PAL: Perspectives in American Literature - A Research and Reference Guide - An Ongoing Project

© Paul P. Reuben

Chapter 7: Katherine Anne Porter (1890-1980)

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Page Links: | Primary Works | Selected Bibliography 1980-Present | Study Questions | MLA Style Citation of this Web Page |

| A Brief Biography |

Site Links: |Chap. 7: Index | Alphabetical List | Table Of Contents | Home Page | October 31, 2011

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"Papers of Katherine Anne Porter, Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries"

"I shall try to tell the truth, but the result will be fiction." "I have a great deal of religious symbolism in my stories because I have a very deep sense of religion and also I have a religious training. And I suppose you don't say, `I'm going to have the flowering judas tree stand for betrayal,' but of course it does." - KAP

Known as a writer of great clarity, Porter achieved a style of objectivity without sacrificing sensitivity. Her stories are self-motivated, without the author's omnipresence. She has been called "a maker of darkish parables" for her treatment of individuals who are impoverished by the modern environment and also for her use of the themes of guilt, isolation, and spiritual denial. Many of her stories use the geographic locales of the South, the Southwest, and Mexico.

Primary Works

Flowering Judas, 1930; Flowering Judas and Other Stories, 1935; Pale Horse, Pale Rider, (three novels: "Pale Horse, Pale Rider," "Noon Wine," and "Old Mortality") 1939; The Leaning Tower and Other Stories, 1944; The Days Before, 1952; Ship of Fools (novel), 1962; The Collected Essays and Occasional Writings of KAP, 1970; The Never Ending Wrong (memoir of the trial and execution of Sacco and Vanzetti in the 1920s), 1977.

Uncollected Early Prose of Katherine Anne Porter. Alvarez, Ruth M. (ed.); Walsh, Thomas F. Austin: U of Texas P, 1993.

Katherine Anne Porter's Poetry. Unrue, Darlene H. (ed.). Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1996.

| Top| Selected Bibliography 1980-Present

Arima, Hiroko. Beyond and Alone!: The Theme of Isolation in Selected Short Fiction of Kate Chopin, Katherine Anne Porter, and Eudora Welty. Lanham, MD: UP of America, 2006.

Austenfeld, Thomas C. American Women Writers and the Nazis: Ethics and Politics in Boyle, Porter, Stafford, and Hellman. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 2001.

Brinkmeyer, Robert H., Jr. Katherine Anne Porter's Artistic Development: Primitivism, Traditionalism, and Totalitarianism. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1993.

Ciuba, Gary M. Desire, Violence, and Divinity in Modern Southern Fiction: Katherine Anne Porter, Flannery O'Connor, Cormac McCarthy, Walker Percy. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2007.

DeMouy, Jane K. Katherine Anne Porter's Women: The Eye of Her Fiction. Austin: U of Texas P, 1983. PS3531 .O752 Z55

Givner, Joan. Katherine Anne Porter: A Life. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1982.

Harwell, Thomas M. Porter & Eliot: 'Flowering Judas' & 'Burbank-Bleistein'/Two Essays in Interpretation. Lewiston, NY: Mellen, 1996.

Hilt, Kathryn, and Ruth M. Alvarez. Katherine Anne Porter: An Annotated Bibliography. NY: Garland, 1990.

Showalter, Elaine. ed. The Vintage Book of American Women Writers. NY: Vintage, 2011.

Stout, Janis P. Strategies of Reticence: Silence and Meaning in the Works of Jane Austen, Willa Cather, Katherine Anne Porter, and Joan Didion. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1990.

- - -. Katherine Anne Porter: A Sense of the Times. Univ. Pr. Of Virginia, 1995.

Tanner, James T. F. The Texas Legacy of Katherine Anne Porter. Denton: U of North Texas P, 1991.

Titus, Mary. The Ambivalent Art of Katherine Anne Porter. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2005.

Unrue, Darlene H. Katherine Anne Porter: The Life of an Artist. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2005.

- - -. Truth and Vision in Katherine Anne Porter's Fiction. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1985.

- - -. Understanding Katherine Anne Porter. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1988.

- - -. ed. Katherine Anne Porter Remembered. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2010.

Wimsatt, Mary A., and Karean L. Rood. eds. Southern Women Writers: Flannery O'Connor, Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty. Detroit: Gale, 1995.

| Top | Katherine Anne Porter (1890-1980): A Brief Biography
A Student Project by Diana Heichel

Katherine Anne Porter traversed nine decades of revolution and war, the Jazz Age and the Great Depression, sometimes at full sail, sometimes floundering, and often, whether by accident or design, washing up where history was taking place. She was a beautiful, brilliant, complex and insecure woman who constructed her own story the way she wanted it to be. George and Willene Hendrick acknowledge Joan Givner's Katherine Anne Porter: A Life, published in 1982, as a valid deconstruction of the myths Porter purposely created about herself (Hendrick 1).

