Happy Birthday Louisa May Alcott!

November 29 is  the birthday of Louisa May Alcott, one of the most popular authors America has ever produced. And unlike many best sellers of the 19th century, Alcott’s books are still familiar to most Americans.

Louisa May Alcott

Success did not come easily to Alcott, but once it arrived, it lingered for more than her lifetime. Her most famous book, Little Women, lives on not only in print, but in a long parade of film versions. Looking at the last several versions shows an interesting perspective on the storylines and actresses favored over the years. The leading character in each of these adaptations is Jo, the tomboy who grows up to be a writer. The actresses who have played  Jo mirror some of the changes in the way we have viewed women over the years.

During the difficult years of the 1930s when Americans were struggling with lost jobs and few opportunities, many of them turned to the movies for encouragement. The 1933 version of Jo was played by Katherine Hepburn, who brought to the film the sharp-tongued, cleverness of an actress who exemplified the never-say-die attitude that helped us survive the difficult 1930s.

By the time 1949 had rolled around, America had recovered from the Great Depression and World War II was over.  The sweet-faced June Allyson was a perfect example of a spunky American girl who no longer needed the sharpness of Hepburn. She made her way through life with a sunny smile and obstacles melted in her path.

When Greta Gerwig remade the story for a new film in 2019, Jo had changed into a very 21st century woman who knows her own mind and finds her own independent path. Played by Saoirse Ronan, she no longer needs the sharp tongue of Hepburn or the sweet smiles of Allison. Striding into the future that she is determined to build no mere man would dare to question her right to her ambition or to her success.

I can’t help wondering what Louisa Alcott would have thought of these versions. Growing up in a family plagued by poverty even though her father was part of a vibrant group of New England intellectuals,  she wrote her most famous book under the pressure of need. She resented having to write a book for children, but her family needed money and she felt she had no choice. Success came quickly as Little Women became a best seller and gave the family security, but Louisa was never quite content. During a long life of writing bestsellers and supporting her family, she was never able to fulfill her deepest ambition to write meaningful adult novels.

Bronson Alcott

The story of Louisa May Alcott and her father Bronson Alcott has been well told in John Matterson’s 2008 book Eden’s Outcasts; The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father. Matterson’s biography is an adult version of what life was like for the Alcott girls as they grew into womanhood. It offers a poignant recasting of how one American family grew during the turbulent 19th century. If you read Little Women when you were a child,  perhaps it is time to read Eden’s Outcasts. It will broaden your understanding of how real life interacts with the fictions that grow out of it.

In the meantime, let’s all raise a toast to Louisa May Alcott on her birthday this weekend.

Women Who Joined the Parade

Veterans Day Parade

This week we celebrated Veterans Day in the United States. The date, November 11, commemorates the signing of the armistice ending World War 1 on November 11, 1919.   It was during the 1920s that Veterans Day parades became common throughout the United States. 

At first the veterans were almost always men. But now, according to the Veterans Administration, about one in ten veterans are women. And women veterans are very visible n public life. Several women veterans  serve in Congress and even more have entered politics at the local and state level. But like so many other gains made by women, it was not easy for the first female veterans to be given recognition.

The first large group of veterans who joined together to help one another were the veterans of the Civil War. The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) was founded to help Union soldiers readjust to civilian life and to support voting rights for the African American men who served with them. For fifty years or more it was an important political force, and it was also the first Veterans association to have female members—although very few of them.

The first woman admitted to the GAR was Kady Brownell of Rhode Island. Born in 1842 to a British soldier serving in South Africa, she moved as a child to the United States. When the Civil War started and her husband joined the Rhode Island regiment, Kady went with him. She served mainly as a nurse and flag bearer at several battles, including Bull Run. When her husband was severely wounded and had to leave the service, she left with him. Both she and her husband received honorable discharges.

Kady Brownell

Both the Brownells were interested in the rights of veterans and supported the GAR. In 1870, Kady Brownell became an official member of the association and eventually both she and her husband were granted Veterans’ pension. She was given $8 a month, while her husband received $24. That doesn’t seem quite fair, but it was better than nothing.

