Porter, Katherine Anne 1890–1980
Porter, Katherine Anne 1890–1980
(M.T.F., a joint pseudonym)
PERSONAL: Born May 15, 1890, in Indian Creek, TX; died of cancer, September 18, 1980, in Silver Spring, MD; daughter of Harrison Boone and Mary Alice (Jones) Porter; married c. 1906 (divorced c. 1909; married Eugene Dove Pressly (employed by American Consulate in Paris), 1933 (divorced, 1938); married Albert Russel Erskine Jr. (a professor of English), 1938 (divorced, 1942). Education: Educated in convent and private schools. Hobbies and other interests: Outdoor life, old music, medieval history, reading, cookery, and gardening.
CAREER: Professional writer. Lecturer and teacher at writer conferences; speaker at more than 200 universities and colleges in the United States and Europe. Writer-in-residence, or member of English faculties, at Olivet College, 1940, Stanford University, 1948–49, University of Michigan, 1953–54, University of Virginia, 1958, and Washington and Lee University (first female faculty member in school's history), 1959. Ewing Lecturer, University of California, Los Angeles, 1959; first Regents Lecturer, University of California, Riverside, 1961. Member, President Lyndon Johnson's committee on presidential scholars.
MEMBER: National Institute of Arts and Letters (vice president, 1950–52), American Academy of Arts and Letters.
AWARDS, HONORS: Guggenheim fellowships, 1931, 1938; first annual gold medal, Society of the Libraries of New York University, 1940, for Pale Horse, Pale Rider; Library of Congress fellow in regional American literature, 1944; chosen one of six representatives of American literature at International Expositions of the Arts in Paris, 1952; Ford Foundation grant, 1959–61; State Department grants for international exchange of persons to Mexico, 1960, 1964; first prize, O. Henry Memorial Award, 1962, for "Holiday"; Emerson-Thoreau Bronze Medal for Literature, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1962; Pulitzer Prize, 1966, and National Book Award, 1966, both for The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter; gold medal, National Institute of Arts and Letters, 1967; creative arts award, Brandeis University, 1971–72. Honorary degrees include D.Litt. from University of North Carolina, 1949, Smith College, 1958, and Wheaton College; D.H.L. from University of Michigan, 1954, and University of Maryland, 1966; and D.F.A. from LaSalle College.
(With Mae T. Franking as M.T.F.) My Chinese Marriage, Duffield (New York, NY), 1921.
Outline of Mexican Popular Arts and Crafts, Young & McCallister, 1922.
What Price Marriage, Sears, 1927.
Flowering Judas (story), Harcourt (New York, NY), 1930, 2nd expanded edition published as Flowering Judas, and Other Stories, 1935.
(Translator and compiler) Katherine Anne Porter's French Songbook, Harrison Co., 1933.
Hacienda: A Story of Mexico, Harrison Co., 1934.
Noon Wine, Schuman's, 1937.
Pale Horse, Pale Rider: Three Short Novels, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1939.
(Translator) Fernandez de Lizardi, The Itching Parrot, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1942.
(Author of preface) Flores and Poore, Fiesta in November, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1942.
The Leaning Tower, and Other Stories, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1944.
The Days Before: Collected Essays and Occasional Writings, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1952, revised and enlarged edition published as The Collected Essays and Occasional Writings of Katherine Anne Porter, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1970.
The Old Order: Stories of the South from Flowering Judas, Pale Horse, and the Leaning Tower, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1955.
Fiction and Criticism of Katherine Anne Porter, University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1957, revised edition, 1962.
Ship of Fools (novel), Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1962.
The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1965.
A Christmas Story, illustrations by Ben Shahn, Dial (New York, NY), 1967.
The Never Ending Wrong, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1977.
Conversations, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MS), 1987.
Letters of Katherine Anne Porter, edited and selected by Isabel Bayley, Atlantic Monthly Press (New York, NY), 1990.
"This Strange, Old World" and Other Book Reviews, edited by Darlene Harbour Unrue, University of Georgia Press (Athens, GA), 1991.
Uncollected Early Prose of Katherine Anne Porter, edited by Ruth M. Alvarez and Thomas F. Walsh, University of Texas Press (Austin, TX), 1993.
Contributor to numerous magazines.