Katherine Anne Porter was born Callie Russell Porter on May 15, 1890 in Indian Creek, Texas (Hendrick 1-2). Her mother, Alice Porter, died in 1892, apparently of complications from childbirth and an undiagnosed bronchial condition (Givner 39). Porter herself suffered from familial chronic thoracic problems when confronted with cold climates, exhaustion or pressure and also from recurring depression (Givner 42-43). After his wife's death, Harrison Porter took his four children to live with his stern and puritanical mother in Kyle, Texas (Hendrick 2-3). Porter later wrote that she blamed her father for their poverty and his lack of effort to attempt to rectify the situation (Hendrick 3). Givner attributes Porter's relationships with men, including four failed marriages and numerous love affairs with younger, married or otherwise unsuitable men, to the psychological damage caused by her father's vile temper and capricious attentions (50-51). Conversely, Givner credits the absence of traditional parental models with freeing Porter from traditional thinking regarding the roles of women, which contributed to her early determination to live a different life than that into which she had been born (63). Porter insists that she was determined to be a writer from the age of six despite the ridicule of her family (Givner/Conversations 9, 105-106).

The only stable influence in Porter's childhood was her dominant and puritanical paternal grandmother, a great storyteller who aroused Porter's interest in family history and was later fictionalized in Porter's Gay family stories (Givner 33, 54-55). Grandma Cat died when Porter was eleven years old, and the family moved to San Antonio, where Porter attended the private Thomas School for only one year (Givner 79-84). She also studied acting and music and performed in summer stock (Givner 83). Ashamed of her poor background, she later maintained she had been educated in a convent school (Hendrick 3). Porter said that her time in San Antonio cemented her life-long affinity with Mexico (Givner 79).

At 16, in an attempt to escape her family and gain financial security, Porter married John Henry Koontz, a railroad clerk, and converted to Catholicism to pacify his family (Hendrick 4). Porter and Koontz had nothing in common, and the divorce petition of 1915 states that he abused her physically (Givner 91). Porter changed her name to Katherine Anne after her grandmother (Hendrick 4). She retained her adopted religion, however, and Givner believes that it offered her comfort in her last years, despite Givner's inability to confirm or disavow true faith concerning Porter's religious beliefs (508-509).

Following the divorce, Porter was diagnosed with tuberculosis and spent two years in sanatoriums (Hendrick 5). In 1917, at the largesse of a fellow patient whose husband owned the paper, she began her journalism career in Fort Worth at the Critic, where she wrote drama criticism and society gossip (Hendrick 5). She then critiqued movies, drama, vaudeville and music for the Rocky Mountain News and almost died in Denver during the influenza epidemic of 1918, later fictionalizing this experience in Pale Horse, Pale Rider (Hendrick 5).

In 1919, Porter moved to Greenwich Village, New York and supported herself by ghostwriting, writing children's stories, and publicity work for a motion picture company (Hendrick 5). In 1920, she eagerly accepted a magazine job in Mexico and participated in reforms in education and the arts instituted during the Mexican Revolution (Givner 147-148). She taught dance at a girl's school and kept company with intellectuals and revolutionists. Her experiences in Mexico were the basis for "Maria Conception," her first published story, and "Flowering Judas," considered her best short story (Hendrick 6). Porter's stories were consistently and closely based on incidents she heard, people she knew and personal experiences. She explains this process, "all of my experience seems to be simply memory. …thousands of memories converge, harmonize, arrange themselves around a central idea in a coherent form, and I write a story." (Hendrick 1) Accused of radicalism, Porter left Mexico in 1921 and returned to New York where she wrote and published "Maria Conception" in 1922 in Century magazine (Hendrick 6).

In 1922, now in her early thirties, Porter realized she had not yet fulfilled her own expectations personally or professionally. She wanted a child and told friends that she had several miscarriages and a still-born son (Givner 171). Givner attributes her lack of literary productivity to a short attention span. Porter loved traveling and entertaining and was easily diverted by trips, friends or a new love affair (Givner 164-165). In 1926, Porter married Ernest Stock, an English interior decorator and painter ten years her junior, and moved to Connecticut, but found it difficult to concentrate on work while in a relationship (Givner 173). She left Stock after contracting gonorrhea, ostensibly from him, and undergoing a hysterectomy due to the infection (Givner 175). She supported herself by writing book reviews for the New York Herald Tribune, the New Republic, and the Nation (Hendrick 7). Her association with a group of Southern writers in New York including Robert Penn Warren and Allen Tate helped her maturation as a writer by making her see her background as a source of material rather than a liability (Givner 179).