Sarah Emma Edmonds took a different path to becoming a veteran. She was born in 1841 in New Brunswick, Canada near the Maine border. When she was 15, she ran away from home to escape an arranged marriage and an abusive father. Traveling and getting a job as a woman was difficult, so Edmonds disguised herself as a man and adopted the name of Franklin Thompson.  As a man she was able to get a job and support herself by selling Bibles, but when the Civil War broke out, she decided she wanted to serve the Union.

Edmonds enlisted in the 2nd Michigan Infantry on May 25, 1861, also known as the Flint Union Greys. At first, she worked as a nurse and also carried messages. She also claimed to have served as a spy, although her career is difficult to document. She wrote a best-selling memoir about her life as a spy describing her many disguises and adventures, but a few historians have questioned some of her facts. Being a spy means having to keep secrets, so perhaps we will never know all the details of her work.

Sarah Emma Edmonds

In later life Edmonds married Linus. H. Seelye and raised two children. She also became a lecturer and an activist for Veterans’ rights. She was awarded a government pension of twelve dollars a month. In 1897, she was admitted to the Grand Army of the Republic, but her membership was short because she died in 1898.

This week as we thank all veterans for their service, is a good time to pay tribute to these pioneers who made the acceptance of women into the United States Armed Services possible.

Labor Day Is for Women

Lowell Mill girls
Labor Day belongs to women. That may not be the way most people look at it, but history shows us that some of the earliest agitators for workers’ rights were women. Take the women of the Lowell Mills in Massachusetts, for example. They set the pattern for the cooperative struggle that finally brought us Labor Day.

In the early 1800s, New England was primarily agricultural. Small farmers tilled the fields and raised livestock in most states. If a man did not own enough land for all of his sons to carry on with farming, there was plenty of land in the West that could be settled and farmed.

But times were changing. Manufacturing became another source of wealth after Francis Cabot Lowell imported the secret of English looms to America. The Lowell mills in Massachusetts took advantage of the easy availability of waterpower and the low cost of cotton from Southern states, and a new industry was born.

The Lowell Mills soon found a good source of cheap labor among the daughters of New England farmers. Girls in their late teens could earn as much as $1.85 to $3.00 a week in the mills. There was no need for the mill owners to worry about their health or stamina. If anything went wrong, they could be sent back to their families. And when they got married, their husbands were expected to take care of their retirement.

All of the young women lived in boarding houses owned by the factory and paid room and board out of their salaries. Their activities were supervised by the boarding house matrons who saw that the girls went to church every Sunday and did not engage in unseemly activities during the week. They were encouraged to continue their education by attending lectures and writing articles for the mill’s newspaper, Lowell Offering. You can read some of their writing in Benita Eisler’s anthology The Lowell Offering: Writings by New England Mill Woman.

When the economy sagged during the 1830s, the mill girls’ work hours were increased to 75 hours a week. Many of them no longer had time for writing or even reading. In 1834 and again in 1836, they joined together to go on strike and demand shorter hours. Both strikes were defeated, but the mill girls did not give up. In the 1840s they formed the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association to press for reducing the workday to 10 hours. Although women could not vote at that time, the mill girls started a petition campaign to bring their demands before the legislature. Unfortunately, despite the publicity generated, their efforts failed. The ten-hour day was not won for most workers until many years later. Mill owners discovered they could hire immigrant woman to work in the mills for long hours at lower pay than the local farm girls.

Although their early efforts were not successful, the Lowell Mills girls had started something. Years after their time had passed, other women such as Mother Jones and Rose Pesotta led successful drives to encourage women to join unions and make working conditions more humane. And one of the most famous union songs of all times, memorably recorded by Pete Seeger, was written by a woman:

Which Side Are You On?
A Song by Florence Patton Reese

Come all of you good workers
Good news to you I’ll tell
Of how that good old union
Has come in here to dwell

Chorus
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?

