal grief. These are important narratives, but they can short-circuit accountability for our real failures of structure and leadership, accountability we need to prepare for the next crisis.
This anxiety led me back to the work of one of my favorite writers, fellow Texan Katherine Anne Porter, whose 1939 novella Pale Horse, Pale Rider is one of very few literary representations of the 1918 pandemic. Based in part on the author’s own experience contracting flu in Denver, Colorado while working for the Rocky Mountain News, it follows Miranda, a reporter for the “Blue Mountain News,” over the course of one day in which she resists and eventually succumbs to flu symptoms, cared for by her soldier boyfriend Adam. Ultimately, Miranda, like Porter, recovers after an injection of strychnine. However, when she awakes, she learns that Adam has not survived his own bout of flu.
Pale Horse, Pale Rider reads as a deeply personal story, not just because of its autobiographical origins, but also because it follows Miranda’s point of view even as she becomes delirious with fever. Vivid imagery and Biblical symbolism dominate the last section of the novel, as Porter uses modernist literary techniques like stream of consciousness to explore Miranda’s internal experience of flu.
Rereading this text during our current pandemic, though, I realized that as a reader, I’ve overlooked Porter’s depiction of the external, of her community’s response to the threat of pandemic illness as Miranda goes about a seemingly normal day while her symptoms worsen. I turned to archives of local journalism (thanks to the University of Michigan’s Influenza Encyclopedia), Porter’s own milieu, to test the theory that Pale Horse, Pale Rider should be read not only for its depiction of an individual’s struggle with illness, but also for its lessons about a city struggling to respond to a crisis in a culture hampered by the pressures of nationalism and capitalism – lessons all too applicable in our current moment.
In November 1918, the Denver city government published in its monthly newsletter, Municipal Facts, an evaluation of its citizens’ response to the deadly autumn:
For some reason . . . even the most enlightened citizens will not take the influenza epidemic seriously. . . . They know that the disease is a deadly menace and snuffs out life almost before the victim realizes that he is ill. Yet when health officers try to impress upon the public the necessity of following essential rules and regulations, the average citizen simply refuses to heed these admonitions.
This harsh take fits the Influenza Encyclopedia’s narrative of Denver’s response. Although the city’s churches and businesses supported a closing order on October 6, citizens quickly employed loopholes, such as congregating outdoors. Business owners also lobbied for a quick reopening, even as cases continued to climb. When a second wave rose after Armistice Day celebrations in November, most Denverites refused to follow mask orders, and the mayor essentially threw up his hands and gave up on enforcement.
The real-life Rocky Mountain News flu coverage in late September and early October foreshadowed the city’s difficulty facing the pandemic’s realities. The paper covered influenza extensively as a national concern and one affecting military camps near Boulder. However, headlines advertise a lack of cases in Denver. A September 29 headline stated, “No Influenza in City, Health Manager Says”; an October 1 article title repeated, “No Influenza in City, Asserts Dr. Sharpley” [Denver’s Manager of Health]; on October 3, the public was again told “No Cases Reported So Far in Denver.” This all despite the fact that a confirmed flu death did occur in late September in Denver, as the September 29 story confirmed: “The funeral of Miss Blanche Kennedy, who died Friday morning . . . of Spanish influenza will take place this afternoon.” Blanche Kennedy’s death didn’t count, though, as “the disease in this case was contracted in Chicago.”
The Denver of Pale Horse, Pale Rider is similarly blasé about the approaching disaster. Men are “dying like flies” in the army encampments near Denver, according to Adam, but theaters and restaurants are open. Miranda tells Adam of the “funny new sickness,” “it seems to be a plague,” as their stroll together is interrupted by funeral processions, but she downplays her own symptoms. The only extended conversation about influenza occurs among her newspaper colleagues, who joke about conspiracy theories claiming influenza is a German biological weapon.
