THE LITERARY WORK
A short novel set on a small south Texas farm from 1896 to 1905; published in 1937 in the literary magazine Story and in 1939 in the collection Pale Horse, Pale Rider: Three Short Novels.
Mr. Thompson, who runs a dairy farm with little help from his family, takes on a hired man named Olaf Helton. Industrious and resourceful, Helton soon turns the dilapidated farm into a profitable operation, but his presence there leads unexpectedly to murder.
Callie Russell Porter (who later changed her first name to Katherine Anne) was born in a log cabin in Indian Creek, Texas, in 1890. Her travels of the early 1900s took her from re volution-torn Mexico to Berlin, Germany, to Paris, France. It was not until she moved to Paris in 1933 that she began to make use of her Texas past, returning in fiction to the world of her child-hood in Noon Wine. Several decades later, after receiving high acclaim for her novel Ship of Fools (1962), Porter won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter (1965). Along with her latest work, the collection included previously released stories such as Noon Wine.
Although Swedes had been coming to America as early as 1638, the number of new Swedish immigrants swelled between 1868 and 1873 (103,000) and again between 1880 and 1893 (475,000). The exodus of the late 1800s represented about a fourth of Sweden’s total population. The primary motive behind this mass emigration from Sweden was overpopulation. In the early 1800s, a sustained period of peace, the introduction of a vaccine for smallpox and increased production of potatoes in Sweden led to a doubling of the population from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century. The burden of the resulting labor surplus, and the potato famine that followed in the 1860s, hit Sweden’s agrarian sector the hardest. By 1870, almost half of the farm population was landless.
Most Swedish immigrants to the United States found work on farms until the 1890s, when the decrease of homesteading and the vanishing of available frontier lands forced roughly a third of them to the cities. Some ambitious individuals had by this time founded colonies of Swedish immigrants in various locations. One instance took place in Texas, where Porter grew up. The rancher S. M. Swenson, an immigrant to Texas, where Noon Wine is set, brought over a group of Swedes to work his land in 1848, and his brother continued to bring over Swedes after the Civil War ended in 1865. By 1910, a few years after the story is set, there were as many as 4,000 Swedish Americans living in the vicinity of Austin, Texas. Here, as elsewhere, Swedish immigrants generally had little trouble getting work, for they were regarded as industrious and physically skilled.
LONG HOURS ON THE FARM
The hours of labor on farms were longer than even in the steel mills of Pennsylvania. In the South it was customary to work from sunrise until sunset; work on dairy farms generally started at four or five o’clock in the morning and did not end until seven or eight o’clock at night. Long hours, low pay, and irregular employment were what the immigrant could expect on a farm, so the majority of immigrants eventually found their way to the cities. While the early Swedish immigrants settled largely on farms, later generations would find work in urban centers as, for example machinists, railway laborers, and shipbuilders.
The Texas farmer around 1900
While Noon Wine centers around a family whose income depends on dairy farming, the dominant crop in Texas around the turn of the twentieth century was cotton. The year 1900 saw the state produce 2.5 million bales of cotton, and income from farming was on the rise at the time. It had dropped to desperately low levels during most of the 1890s, trapping families into a cycle of having to produce more each year just to keep up with what they had earned the previous year. Most Texas farmers fell increasingly into debt in the 1890s, regardless of how hard they worked. Meanwhile, a depression (1893-1897) crippled industries in the East, so hardship was a nation-wide phenomenon during the decade. Conditions brightened by 1900, however, and Texas farmers went on to experience ten prosperous years in which they are said to have earned their fair share of the American income. In Noon Wine, the hired hand Helton turns the dairy farm into a moneymaking enterprise. A look at Texas’s economic history shows that his efforts to do so roughly coincide with a general upswing in the Texas farm economy. The story, in other words, is set at a time when hard-working farmers were in fact compensated for their industriousness.