My daddy was a miner
And I’m a miner’s son
And I’ll stick with the union
Till every battle’s won

They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there
You’ll either be a union man
Or a thug for J.H. Blair

Labor Day would be a good day to listen to that song one more time.

Eunice Hunton Carter–The Career that Never Happened

Today we remember the life of a woman who died 50 years ago this year after a career that was successful, but not as brilliant as she had hoped. When she was born in 1899, she seemed destined to be a winner—a woman who did everything right. She graduated with honors from a prestigious college and earned a law degree. There seemed nothing to keep her from achieving her dream of becoming a notable political leader. But two things held her back—her gender and her race.

Eunic Hunton Carter

Eunice Hunton grew up in a prosperous family. Her father was the founder of the Black division of the YMCA and traveled both in the United States and internationally for his work.  Segregation and prejudice affected every aspect of her family’s lives, but they did not allow these disadvantages to deter them. They built themselves an alternative world in which they could live reasonably comfortably—just as long as they did not step outside the rigid boundaries of the times. Eunice attended Smith College, worked as a social worker for a few years, and then decided to become a lawyer. She became the first Black woman to receive a law degree from Fordham University. Along the way, she married a prosperous African American dentist and changed her name to Eunice Hunton Carter.

Continuing her list of firsts, Eunice Carter soon became the first Black female Assistant District Attorney in New York State where she worked under the direction of the New York’s ambitious special prosecutor, Thomas E. Dewey. Assigned to cover the women’s court, as most female lawyers were at the time, she dealt mainly with prostitution cases. She soon realized that the prostitutes and brothel keepers who appeared before her cycled through the court system quickly. They seldom spent much time in jail or paid large fines.

Although most of her associates thought that most prostitutes and brothel keepers worked independently, Carter recognized that the entire operation must be protected by bosses who had a web of corrupt police officers and lawyers under their control. Slowly and carefully she built up her case, taking testimony from the prostitutes and finding connections between them and the city-wide mob that controlled much of the crime in the city.

After Eunice Carter had built up a strong case against the major Mob boss, Lucky Luciana, she brought her findings to Dewey. The resulting trial was one of New York’s most highly publicized and important cases of the 1930s, but Carter was not allowed to participate in it. Despite all the work that she had done, Dewey decided to handle the prosecution himself and appointed several white, male lawyers to be his assistants. The prosecution was successful, the Mob was dealt a severe blow, and Dewey’s political career took off.

Thomas E. Dewey

Eunice Carter continued to be a loyal associate of Thomas Dewey and watched him ascend the political ladder to become governor of New York and run in two Presidential elections. She rallied the African American vote and supported his ambitions but was never appointed to any important post in his administration. She lived her life as a supporting figure.   

Now Carter’s grandson, Stephen L. Carter, a Yale Law School professor has written a biography, Invisible; The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster. It tells the story of Eunice Hunton Carter and paints an unforgettable picture of life in mid-twentieth century New York. Now that the country has at last become more aware of the terrible waste caused by racist policies, it is time to honor Eunice Hunton Carter, one of the many gifted people who have suffered from America’s divisive policies.

Margaret Fuller–a Hero for Our Time

Sunday, July 19, 2020 will be the 170th anniversary of the death of a famous woman, perhaps the best-known  woman of her time. She was  both glorified and laughed at for her revolutionary views on how women should live their lives. Her name was Margaret Fuller,  a name known today mostly to students and historians. But I think of her often. She has been a favorite hero of mine ever since I first heard about her many years ago in a college classroom. In the years since then I have not only written a biography of Margaret but paid tribute to her through her cameo appearances in each of my four mystery novels.

During the 1840s, Margaret Fuller became an important figure in the intellectual life of New England. She edited one of America’s first important journals, The Dial, she wrote the first book calling for equality for American women, Women in the Nineteenth Century, and served as a foreign correspondent covering the 1848 Italian revolution for Horace Greeley’s newspaper the New York Tribune. Although she died in a shipwreck at the age of 40, she left an enduring legacy. And many of her ideas are still important to us today.

