“Just a reminder that when Shakespeare was quarantined because of the plague, he wrote ‘King Lear.’ ” —Rosanne Cash, on Twitter, March 2020…
No pressure Rosanne. Thanks a lot.
Did a writer with Fort Worth connections write the definitive fictional account of the 1918 pandemic?
It certainly looks like it. Let’s check out Katherine Anne Porter and her short novel, Pale Horse, Pale Rider.
But first, let’s check out some London plagues.
There has been plenty of social media talk about what great art – music, literature, etc. – could flow from our current pandemic. It may not happen. We could be too busy actually working. Back in Billy Shakespeare’s day, when you were quarantined, you were quarantined. Billy scribbled out King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra as London was reeling from the double gut punch of the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605 and the outbreak of the bubonic plague the next year. I’m sure there were people then who talked about how they wanted 1606 to get over with as quickly as possible.
No cat videos or White House COVID-19 briefings to distract the Bard.
The plague of the 1600s also resulted in another bit of great literature, A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe, better known for Robinson Crusoe.That plague was also chronicled in the diary of Samuel Pepys, who wrote a contemporary account. Defoe wrote his account – probably based on the diaries of his uncle – later as Defoe was only 5 years old in 1665, the year of the Great Plague.
In Defoe’s book, at one point he meets some men in a tavern and is shocked by their reaction to the Great Plague. The men talk about a friend who has lost his wife and children to the plague and mock the man for not taking his own life.
“[T]hey turned their anger into ridiculing the man, and his sorrow for his wife and children; taunted him with want of courage to leap into the great pit, and go to heaven, as they jeeringly expressed it, along with them, adding some very profane, and even blasphemous expressions.”
The pandemic of 1918, in which between 50 and 100 million people are thought to have died, did not become a hotbed of literature and art. Some think that may be because it came concurrently with the devastation of World War I. In the United States, the disease impacted over a quarter of the population and killed between 500,000 and 675,000, according to several sources.
Quite simply, it was all too much and that generation tried to forget the twin horrors of the war and the pandemic. No wonder Prohibition, coming on the heels of the war, had no chance. That generation had rather party like The Great Gatsby than wallow in grief.
Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we may die is a philosophy that carries some degree of weight when it may literally be true. The Jazz Age was birthed from the parents of World War I and the flu pandemic.
There was quite a bit of art that resulted from World War I. There was the poem In Flanders Fields, the poems of Wilfred Owen, and Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. Many point to the war as a key factor in kicking off the surrealism movement.
But there was precious little literature that resulted from the 1918 pandemic. Really, there was very little written about the flu in many newspapers of the day. For one thing, a war was going on and the powers that be tried their best to keep a lid on illnesses in the camps.
But there was one classic bit of literature written out of the pandemic. It has a Fort Worth connection and is solid Texas.
Writer Katherine Anne Porter (May 15, 1890 – September 18, 1980) was born in Indian Creek, Texas and was a relative of the Texas writer O. Henry, actually named William Sidney Porter.
You can visit her home in Kyle, Texas, and tour the Katherine Anne Porter Literary Center run by Texas State University.
Porter married young after her family seems to have come apart following the death of her mother and grandmother. The marriage was a disaster and she escaped to Chicago where she apparently appeared in some silent movies and became an actress. Divorced and returning to Texas, she worked as a singer and actress before she had her first encounter with serious illness. In 1915, Porter was diagnosed with tuberculosis – incorrectly it turns out – and spent two years in a sanitarium. It was bronchitis, but the main point is that it was during her sanitarium stay that she decided to become a writer.
By 1917, Porter was a writer, living in Fort Worth and cranking out copy for a newspaper called the Fort Worth Critic. As the name implies, Porter found herself writing reviews of dramas along with society gossip. According to a photo I found at her archives at the University of Maryland, she may have continued her theatrical leanings as well, as the photo, taken in Fort Worth, shows her as part of some stage show.
The next year, Porter was in Denver, writing for the Rocky Mountain News. It was also the year she almost died, falling ill during the 1918 flu pandemic. The illness left her completely bald. When her hair grew back it was white, the color it remained the rest of her life.
The experience also gave her the materials for one of her greatest short novels, Pale Horse, Pale Rider. But using that experience for her art was a few years down a long, interesting road.
She moved to Greenwich Village soaking up the bohemian life and then occasionally traveled to Mexico, befriending some of the revolutionaries there. She began writing short stories around that time, publishing her first collection, Flowering Judas, in 1930.
In the 1930s, Porter tackled the story of her encounter with the flu in 1918.
Pale Horse, Pale Rider takes its title from the Book of Revelations 6:1-8 with the famous four horsemen of the Apocalypse. Death comes on a pale horse. The title also refers to an African American spiritual that the narrator, Miranda, and her lover, Adam, a soldier waiting to be shipped overseas during World War I, sing to each other. The Miranda character appears in several Porter stories and is basically autobiographical. Miranda is, like Porter, a newspaper reporter in Denver.
Adam says he recalls the song Pale Horse, Pale Rider being sung in the fields growing up in Texas. I searched for any information on the spiritual, but none of the Porter scholars I contacted had much information on it either. According to the story, Pale Horse, Pale Rider has several verses and – much like the song Down to the River to Pray – refers to mother, father, brother, sister, etc. in the many verses.
The story opens with a dream sequence about death. Miranda wakes to a world just as terrifying as her nightmare. World War I is raging. Her lover, Adam is set to be shipped overseas and both accept that he may not return. The influenza epidemic is sweeping the country.
At work, she is confronted by two members of the Lusk Committee who are there to ensure loyalty during wartime. The men seek to persuade her to purchase a Liberty bond to support the war effort. Miranda refuses and she and another female employee complain about work and wonder if they’ll be thrown in jail for not purchasing war bonds. They joke, saying that at least in jail they’ll catch up on their sleep. Miranda then leaves to visit wounded soldiers in a hospital.
Soon Miranda falls ill with influenza and Adam cares for her. They sing songs they learned from their time in church and the title song, but it doesn’t seem to help comfort them. “It doesn’t sound right somehow,” Adam says. Eventually Miranda becomes so ill she is taken to a hospital, where she is delirious and expected to die. She eventually recovers after several weeks in the hospital.
When she awakes, she is almost shocked to be alive. But the bigger shock is to come (spoiler alert): Adam, seemingly healthier than Miranda, has been sent to a camp overseas where he has succumbed to the flu.
Now, Miranda is well, the war is over and people are singing “My Country Tis’ of Thee” outside the hospital. But Miranda’s lover is dead.
The last lines of the story have been much quoted. They certainly resonate with anyone who has recovered from a serious illness and perhaps with a culture that has been through a war or a pandemic.
No more war, no more plague, only the dazed silence that follows the ceasing of heavy guns; noiseless houses with the shades drawn, empty streets, the dead cold of tomorrow. Now there would be time for everything.
Porter is well worth checking out, while we’re home writing our own literary classics during our pandemic.