ADAPTATIONS: Ship of Fools was filmed by Columbia in 1965; Noon Wine was dramatized and filmed for television's "ABC Stage 67" in 1967; the movie rights to Pale Horse, Pale Rider were sold in 1970; Porter's short story "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall," was filmed for television and broadcast March 3, 1979, on Public Broadcasting Service's "American Short Story."
SIDELIGHTS: Although her output was relatively small, Katherine Anne Porter was one of the most recognized and acclaimed American writers of short fiction of the mid-twentieth century. In 1966 she won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter, many of which were written between 1922 and 1940. Porter also authored one novel, Ship of Fools, which took almost thirty years to write and was one of most awaited literary products of its day when published in 1962. Although the novel drew mixed reviews, Porter's reputation still rests firmly on the strength of the twenty-seven stories included in her Collected Stories, which are marked by an economy of style and a controlled portrayal of character and emotion. Laurie Johnston noted in the New York Times that Porter's "storytelling had a quality of translucence—a smoothly polished, surface objectivity that nevertheless moved the reader to share the underlying turmoil of her characters and their often frightening interrelationships." Robert Penn Warren, writing in the Washington Post, went so far as to state that Porter was "certainly unsurpassed in our century or country—perhaps any time or country—as a writer [of] fiction in the short forms of story or novella…. Her work remains a monument to a tremendous talent—even genius. It is permanent."
Born on a dirt farm in Texas in 1890, Porter and her three siblings were raised by her grandmother, the author's mother having died when Porter was two years old. A strong-willed woman, Porter's grandmother would provide her granddaughter with the determination to go beyond the confines of a traditional woman's role and attempt to forge a career as a writer later in life. Meanwhile, Porter's upbringing remained chaotic; after the death of her grandmother when she was eleven, Porter was left in the care of her cousins, whose dairy ranch near San Antonio later became the setting for Porter's highly praised novella Noon Wine, first published in 1937. The two years of formal education Porter received in Texas provided her with the means to support herself as part-owner of a small school of dramatic arts in Victoria, Texas, which she ran with her sister, Annie Gay, from the time she was fourteen. The need to support herself ended when Porter married at age sixteen; the marriage, which lasted for nine years, was the first of several.
Porter's dreams of becoming an actress, which she attempted to implement after leaving her first husband, were quickly cut short after she contracted tuberculosis. Near death at one point, her brother supported her stay at Carlsbad Sanatorium in San Angelo, Texas, in 1916. Leading a quiet, sheltered existence there for two years allowed Porter time for introspection; she began to reconsider her dreams of becoming an actress and eventually decided to put her creative energies into becoming a writer. With the help of a fellow patient, she left Carlsbad in 1918 and went to work as a journalist. From there, a move to New York City followed, and Porter slowly began to build her expertise as a writer by working as a publicist, composing stories for children's magazines, and ghostwriting Mae T. Franking's My Chinese Marriage. Over the next decade she worked to amass experiences and expertise—in 1921 she went to Mexico to study Aztec and Mayan art designs, and her 1923 short story "The Martyr" was inspired by the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera—although her lack of a comprehensive education made Porter self-conscious about her aptitude for her chosen profession until the success of her first published short story, "Maria Con-cepcion," in 1922. Porter was thirty-two.
Although she considered herself primarily a writer, Porter was often forced to adopt sidelines in order to support an increasingly lavish lifestyle. All the while she continued to write, burning "trunksful" of manuscripts. She once told a Paris Review interviewer: "I practiced writing in every possible way that I could…. This has been the intact line of my life which directs my actions, determines my point of view, profoundly affects my character and personality, my social beliefs and economic status and the kind of friendships I form…. I made no attempt to publish anything until I was thirty, but I have written and destroyed manuscripts quite literally by the trunkful. I spent fifteen years wandering about, weighted horribly with masses of paper and little else. Yet for this vocation I was and am willing to live and die, and I consider very few other things of the slightest importance."
During the remainder of Porter's career, her writing, though limited in quantity, remained high in quality, reflecting the people and experiences she encountered. In fact, much developed from memories of Texas, despite Porter's ambivalent relationship with that area of the United States for much of her adult life. In 1927, encouraged by a group of southern friends that included Caroline Gordon, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren, she went to Salem, Massachusetts, intending to write a biography of Puritan theologian Cotton Mather; although the biography was never finished, the stark New England setting brought back memories of her early childhood, and the short story "The Jilting of Granny Wetherall" was the result. Writing in the Virginia Quarterly Review, James William Johnson characterized Porter's themes in this manner: "critical judgment, as accurate and impartial as a carpenter's level, has limited her artistry in several ways. It has not permitted her to universalize but has confined her to being a 'witness to life.' Consequently her fiction has been closely tied to what she herself has experienced firsthand. The fact that Miss Porter's essays parallel her stories in theme—love, marriage, alien cultures—is significant in this light. Her artistic preoccupation with 'truth' has prevented the fictional generalizations often thought of as scope." Indeed, even when a third marriage found Porter living in Paris, France, the fiction she produced there echoed her experiences of growing up in poverty in Texas.