In 1929 she became ill, and a group of devoted friends sent her to recover in Bermuda (Givner 208). The atmosphere reminded her of Southern plantation life, and she was inspired to create the background of Miranda Gay, her fictional alter ego, and write the first story of this series, "The Fig Tree." (Givner 211, 212) She returned to New York and, in 1930, with the help of her lover, critic and biographer, Matthew Josephson, she published Flowering Judas, the volume of short stories that established her critical reputation (Givner 204, 216, 219).

In 1930, Porter returned to Mexico to work on a novel that eventually became Ship of Fools and married Eugene Pressley, an aspiring writer thirteen years her junior, who was later characterized as David Scott in the novel (Hendrick 8). He was faithful to her and supported her financially, but resented her work (Givner 229, 245). In 1931, Porter was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship, and her log of that voyage from Vera Cruz to Bremen, Germany became Ship of Fools thirty years later (Givner 253). She met Hermann Goring in Berlin on at least one occasion (Givner 249), and after the war, she claimed that she had predicted the Nazi movement and tried to write to newspapers in the U.S to warn them, but Givens discounts this (251). Hendrick agrees, citing Elinor Langer, in speculating that Porter fell into a luxurious life in Paris and became disinterested in politics and apathetic about the Nazi problem (11).

Porter settled in Paris and married Pressley in 1933 (Givner 282). She returned to the U.S. in 1936 and went home to Texas for the first time in 15 years (Givner 294). She divorced Pressley in 1938, but the seven years she spent with him were some of her most productive, working on stories set in her native Texas centered on the Miranda Gay character (Hendrick 10). After the divorce, Porter immediately married her last husband, Albert Erskine, a graduate student and business manager of the Southern Review and twenty years younger than Porter (Hendrick 10). He was horrified to find out her real age, and the marriage was short-lived (Givner 311).

By 1939, Porter was receiving outstanding literary reviews. The New York Times printed, "Her work …is of unmistakable quality, simple in pattern, substantial, and honestly moving." (Givner 314) The New Yorker printed, "she shared with Hemingway and a mere scattering of other writers both the will and the ability to create by suggestion." (Givner 314) She made public appearances, lectured, taught at writers' workshops and reveled in living the part of a Southern lady and a grande dame of literature (Hendrick 10-11). She tried to solve ongoing financial problems by negotiating advances for work she never finished but was paralyzed by the idea of deadlines and commitments (Givner 323-324).

In 1943 she took an appointment as the first Chair of Poetry at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. (Givner 329). She published The Leaning Tower and Other Stories in 1944 (Hendrick 10). When an affair with a young married soldier ended badly, she left for Hollywood in January, 1945 to take a job as a scriptwriter that lasted only 13 weeks (Givner 345-346). Porter was frustrated by creative differences over the dialogue, infuriated by censorship and found the people in the movie business vulgar (Givner 348). She stayed in California four years working on her novel and writing literary critique (Givner 353). She could be extremely critical of other writers including Gertrude Stein and was perfectly capable of turning on a friend (Givner 353). She criticized Robert Penn Warrens' treatment of Huey Long in All the King's Men as sentimentalizing a villain (Givner 353-354). She had vehement, sometimes illogical opinions: "She believed that a writer who tried to explain, understand, or present sympathetically a morally reprehensible character was in collusion with that character," thereby siding with evil (Givner 355).

In the late 40's and early 50's, Porter taught at Stanford and the University of Michigan (Givner 361, 387). She was extremely sensitive to slights, and in this setting her lack of a college degree made her insecurities surface (Givner 362). Givner feels that that Porter had always liked teaching, but was undisciplined. She would spend hours talking to students she found interesting, forgetting about appointments with others and frequently not showing up for class at all. She changed the curriculum and expected student papers to agree with her opinions; however the students loved her, and her classes were extremely popular (363, 391-394, 395).