In reviewing U.S. news coverage of influenza in September 1918, Tom Dicke has applied the term “cognitive inertia,” suggesting that Americans did not take flu preparation seriously because they couldn’t overcome the assumption that the flu was a mild disease affecting only vulnerable populations. Denver papers’ coverage of the flu, as well as Porter’s novella, seem to confirm his theory. These same sources also show, though, that cognitive inertia isn’t just a personal psychological barrier, but an effect produced by culture. In the case of Denver in 1918, the city’s and the nation’s immersion in World War I created a delayed response to the flu, based in people’s resistance to adjusting the nationalist priorities of wartime.
Porter hinted that Miranda literally sacrifices her health for the war effort, as she performed volunteer hospitality work with convalescing soldiers the day before her symptoms started. The continuation of women’s inessential volunteer war work as the flu outbreak emerged seems to be drawn from life: the Rocky Mountain News ran a notice banning “workers who have colds” from volunteering at the Red Cross on October 6, the same day the city issued the order closing businesses and schools, suggesting that women’s war work continued up to the last possible second.
Nationalist fervor is also represented as a danger to human life in Porter’s representation of local theater. Miranda and Adam attend a “long, dreary play” she’s reviewing; at intermission, they’re subjected to a speech urging the audience to buy Liberty Bonds. Porter ends the scene with a grim image: “The audience rose and sang . . . their open mouths black and faces pallid in the reflected footlights; some of the faces grimaced and wept and had shining streaks like snail’s tracks on them.” We can read this description as just another of the many images of death in the novella. However, the “pallid” audience not only evokes death through their appearance, but also cause each other’s deaths, spreading the virus through their loud performance of patriotism.
The theater in Pale Horse, Pale Rider is a venue for performative patriotism, but it’s also a place of commerce, as Porter reminds us by having Miranda attend not for pleasure, but as a tedious requirement of her job. My survey of Denver newspapers suggests that one of the most publicized debates about the city’s business closures revolved around theaters. As early as October 12, the Rocky Mountain News ran a story titled “Theaters’ Loss Heavy,” claiming Denver theaters were losing $15,000 a week. On November 23, after the reemergence of the flu following Armistice Day celebrations, the same paper reported “managers of all the Denver theaters and moving pictures asked The News to put them on record as voicing a strong protest” against closure orders. The theater managers were arguing that since department stores were allowed to open, the continued closure of theaters unfairly targeted their businesses. In this context, Porter’s representation of the theater as a place of death reads as a reminder of the human cost of such disputes and their ensnarement in capitalist assumptions about economic “freedom.”
Like Pale Horse, Pale Rider, narratives arising out of the COVID-19 pandemic are already being described as “deeply personal.” However, like that of the 1918 pandemic, the story of COVID-19’s devastation is as much about social fissures as individual suffering. When we read and tell stories about these crises, we must be vigilant for the ways in which the personal can erase the political, and work to keep our governments’ and communities’ shortcomings in the foreground. If we do, our communities may be better prepared for the next (pandemic) rodeo.
- Literary historians explain the flu’s absence from the literary record by suggesting that it was “a less compelling story” than World War I (Catherine Hovanec, “Of Bodies, Families, and Communities,” Literature and Medicine 29, no. 1 (2011): 161) or, conversely, that its trauma was more cataclysmic to survivors than that of the war, rendering it indescribable (Catherine Belling, “Overwhelming the Medium,” Literature and Medicine 28, no. 1 (2010): 57). Elizabeth Outka’s 2019 monograph Viral Modernisms (Columbia University Press) explores the question in detail, suggesting that the pandemic can be read in the form and themes of literature of the 1920s and 30s, despite being rarely explicitly represented. ↑
- Alfred W. Crosby, America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918 (Cambridge University Press, 2003), 112. ↑
- Katherine Anne Porter, Pale Horse, Pale Rider, in The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter (New American Library, 1969), 281. ↑
- Porter, 284. ↑
- Tom Dicke, “Waiting for the Flu: Cognitive Inertia and the Spanish Influenza Pandemic of 1918,” Journal of the History of Medicine 70, no. 2 (2015): 200. ↑
- Porter, 292–4. ↑