‘Life Was Never the Same for Any of Us’

Author’s Letter Provides Glimpse Into Personal Toll of 1918 Flu Pandemic
By Liam Farrell | Photo by John Engstead/UMD Digital Collections

While sweeping in its global death toll, the 1918 flu pandemic left a curiously small mark on the world of American literature, puzzling even the author of what some scholars consider the seminal work on that public health crisis.

In 1939, Katherine Anne Porter, the Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning author whose archives are housed at UMD, published the short novel “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” which was inspired by her own bout with the illness decades earlier and chronicled the doomed relationship between a soldier and newspaper reporter during the looming terror of the virus.

In a June 13, 1975, letter to historian Alfred W. Crosby Jr., who went on to write “America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918,” Porter explained that physicians were always shocked to hear her say, “I think of my personal history as before the plague and since the plague,” and that “life was never the same for any of us.” She speculated that the bloodshed of World War I overshadowed the cost of the flu.

“I always had the idea that that war and that epidemic were hand in hand as a great disaster to this country and to everybody in it,” Porter wrote, “and for once the individual and the institution suffered together.”


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