Margaret famously declared that  women should play an active role in the world. “But if you ask me what offices they may fill, I reply—any. I do not care what case you put; let them be sea-captains if you will.” That line caused a lot of scornful laughter in Boston and New York, but it aroused many women to think about their lives and ignited the flame of the women’s suffrage movement that changed the world.

It wasn’t only women’s causes that Margaret worked for. She was one of the few Americans in early 19th century who recognized the wrongs inflicted on Native Americans by relentless European invasions. “Our people and our government alike have sinned against the first-born of the soil” she wrote. The injustices she called out are still blots on American history.

Because I admired Margaret Fuller, I wanted others to know about her. Several years ago, I wrote a short biography, Margaret Fuller: An Uncommon Woman,  to introduce others to this unforgettable woman. The Kindle version of the book is now on sale at Smashwords.com for $1.50 during the month of July. Both the Kindle and print versions are available on Amazon.com.

Even after I had written the biography, Margaret continued to fascinate me. When I wrote my quartet of historical mysteries—the Charlotte Edgerton Mysteries—I followed Margaret’s footsteps, setting each book in one of the places Margaret visited during her lifetime.

A Death in Utopia is set in Massachusetts

Death Visits a Bawdy House in New York City

Death Calls at the Palace in London, England

Death Enters the Convent in Florence, Italy

You can find these books in print and Kindle versions on Amazon.com.

Jessie Fremont–Daughter and Wife

Daughter of a Senator and wife of a famous explorer and presidential candidate, Jessie Benton Fremont spent much of her life in the public eye. She was clever, well-educated and energetic, but she lived under the 19th century rule that women never interfere in the important schemes of their menfolk. Because of this, her life became a delicate dance between her interests and talents and the rules that limited women’s lives.  

Jessie Benton Fremont

Jessie’s father, Thomas Hart Benton, always longed for a son, so when Jessie, his second daughter was born in 1824, he didn’t let her gender stop him from giving her a male name and educating her as though she were a boy.  And Jessie enjoyed the role. She was quick to learn, loved reading, and picked up languages quickly. As a young teen she began following her father around to serious adult meetings soaking up the political atmosphere of Washington D.C.

Jessie was only sixteen when she met John Fremont, a handsome Army officer who, like Senator Benton, was eager to see America expand. Although he was eleven years older than Jessie, John Fremont fell in love with her. Jessie’s parents strongly opposed their marriage, because of Jessie’s youth, and perhaps also because John was the illegitimate son of an obscure French immigrant. However, Jessie and John would not be stopped. Eventually they eloped and found a Catholic priest who would marry them.

Senator Benton and his wife finally accepted the marriage and the young couple moved into the Benton household. Having learned to serve as her father’s unofficial assistant, Jessie soon found a way to transfer her skills to serving her husband’s career. Senator Benton arranged for John to be appointed as leader of an expedition to explore territory west of the Missouri River.

Both Senator Benton and the Fremonts accepted the idea of Manifest Destiny—the belief that the United States would eventually expand its territory to the Pacific Coast.

John Fremont

John Fremont led three exploratory expeditions to the West. His adventures caught the imagination of many Americans. Newspapers were eager to write about his exploits and Jessie saw to it that his letters were turned into exciting articles for readers. His picture became familiar across the country and several cities were named for him.

While John continued his explorations throughout the western territories, Jessie remained in Washington D.C. maintaining her ties with her father’s government friends and strengthening John’s fame. When John reached California in 1846, he found it a paradise and agreed with his father-in-law and many others in determining that it should be part of the United State. Jessie joined him for a while in California, one of the few times in their married life that the couple lived together.

The rest of John Fremont’s life was dominated by the struggle to make California a part of the Union, but somehow things always seemed to go wrong for him. He often acted impulsively without waiting for orders from Washington, which, of course, were slow in arriving from the East Coast. He was court martialed in 1848 for exceeding his authority, but nonetheless remained popular enough so that when California finally became a state in 1850, he was elected a senator. He returned to Washington to serve his term but stayed only one year before returning to California to campaign for re-election. By that time, of course, gold had been discovered in California and the state’s population had exploded.

