Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

The Forgotten Apocalypse: Katherine Anne Porter's "Pale Horse, Pale Rider," Traumatic Memory, and the Influenza Pandemic of 1918

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

The Forgotten Apocalypse: Katherine Anne Porter's "Pale Horse, Pale Rider," Traumatic Memory, and the Influenza Pandemic of 1918

Article excerpt

As Katherine Anne Porter's short novel "Pale Horse, Pale Rider" opens, Miranda fitfully endures a vivid nightmare. She sees herself on horseback desperately racing from Death, the pale rider, who has already taken her grandfather, an aunt, a cousin, her "decrepit hound, and [her] silver kitten," and when he reaches her, she realizes that "he is no stranger to [her]" (270). Her nightmare tangles images of life and death with images of remembering and forgetting, and the relationship between survival and memory is a recurring motif in the story. Porter's allusion to the apocalyptic horseman described in Revelation proves to be appropriate because the story takes places during the influenza pandemic of 1918, the greatest public health catastrophe in modern history. The interplay between death and memory in "Pale Horse, Pale Rider" gives an aesthetic dimension to the pandemic's horrifying consequences and raises questions about literature as a form of traumatic memory.

In the spring of 2009 fear of a swine flu pandemic and ongoing fear of a potential avian flu pandemic awakened dormant memories of the 1918 influenza pandemic. Global health officials mounted a campaign of contagion preparedness, and many officials still see another human pandemic as inevitable, if not imminent. To mitigate this potential disaster, scientists, epidemiologists, and government officials worldwide are looking to the 1918 pandemic as a worst-case scenario as they develop contingency response plans. Before the emergence of the current virus, however, the 1918 influenza pandemic had largely disappeared from cultural memory. Few references to the 1918 pandemic exist in literature, popular culture, or even in history books, which makes Porter's story an important record of the outbreak.

In the story, Miranda, a reporter for a Denver newspaper, enjoys a whirlwind romance with Adam Barclay, a young Army officer, until she collapses from the virus. Adam nurses her as she comes near to death, and while she recovers, he returns to his unit where he dies from the virus. Porter based "Pale Horse, Pale Rider" on her personal experience as an influenza survivor, and it is the most significant American literary work set during the pandemic. The novella illustrates the varieties of traumatic experience--personal trauma, cultural trauma, historical trauma, and aesthetic trauma. The story takes place in a unique and profound historical context, both because of Porter's personal traumatic experience and because memories of the pandemic have faded.

"We Have Forgotten the Dead": Individual Trauma and Collective Memory

In Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History, Cathy Caruth describes trauma as a "wound of the mind--the breach in the mind's experience of time, self, and the world--[that] is not, like a wound of the body, a simple and healable event, but rather an event that ... is experienced too soon, too unexpectedly, to be fully known and is therefore not available to consciousness until it imposes itself again, repeatedly, in the nightmares and repetitive actions of the survivor" (4). Most trauma theorists locate trauma's impact in the individual memory, where the unsettling experience disrupts the victim's identity, but when a disruptive event affects a large population simultaneously, a collective trauma occurs. The influenza pandemic of 1918 complicates the distinction between individual trauma and collective trauma. One might stipulate that collective trauma merely consists of numerous individual traumas, but collective trauma amplifies the individual's experience by taxing the network of social resources that ordinarily stabilize the individual victim. Massive events such as wars, natural disasters, and pandemics have different dynamics than personal events such as crime, accidents, and illness. (1) In both individual and collective forms of trauma, the event's impact lies not in the immediate experience but in the survivors' memory of the event. …

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