| Top | Under pressure from publishers who had given her advances, Porter continued work on her novel in Connecticut and New York, saying that she "was tired to death of it." (Givner 438, 423) Finally on April Fools Day, 1962, Ship of Fools was published with a fanfare of publicity and primarily favorable early reviews (Givner 443). Porter calls Ship, "this world on its voyage to eternity." (Norton 1975) Warren calls the bestseller a triumph, a masterpiece and a work of genius and estimates the American positive/negative response at about 80/20 percent (134, 138). Hendrick calls it a gigantic work, subtle and forceful, naturalistic and symbolic (119). Darlene Unrue, in her introduction to Critical Essays on Katherine Anne Porter, maintains the novel was not as well received abroad, especially in Germany, due to the unflattering German characterizations (4). Harry Mooney criticizes the novel as episodic with emphasis on characters instead of events, then criticizes the characters as devoid of hope and lacking in self-knowledge (56, 59). Theodore Solotaroff further criticizes the failure of these characters to grow and change and labels Porter a short-story writer (Givner 450). She was accused of being anti-Semitic because her one Jewish character was portrayed as the least appealing, hating gentiles while hypocritically making his living by selling Christian religious articles (Mooney 61). Givner defends this by speculating that the Jewish character is purposely unpleasant to keep the book from descending into melodrama (470). Givner also quotes blatant anti-Semitic remarks both verbal and written made by Porter that Givner believes are part of a general racism on Porter's part (414, 450-451). When full-length critical studies of her work were published, Porter became irrationally enraged when they printed truths about her early background, for example, her original name, Callie (Givner 465). Personally offended by the proportionately small number of bad reviews, Porter drank excessively, while leading the lavish social life in Washington D.C. that she had always wanted (Givner 456, 460, 465). United Artists bought the film rights to Ship of Fools for $400,000 (Givner 466). In 1966, Porter won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter (Givner 476).

Porter arranged to leave her literary papers to the University of Maryland, flattered when they made her an honorary doctor of Humane Letters and set up a Katherine Anne Porter room in their library (Givner 478-481). Her health declined and her personal secretary, Bill Wilkins, assembled the material for her last published work, The Never Ending Wrong, an essay about the 1977 Sacco-Vanzetti executions (Givner 499-500). Porter died on September 18, 1980 (Givner 509).

Katherine Porter scorned popular formulaic construction and fashioned her own unique style (Henrick 137). Robert Penn Warren compares her to Faulkner and maintains that many of her stories are unsurpassed in modern fiction (93). Graham Green says her stories were the best since early Hemingway (Unrue 2). Givner calls her a brilliant stylist comparable to Nathaniel Hawthorne, Gustave Flaubert and Henry James. Hendrick names her an artist of the first rank and compares her stories with James Joyce, Katherine Mansfield and Sherwood Anderson (138).

Porter herself admired and says she was influenced by Jane Austen, Emily Bronte, Henry James and Virginia Woolf (Unrue 249).

The Norton Anthology of American Literature calls "each story a masterpiece of technical skill and emotional power" and Porter "a stylist of clarity and elegance," …"while treating the most intense human emotions." (1974) Mooney praises her for her "precision of language" and quotes Edmund Wilson who claims that the purity of her language is '"almost unique in contemporary American literature.'" (1, 9) Unrue labels her a ' "writer's writer" ' for her language and structure, a craftsman, a master of prose and says her characters have a depth usually found only in novels (35, 46). There is a line in "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall" that reveals better than any scholarly explanation just what these critics are talking about, "What does a woman do when she has put on the white veil and set out the white cake for a man and he doesn't come?" (Jilting 232) In words of one and two syllables, Porter evokes deceptively simple images that convey the importance of this day to Ellen Weatherall and the poignancy of her desertion.

Warren sees Porter's strength as her use of language to make the reader feel the experience, examining the dark side of humanity sometimes to the point of reader pain, but also with tenderness, sympathy and humor (12). Porter's objective, dispassionate, animalistic description of the quadruple amputee beggar in the opening chapter of Ship is brief but excruciating (Ship 4-5). Porter's humor is evident in Granny Weatherall's feistiness when speaking of her daughter, Cornelia, who is so good and dutiful, "that I'd like to spank her," (Jilting 229) and in Bebe, the bulldog, and his overly solicitous owners, who are portrayed with sly, sarcastic humor in Ship (Ship 12).

In her feminist critique on Porter's women characters, Jane DeMouy credits Porter with the use of intricate imagery and symbolism. (4) Porter insists that her symbolism was not conscious or deliberate, and that she could only see it after the work was completed, but it was definitely present (Givner/Conversations 93). She explains that there is a "great deal of religious symbolism in my stories because I have a very deep sense of religion." (Givner/Conversations 54) Norton categorizes her as modern in her use of dreams and sexual themes (1974). Her work is highly ironic, but the irony is not gratuitous; it is centered in the theme of the story (Warren 107).