The 1856 presidential election was one of the most bitter in American history as divisions grew between slave states and free states. Both John and Jessie Fremont opposed slavery and John was finally chosen as the first candidate of the new Republican Party. His campaign was disastrous and John Buchanan, the Democratic candidate, became the new president.

We will never know what Jessie Fremont thought of her role in her husband’s exploits. One commentator wrote of the couple “I thought as many others did, that Jessie Benton Fremont was the better man of the two, far more intelligent and comprehensive.” Jessie herself supported her husband throughout his life and never indicated that she could have handled his role better than he did. She remained in the background trying to correct his mistakes and keep the family going. When he finally lost the fortune he had gained in California, she managed to support him by writing stories and articles. Reading about her now in the 21st century, I can’t help but wonder what Jessie Fremont would have become if she had been born in our times.

 A new book by Steve Inskeep Imperfect Union: How Jessie and John Fremont Mapped the West, Invented Celebrity, and Helped Cause the Civil War tells the exciting story of this tumultuous period. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to know more about the people who built America. 

America’s First Poet–Phillis Wheatley

What can we say about a woman who was welcomed as America’s first poet, published in both England and America, but who nonetheless died in poverty and obscurity before she reached the age of 40? Phillis Wheatley inspired some of America’s most honored leaders and demonstrated how much African Americans had to offer in the arts and culture. But despite her triumphs, she was finally defeated by the economic force of the slave trade.

Born in Africa about 1753, Phillis Wheatley was brought to Boston by slave ship at age 7 or 8. She was bought by the Wheatley family who recognized that she was too frail (not to mention too young) for hard labor, so she was kept as a house slave. Mrs. Wheatley taught her English and how to read and write. The girl’s talents soon became apparent and she was encouraged to read widely and to write poetry.

Phyillis Wheatley

As a woman of her time, she read and admired the poems of John Milton and Alexander Pope and wrote in the fashionable heroic couplet style. Some of her poems were published as broadsides and circulated widely, but she had to go to England to find a publisher for her first book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral–the first book of poems published by an African American.

Some of Wheatley’s poems present a surprisingly benign view of the effects of slavery, which she appears to welcome as a way of discovering Christianity.

On Being Brought from Africa to America

‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,

That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:

Taught my benighted soul to understand

Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.

Some view our sable race with scornful eye,

“Their colour is a diabolic die.”

Remember, ChristiansNegros, black as Cain,

May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.

As a devout Christian, Wheatley expressed her gratitude for having been introduced to the Christian religion in America. Some commentators have criticized her work because of this, but there is no reason to think that Wheatley approved of slavery or accepted her status. She was writing only about her own life in this poem. Because of her unusual experiences, she never observed the worst cruelty of the plantation culture nor suffered the hardships of most enslaved Africans, but she was aware of them.

Soon after her book was published, the Wheatley family emancipated Phillis. In 1778, or thereabouts, Phillis Wheatley married a free Black grocer and started a family. By this time, both Mr. and Mrs. Wheatley had died, so Phillis has no one left to help further her work. She and her husband struggled with poverty, while he tried to establish himself as a businessman. Although Wheatley did not give up writing poetry, she found it difficult to secure a publisher. She was never able to publish a second book of poems she had planned, and many of her later poems have been lost. She did, however, correspond with some well-known people, including George Washington, about ways of securing freedom for African Americans. Her death at the age of 31, ended her all-too-short career.   

Phillis Wheatley’s life leaves us with far more questions than answers. If she had lived into the nineteenth century and continued her work, would her early promise have been fulfilled? Perhaps her example would have convinced more people of the talents and possibilities of African Americans. Might Phillis Wheatley have become the poet laureate of the abolition movement?

We will never know the answers to those questions, but there is much to celebrate about the life and work of Phillis Wheatley. She was a pioneer whose work should not be forgotten. 

