Pale Horse, Pale Rider is an important book in the literary career of Katherine Anne Porter. Following, as it did, her highly esteemed first collection of short stories, Flowering Judas (1930), this collection composed of three novellas marks an advance in technical interest and resources. It demonstrates clearly the artist’s ability to handle the expansive complexity of forms larger than the conventional short story. The artistic success of the forms in Pale Horse, Pale Rider is complete; Porter is one of the few American masters of the short novel. She matches the weight and density of many fine conventional novels in her shorter form.
One should begin by acknowledging the real daring of Pale Horse, Pale Rider. When it was written, the short story of conventional length was difficult enough to place and publish, and a collection of short stories was, in fact, a rare thing. It was easier to publish a collection of poems than a book of stories. There were many reasons for that condition, some of them economic, others the whimsical rationale of publishers. In view of these facts, it is quite remarkable that Pale Horse, Pale Rider ever appeared. There could have been small encouragement for Porter to produce anything except a novel. Moreover, the short novel as a form was even more rare in the United States than a collection of short stories, for its difficulties began at the common marketplace. The magazines would from time to time publish a serious short story among their lighter and more conventional fiction, never willing to surrender the space necessary for the long story or short novel. The choice of the form, then, whether at the outset or as a result of the demands of the material in the process of making, represented a major decision on the part of the artist. In the face of such pressure and such an element of risk, it is a wonder and a triumph that Porter not only created exemplary models of the form but also managed to overcome all the odds so that these stories are now simply and beautifully a part of the American literary heritage.
From the beginning, Porter has been accepted and acknowledged as a master stylist. While this view may be true, it has certainly been misleading. Taxonomy, or classification, seems to be an essential part of human consciousness. It is a great strength that permits people to think and relate; yet it is also a dangerous weakness in that the rigid and unquestioning exercise of this power can quickly lead to nonthinking, to the comfortable, narcotic illusion that a label has a life of its own as valid as the thing that is so named and tagged. The arts are difficult enough to think about and have not been spared from this kind of danger. To call attention to Porter’s style is a useful observation, but it is rather like describing an oak tree exclusively in terms of the shape and color of its leaves. Moreover, associatively, emphasis on style tends to imply virtuosity for its own sake and a certain absence of content, with the result that the critic need not come to terms with content at all. In the case of Porter, this habit or cliché of critics is particularly disappointing.
Porter writes very well indeed, sentence by sentence, but it is the supreme virtue of her style that it is designed not to call attention to itself but to fit hand-in-glove the matter and content of her stories, to carry the weight and to suggest the depth of complexity without once interrupting the magic spell that gives fiction its reality. All her virtuosity is at the service of her story and her characters. It is easy enough for a writer to divert the reader away from content and character by dazzling and intriguing verbal performance. Porter has never chosen that way. Her method has been the more difficult one; clearly, the reader is intended to weigh the story in a total and meaningful sense and not to stop short with admiration for its surface and decoration. What she has to say is important, and it is a critical mistake to ignore this fact.
The three novellas of Pale Horse, Pale Rider are arranged in a structure to make a larger, single statement and effect, and each demonstrates a different way of handling the short novel. The first, Old Mortality, is in three parts and is, in a sense, a smaller version of the whole book. It is superficially a romantic tale of America around the beginning of the twentieth century. Part 1 is set in the shifting, complex world of a large family, gossip and the tall tales of the past being its imitative form. The point of view is of the two young sisters, Maria and Miranda, and the thematic concern is the romance and tragedy of their beautiful Aunt Amy. A great deal, the whole substance of what might have been a romantic novel of the period, is packed into a few pages, filtered through the consciousness of the two sisters. Somehow it all seems leisurely, even digressive, as it should. Describing the way the family passed on its own history, Porter is able to give simultaneously a clue to her own method in this section and to indicate the flaw at the heart of her family’s, and the reader’s, history, a romantic commitment of the heart and the imagination to the past.
In part 2, Maria and Miranda...
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