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Tom Chaney: Literature and the Plague

Of Writers And Their Books: Literature and the Plague. Tom discusses Katherine Anne Porter who in 1939 published the novella Pale Horse, Pale Rider in which she recounted her pull toward death from influence. This column first appeared 21 November 2010.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: The First Black Novel (More than Likely)

By Tom Chaney

Literature and the Plague

A few weeks back I wrote about John M. Barry's compelling study of The Great Influenza. I was struck, as was he, by how few writers in their fiction have dealt directly with the influenza epidemic.

Mary McCarthy lost both parents in November 1918. "She said almost nothing of the epidemic." John Dos Passos was ill with influenza in his early twenties. He barely alludes to it in his fiction. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner pretty much ignore it.

Only Katherine Anne Porter meets the monster head on. She was a reporter for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver when both she and her fiancÚ contracted the disease.

He died while nursing her. She survived although she was so ill that her obituary was set in type.

A little more than twenty years later in 1939 she published the novella Pale Horse, Pale Rider in which she recounts her pull toward death.

"She lay on a narrow ledge over a pit she knew to be bottomless . . . and soft carefully shaped words like oblivion and eternity are curtains hung before nothing at all."

"Her mind tottered and slithered again, broke from its foundation and spun like a cast wheel in a ditch."

"She sank easily through deeps and 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bottom of life, knowing herself to be blind, deaf, speechless, no longer aware of the members of her own body, entirely withdrawn from all human concerns, yet alive with a peculiar lucidity and coherence; all notions of the mind, all ties of blood and the desires of the heart, dissolved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, . . . 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."

Climbing back from those depths -- overcoming that pull, "Pain returned, a terrible compelling pain running through her veins like heavy fire, the stench of corruption filled her nostrils, the sweetish sickening smell of rotting flesh and pus; she opened her eyes and saw pale light through a coarse white cloth over her face, knew that the smell of death was in her own body, and struggled to lift her hand."

We have little trouble it seems writing about the ravages of war or the cruelty of man versus man as in the holocaust. Barry points out that the horrors inflicted by nature upon people and which tend to make humans less significant are often avoided.

The art of fiction, then, is particularly challenged to make sense of mindless causes of suffering. Katherine Ann Porter is a unique voice -- a frequently neglected voice.

Porter once wrote that the arts "are what we find again when the ruins are cleared away." We ignore voices such as hers at our peril.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney -

This story was posted on 2015-10-18 01:26:06
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