Making Art during Difficult Days

Across the country and around the world, thousands of people are spending more time at home than they ever expected or wanted to do. As we enter our third month of sheltering in place, many of us are searching for new and satisfying ways of occupying our leisure time. According to a New York Times report, sales of groceries are booming as more people cook at home. The gaming industry is expanding. And even the sales of coloring books designed for adults have increased. Sheltering in place can lead to all sorts of new activities.

Mary Queen of Scots

All of this may be new to most of us, but we are not the first people to experience long, tedious months of forced isolation. Over the centuries, some people have used unexpected free time in remarkable ways. Mary Queen of Scots, for example, although she is remembered now mostly for her good looks and her political losses, showed an entirely different side to her talents during the eighteen years of her imprisonment in England. She designed and stitched a wealth of embroidered pieces that are still as attractive and appealing as when she first made them.

If you remember your history, you may recall that back in the 15th century Mary struggled with Queen Elizabeth I of England over who should rule Scotland and England. For many years Mary was a prisoner of Elizabeth’s and some of those years were spent in an uncomfortable, cold, drafty medieval castle of Tutbury in Staffordshire. The castle had been built many years earlier and repaired infrequently so it had become extremely damp and had a marsh underneath it from which “malevolent fumes arose, unpleasant enough for anyone and especially so for a woman of Mary Stuart’s delicate health” according to Mary’s biographer Antonia Fraser. Nonetheless, Mary was stuck there and had to make the best of it. One of the ways she did that was by turning to art and developing her skills by designing and executing lavish embroideries.

Design by Mary Queen of Scots

Embroidery is not usually considered a major art form, but it has been used to produce work of lasting value by producing pieces that combine images with words and symbols. This combination can make embroidered pictures into art works to read and understand as well as view. Many of Mary’s embroideries are in the Victoria and Albert Museum and can be seen on their website.

If you want to explore further the kind of art that has been created in isolation, the Tate Gallery has a fascinating selection and discussion of modern artists who have created art under situations that would have silenced most people. Each of the pieces on display is different and the stories of how the artists came to create their work varies. Not all of us can create masterpieces in isolation, but perhaps we can at least attempt to explore new possibilities.

A Nurse Who Made History–Florence Nightingale

During these painful days of the coronavirus pandemic, we are more aware than ever of the importance of our healthcare workers. Doctors, nurses, and their assistants are the people we rely on for help with illnesses. But they do more than just help us as individuals. They also build knowledge and systems that improve the quality of healthcare for all of us. Often, they don’t get credit for these achievements. Nurses especially are apt to be remembered only for their gentle kindness, but not their other valuable work. Florence Nightingale is a good example of a woman who is remembered for all the wrong reasons.  

The Legendary Florence Nightingale

Born into an old-fashioned English family in 1820, Nightingale had to fight hard to get the education she wanted and to become a nurse. Her big chance to shine came when England blundered into the Crimean War in 1854. The British had not fought a war in decades and were confident they could defeat Russia which was threatening to block their access to India. It wasn’t until British troops reached the Crimea that their vulnerability to the climate and poor sanitary conditions was demonstrated. Before the battles had even started, 20 percent of the troops had come down with diarrhea, cholera, or dysentery. Hospital facilities were poor or non-existent.

At last Florence Nightingale had an arena in which her talents shone, although it was a difficult struggle to convince the authorities that she could help. Finally she was able to gather together a group of women who had some experience as nurses. They included lay nurses and both Roman Catholic and Anglican nuns. Florence left for the Crimea in October 1854 and established her headquarters in the hospital at Scutari. It was there that she proved her abilities as an executive, managing the delicate relationships between the army and the nurses, establishing methods of providing food and supplies for the hospital, and introducing sanitary measures that saved lives.

While she was in the Crimea, Florence’s fame as the “lady with the lamp” grew even though she did less and less nursing. She was essentially a manager and purveyor of supplies, but the public insisted upon viewing her as a gentle nurse who soothed poor, sick soldiers. The army officers and politicians who interacted with her were more realistic in describing her as a tough executive who fought to build a viable organization of hospitals.