"My whole attempt," Porter once wrote of her work as an author, "has been to discover and understand human motives, human feeling, to make a distillation of what human relations and experiences my mind has been able to absorb. I have never known an uninteresting human being, and I have never known two alike; there are broad classifications and deep similarities, but I am interested in the thumbprint. I am passionately involved with these individuals who populate all these enormous migrations, calamities; these beings without which, one by one, all the 'broad movements of history' could never take place. One by one—as they were born."
These feelings for humanity are reflected throughout Porter's oeuvre, which although including such critically acclaimed short story collections as 1930's Flowering Judas and 1939's Pale Horse, Pale Rider, brought their author scant public notice compared to that garnered by her long-awaited novel, Ship of Fools. "Miss Porter's short stories have been marked by a mastery of technique, mind and society itself, without lapsing into popular cliches," maintained George Hendrick in his biography Katherine Anne Porter. "No matter whether she has written about Mexicans, Texans, Irishmen, or Germans, one feels that she knows the people and their backgrounds perfectly; she has lived and relived the experiences and emotions so thoroughly that she has often written her stories and short novels in a matter of hours or days."
"In my view," Warren would write of his friend in the Saturday Review shortly after her death in September of 1980, "the final importance of Katherine Anne Porter is not merely that she has written a number of fictions which have enlarged and deepened the nature of the story …, but that she has created an ouevre—a body of work, including fiction, essays, letters, and journals—that bears the stamp of a personality distinctive, delicately perceptive, keenly aware of the depth and darkness of human experience, delighted by the … triumphs of human kindness and warmth, and thoroughly committed to a quest for meaning in the midst of the ironic complexities of man's lot." With the revival of interest in women's writing in the wake of the feminist movement, much of this oeuvre was collected or republished in response to the reconsideration of her work by scholars.
Porter's efforts as a journalist were collected in "This Strange, Old World" and Other Book Reviews, which includes criticism she penned for publications such as the New York Herald Tribune, New Republic, Nation, and the New York Times between 1920 and 1958. As editor Darlene Harbour Unrue noted in her preface to the collection, "Porter's book reviews are reflections of her aesthetics, her worldview, and the themes and subjects that fill her fiction. Neither an academician nor a rigid thinker, Porter approached others' works with a freshness and what she might have called a poet's perspective." Cited by Western American Literature reviewer Thomas Austenfeld as providing "critics with fresh arguments in the ongoing discussion of Porter's artistic development," Uncollected Early Prose of Katherine Anne Porter includes twenty-four of the short stories she wrote while under the spell of Mexico, dating between 1920 and 1932. Katherine Anne Porter: Conversations and Letters of Katherine Anne Porter, also published as a result of renewed interest in the writer, further illuminate the life and talent of a woman whose life remained masked by a myth of her own making. Calling Porter's letters "marvels, letter-writing raised to a minor art," Sally Fitzgerald wrote in Chicago's Tribune Books that through the author's correspondence "we begin to understand some of the fascination she exercised for so many people in her lifetime. Her generosity and capacity for enthusiastic response to the world, and respect for what she called 'goodness,' are evident, along with her egoism, vanity, fickleness, unreliability, and chronic inability to discipline herself for the best use of her talents."
Commenting on the reasons for the reexamination of Porter's work only after a long period of neglect, Reynolds Price had this to say in the New York Times Book Review: "The quality of her mind and of the stories she told is fearless, steely and lethal to the most widely cherished illusions of the species—our poisonous grip on romance and self-regard, our panicked insistence on overinflating the bounds of masculinity, femininity, matrimony and parentage. Porter's stories take an aim as accurate and deadly as Nathaniel Hawthorne's, and her prose is leaner, for dissecting deeper. The results are dazzling." Porter believed strongly that creative individuals had a responsibility to squarely face the turmoil of modern life. "[N]othing is pointless, and nothing is meaningless if the artist will face it," she wrote. "And it's his business to face it. He hasn't got the right to sidestep it like that. Human life itself may be almost pure chaos, but the work of the artist—the only thing he's good for—is to take these handfuls of confusion and disparate things, things that seem to be irreconcilable, and put them together in a frame to give them some kind of shape and meaning."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Aldridge, John W., Time to Murder and Create, McKay (New York, NY), 1966.