Hendrick credits James William Johnson with a succinct and valid listing of Porter's themes, "the individual within his heritage, of cultural displacement, of unhappy marriages and the accompanying self-delusion, of the death of love, of man's slavery to his own nature and subjugation to a human fate which dooms him to suffering and disappointment." (137) This summary seems to need further delineation. William Nance explores Porter's themes of appearance versus reality in stories such as "Hacienda," which chronicles the filming of a Mexican movie that attempts to hide the harsh truth about peasant life. Porter was concerned with colonialism and the oppression of the Mexican Indian (Hendrick 20). In "Circus," a young Miranda Gay is traumatized by the appearance/reality, life versus death performance of a clown on a high wire (Nance 87).

DeMouy observes that most of Porter's protagonists are female and sees these protagonists as archetypal women who are vulnerable, but strong and connected to the earth (5, 14). They are conflicted between independence and freedom versus traditional female roles, and this conflict is the basis for the tension in Porter's stories (Demouy 6). This theme encompasses a recurring motif of strong women over weak men (Hendrick 14). Nance maintains that rejection as a theme is at the heart of Porter's artistic vision (8). In Nance's view, the female alpha protagonist rejects conventional mores and expectations of society to make her own way in the world (8).

Givner's explanation of Porter's self-proclaimed major theme centers on apathy, "evildoers are not the most reprehensible people…since they can be easily recognized. The people who really need to be watched are the so-called innocents who stand by and allow others to perpetrate evil." (135-136) Givner maintains that Porter believed bystanders unconsciously promote evil and derive vicarious pleasure from seeing others perform the wicked deeds which they themselves wish but fear to perform (135). Unrue feels early reviewers failed to grasp Porter's themes and that her stories are best appreciated in collections that reveal their thematic integrity (5, 2). Warren agrees, attributing Porter's greatness as a writer to her cohesiveness of this theme that runs through all her work (14).

Current Popularity

Although she appears to have a loyal constituent of admirers, Katherine Anne Porter does not currently seem to be in vogue, nor does she seem to have ever been as popular a subject for literary discussion as her contemporaries, Faulkner and Hemingway, for example. In the MLA Bibliography for 1991-2001, I found 101 articles on her. In the MLA Bibliography for 1963-1990, I found 204 articles on her. In the OCLA First Search Dissertation Abstracts Online, from 1980 to 1999, I found 49 doctorial dissertations.

Works Cited

Baym, Nina and Holland, Laurence B. eds. The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Shorter Fourth Edition. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1995.

DeMouy, Jane Krause. Katherine Anne Porter's Women: The Eye of Her Fiction. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983.

Givner, Joan. Katherine Anne Porter: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982.

Givner, Joan, ed. Katherine Anne Porter Conversations. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1987

Hendrick, George and Willene. Katherine Anne Porter, Revised Edition. Twayne's United States Author Series. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1988.

Mooney, Harry John, Jr. The Fiction and Criticism of Katherine Anne Porter. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh, 1962

Nance, William L. Katherine Anne Porter & the Art of Rejection. Chapel Hill: University of North Caroline Press, 1963.

Porter, Katherine Anne. "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall." The American Short Story, Volume 2. Calvin Skaggs, Ed. New York: Dell Publishing, 1980.

Porter Katherine Anne. Ship of Fools. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1962.

Unrue, Darlene Harbour, Ed. Critical Essays on Katherine Anne Porter. New York: G. K. Hall and Co., 1997.

Warren, Robert Penn. Katherine Anne Porter: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1979

Study Questions

1. In an interview published in 1961 Porter was quoted as saying: "I have a great deal of religious symbolism in my stories because I have a very deep sense of religion and also I have a religious training. And I suppose you don't say, 'I'm going to have the flowering judas tree stand for betrayal,' but of course it does." Comment on the theme of betrayal in the story "Flowering Judas." Who or what is betrayed? By whom? Does Laura betray? Does she betray herself?

2. Does Granny Weatherall have problems with identity? Has she been able to shake them?

3. Trace the evolution of Miranda's expanding consciousness in "Old Mortality." Analyze how Porter uses time to dramatize that evolution.

4. Amy makes the following statement about family: "'The whole hideous institution should be wiped from the face of the earth. It is the root of all human wrongs.'" Discuss homelessness as a condition for the twentieth-century writer. Include in your discussion Anderson, from Winesburg, Ohio, and O'Neill, Long Day's Journey into Night.

5. Consider Porter's characterization of Miranda in the context of other portraits of American women: Chopin's Edna Pontellier and O'Neill's Mary Tyrone.

MLA Style Citation of this Web Page

Reuben, Paul P. "Chapter 7: Early Twentieth Century - Katherine Anne Porter." PAL: Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide. URL:http://www.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/chap7/porter.html (provide page date or date of your login).
 

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