When Florence returned to England in the summer of 1856, she had no intention of stepping back. The more she learned about health conditions among the troops, the more determined she became to change the situation. She pushed hard to get an official commission appointed and although she was not allowed to serve on the commission herself, it was her persistence that eventually brought it about. She labored relentlessly to write a report, which she eventually published as Notes on Matters Affecting the Health, Efficiency, and Hospital Administration of the British Army. Founded Chiefly on the Experience of the Late War. Here her interest in statistics served her well. Realizing that people could visualize pictures better than rows of figures, she invented what she called her “coxcombs” to present the most important facts.

Example of Nightingale’s Coxcomb

Florence Nightingale lived to be ninety years old and most of those years were devoted to improving public health. Like so many other women, her strengths have often been misunderstood. She is remembered as the sweet nurse tending soldiers, but her real achievement was far too “unwomanly” to be acknowledged while she was alive. It’s a shame that she is often misrepresented even now. There are several good biographies; one that I strongly recommend is Mark Bostridge’s recent Florence Nightingale: the Making of an Icon. After reading it, you’ll never feel the same about Victorian women and their lives.

Revisiting Past Horrors–Katherine Anne Porter

Katherine Anne Porter

These days it is difficult to hear any news or hold any conversation that doesn’t mention the coronavirus pandemic. Most of us are struggling to understand how this disaster moved into our lives and whether we will ever return to normal life. Americans haven’t seen anything like this for a hundred years when the country was struck by the flu epidemic of 1918-19. Now that schools and universities have shut their doors, libraries have closed, and classes have moved online, perhaps it’s time to talk about a writer who described the feeling of that early epidemic for generations of readers—Katherine Anne Porter. 

Porter’s novella Pale Horse, Pale Rider captures perfectly the disoriented feeling of a woman facing the painful hazards of war-torn world being jolted by yet another attack from an unimaginable and unthinking enemy. The scene is set when Miranda, a young journalist as Porter herself was, first wakes up on an ordinary wartime morning: 

In sleep she knew she was in her bed, but not the bed she had lain down in a few hours since, and the room was not the same but it was a room she had known somewhere. Her heart was a stone lying upon her breast outside of her; her pulses lagged and paused, and she knew that something strange was going to happen, even as the early morning winds were cool through the lattice, the streaks of light were dark blue and the whole house was snoring in its sleep. (Porter, Katherine Anne. Pale Horse, Pale Rider: Three Short Novels (p. 281). Library of America. Kindle Edition.) 

As the story moves on, Porter takes us through the vivid, chilling experience of suffering from the flu and having your life taken over by doctors and nurses. Once you’ve read this story, you won’t forget it. But who was Porter and how did she develop this gift of capturing the reality of an experience that many people live through, but few can describe? 

Katherine Anne Porter was born Callie Porter in Texas in 1890. Her mother died when Callie was two years old and her father took the children to live with their grandmother, who died when Callie was eleven. After losing so much, Callie left home at sixteen to marry an abusive husband—not a very good start in life. After a divorce in her mid-twenties and a long hospitalization with tuberculosis, Porter decided to become a writer.  

Porter started as a journalist and eventually moved to New York City where she met many other writers and artists. She continued to write journalism and short stories for the rest of her life, as well as working as a journalist in Mexico, Europe and the United States. During the years between 1930 and 1960, she wrote highly praised literary stories and essays, Her only novel, Ship of Foolsthe story of a long sea voyage in 1931, was published in 1962 and became a best-seller as well as being made into a movie.  

Some writers lead fascinating lives that are reflected in their works, but Katherine Anne Porter’s biography does not cast light on her stories. The power of her descriptions and the reality of her characters seem to spring from an inner knowledge that had little to do with the actual events of her life. We can know her best by reading her stories and her novel. They continue to be as vivid and alive as they were when first published and illuminate our own experiences as good fiction ought to do. All of her works are easily available in most libraries and many bookstores.