Crossing Over: Katherine Anne Porter's "Pale Horse, Pale Rider" as Urban Western

By Himmelwright, Catherine | The Mississippi Quarterly, Summer-Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

Crossing Over: Katherine Anne Porter's "Pale Horse, Pale Rider" as Urban Western


Himmelwright, Catherine, The Mississippi Quarterly


Now there would be time for everything. (317)

THE LAST LINE FROM KATHERINE ANNE PORTER'S "PALE HORSE, PALE RIDER" has often been interpreted as an ironic statement blanketing the bleakness that Denver, Colorado, has become for Miranda Gay after the ravages of war and plague in 1918. Due to the disasters that occur, the novella has also often been reduced to a story of doomed and lost love, or of an initiation of sorts to the dark realities of life. Janis Stout claims in Katherine Anne Porter: A Sense of the Times that "although Miranda survives at the end, it is clear that she will live on in a state of subdued hopelessness. Indeed the atmosphere of the story as a whole is one of doom" (27-28). Miranda is depicted as a character who longs to find her independence, freedom, and autonomy. She longs to claim those opportunities and freedoms that the West represents. Yet she must face the challenges that confront her in order to become an individual capable of claiming what she desires. Porter explores this maturation through the structure of a traditional American Western. Robert Brinkmeyer, in Remapping Southern Literature, has focused on the proliferation of Southerners writing about the American West, especially on Southerners who revise frontier mythology by incorporating a "vision of community as an alternative to radical individualism" (108). Within this interpretation, he views "Pale Horse, Pale Rider" as Porter's depiction of the struggle between the imaginative conceptions of the South and the West as being between "place and space, community and individualism, despair and hope." He argues that Porter, like Robert Penn Warren and others, is "aware of the dangers of either extreme" (20). Attempting to live a life without community, Miranda, in Brinkmeyer's view, discovers a bleak and hopeless end. In Katherine Anne Porter's Artistic Development, he states that "Miranda has time for everything because everything has become nothing" (178). Refusing to compromise, Miranda has doomed herself to the extremes of Western individualism; "she has fallen away from the human community." In Miranda's defeat, Porter shows the dangers of not finding balance or compromise (19). In my view, Porter does no such thing. In contrast, I find that Porter's novella confronts the dangers that exist in the attempt to balance or compromise. Ultimately, she takes hold fully of Western myth in order to free Miranda from the bonds not only of a restrictive South but also of the bonds of a sexist West. Hoping to find freedom in the West, Miranda must create it herself, through the extremes of Western individualism. Investigating the dreams of the West, Porter does reveal the cold, hard realities that exist there. However, she also shows that freedom can be achieved. She depicts no easy road and no compromise. Miranda must face the fragile dreams of her innocence and confront the challenges of her own environmental and societal landscape; she must become a Western hero in order to gain access to her dreams and desires. Only by facing the urban wilderness of Denver will Miranda become Porter's version of a Western hero.

But exactly what is an urban wilderness? How do you place a Western in an urban landscape? Is a Western still a Western if it takes place in an urban area? According to Lee Clark Mitchell in Westerns, "The West ... [was] never an actual place, first discovered, then explored, but has always been instead an ideological terrain reinvented with each generation of fears and hopes" (6). This growth of the Western into areas outside of the traditional landscape has also been explored by Richard Slotkin in Gunfighter Nation, in which he describes the basic structure of the Western at work in both detective and dime novels ranging from 1873 to 1903. He explores the "modernization" of both the character of the traditional frontier hero and the setting of his adventure, by noting the change that occurs when "'the man who knows Indians' transform[s] into a military aristocrat representative of managerial values. …

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