Authors in the News, Volume 2, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1976.
Chandra, Lakshmi, Katherine Anne Porter: Fiction as History, Arnold (New Delhi, India), 1992.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 1, 1973, Volume 3, 1975, Volume 7, 1977, Volume 10, 1979, Volume 13, 1980, Volume 15, 1980, Volume 27, 1984, Volume 101, 1997.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 4: American Writers in Paris, 1920–1939, 1980, Volume 9: American Novelists, 1910–1945, 1981, Volume 102: American Short-Story Writers, 1910–1945, Second Series, 1991.
Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1980, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1981.
Givner, Joan, Katherine Anne Porter: A Life, University of Georgia Press (Athens, GA), 1991.
Hardy, J. E., Katherine Anne Porter, Ungar (New York, NY), 1973.
Hartley, L. C., and G. Core, editors, Katherine Anne Porter, University of Georgia Press (Athens, GA), 1969.
Hendrick, George, and Willene Hendrick, Katherine Anne Porter, revised edition, Twayne (Boston, MA), 1988.
Hilt, Kathryn, and Ruth M. Alvarez, Katherine Anne Porter: An Annotated Bibliography, Garland (New York, NY), 1990.
Machann, Clinton, and William Bedford Clark, editors, Katherine Anne Porter and Texas: An Uneasy Relationship, Texas A & M University Press, 1990.
Mooney, Harry John, editor, The Fiction and Criticism of Katherine Anne Porter, University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1962.
Nance, William L., Katherine Anne Porter and the Art of Rejection, University of North Carolina Press (Durham, NC), 1964.
Stout, Janis P., Katherine Anne Porter: A Sense of the Times, University Press of Virginia (Charlottesville, VA), 1995.
Stout, Janis P., Strategies of Reticence: Silence and Meaning in the Works of Jane Austen, Willa Cather, Katherine Anne Porter, and Joan Didion, University Press of Virginia (Charlottesville, VA), 1990.
Tanner, James T. F., The Texas Legacy of Katherine Anne Porter, University of North Texas Press (Den-ton, TX), 1991.
Unrue, Darlene Harbour, Understanding Katherine Anne Porter, University of South Carolina Press (Columbia, SC), 1988.
Unrue, Darlene Harbour, editor, "This Strange, Old World" and Other Book Reviews, University of Georgia Press (Athens, GA), 1991.
Walsh, Thomas F., Katherine Anne Porter and Mexico: The Illusion of Eden, University of Texas Press (Austin, TX), 1992.
West, Ray B., Jr., Katherine Anne Porter (pamphlet), University of Minnesota Press (Minneapolis, MN), 1963.
Wilson, Edmund, Classics and Commercials, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1950.
American Literature, September, 1992, pp. 616-617.
Belles Lettres, spring, 1990.
Harper's, September, 1965.
Mississippi Quarterly, winter, 1992, George Cheatham, "'This Strange Old World,' and Other Book Reviews," p. 121.
Modern Fiction Studies, winter, 1988, pp. 642-643.
New Republic, April 19, 1939; December 4, 1965.
New York Times, March 16, 1966.
New York Times Book Review, April 1, 1962; May 27, 1990, pp. 1, 23-24; April 16, 1995, p. 17.
Paris Review, number 29, 1963–64.
Partisan Review, spring, 1966.
Saturday Review, December, 1980, pp. 10-11.
Sewanee Review, spring, 1974.
Studies in Shorter Fiction, fall, 1991, p. 574.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), April 29, 1990, pp. 3, 5.
Twentieth Century Literature, April, 1967.
Virginia Quarterly Review, autumn, 1960, pp. 598-613.
Washington Post, May 15, 1970; May 18, 1981.
Washington Star, May 11, 1975.
Western American Literature, November, 1992, pp. 239-240; May, 1995, p. 133.
Chicago Tribune, September 20, 1980.
Newsweek, September 29, 1980.
New York Times, September 19, 1980.
Times (London, England), September 20, 1980.
Washington Post, September 19, 1980; September 20, 1980.