Labor shortage in Texas
After the Civil War (1861-1865) Southern capital vanished, bank stocks and deposits lost all value, and plantation owners went bankrupt. In Texas, farm stock decreased 20 percent from 1860 to 1866. In that same period, land values decreased 25 to 90 percent. Frustrated by the presence of recently freed black laborers, Texas planters advocated increased white immigration from other states and from Europe. In Noon Wine, Thompson welcomes the prospect of a white hired hand to help work his dairy farm. At one point he employed two black laborers, but, Thompson notes, “what I say is one middlin’-good white man ekals a whole passel of niggers any day of the week” (Porter, Noon Wine, p. 224).
The rural Texas economy had begun to recover by 1870, and immigration to Texas continued to increase thereafter. At one time its farmers hoped that the influx of Chinese immigrants would address the rural labor shortage, but the few Chinese who did move to Texas came to work not on the farms but on the railroads instead. The planters had more success promoting immigration from other states. Immigration was encouraged by state legislation designed to foster widespread settlement of the frontier so that pioneers could unite to withstand the constant Indian attacks. A Homestead Act that was passed in 1870 offered the head of a family 160 acres of public land after occupying it for three years, and the state established a Bureau of Immigration to attract not only settlers but also white immigrant labor. Such incentives, combined with unfavorable social and economic conditions in other Southern states, induced many to move west to Texas in hopes of starting anew after suffering through the economic collapse that followed the Civil War.
In Noon Wine, Thompson learns that his hired hand, Helton, was once confined in an insane asylum for committing a murder. Insane asylums grew infamous at the end of the nineteenth century because patients or inmates were often mistreated. Immigrants and criminals formed a large segment of the asylum population, partly the result of states allocating funds to isolate the mentally unstable immigrant and criminal element from the mainstream society. Cases of brutality led to one governmental inquiry after another into the practices of a number of institutions. In 1889 a reporter for the Chicago Times, for example, exposed the murder of a patient by three attendants. Raising perhaps the loudest outcry among reformers of the era was the use of mechanical restraints in American insane asylums. In Noon Wine, Thompson recalls that they put his Aunt Ida in a straight acket in the state asylum. She got violent, he said, and they put her in the jacket and tied her to an iron ring in the wall. It made her so wild that she burst a blood vessel. The attendants found her dead. “I’d think one of them things [the restraints] was dangerous,” observes Helton (Noon Wine, p. 247). This is the type of institution from which Helton has managed to escape.
Royale Earle Thompson is not a particularly good farmer. Concerned primarily with “his dignity and reputation,” he has convinced himself that “running a dairy and chasing after chickens [is] woman’s work” (Noon Wine, p. 233). His wife Ellie, however, is too weak to assist him, and his sons, Herbert and Arthur, are too young to be of any help. So the lazy and despairing Thompson has let the farm fall into disrepair. The gate is broken and the wagon shed is a receptacle for discarded junk; even his beard is hairy and unkempt.
But everything changes the day a Swede named Olaf Helton arrives from the wheat fields of North Dakota looking for work. Thompson hires him and promptly heads into town for a few drinks, leaving his wife sick in bed. Helton, a tireless worker who always does more than is required of him, quickly ingratiates himself in the Thompson household. Curiously, however, Helton almost never speaks. This disturbs the Thompsons at first, but they soon grow accustomed to it. Each day, when his work is finished, the otherwise inexpressive Helton sits down to play the harmonica—always the same tune. He does not drink, venture into town, or become involved in any sort of trouble. In fact, he does not even go to church. Playing the harmonica is his only diversion. Otherwise he keeps to himself.
Little by little, the once-dilapidated farm begins to look clean and run more efficiently. Before long, Thompson’s debts are paid off and he is making a profit. For the first time since his marriage, Thompson has peace of mind. His worries about the cows, the chickens, and the raising of the children gradually fade away. Although secretly a little consternated at Helton’s amazing industriousness, Thompson expresses nothing but gratitude and over time raises Helton’s pay considerably.
Nine years pass, until one day a man named Homer Hatch arrives looking for Helton. Upon hearing the familiar sound of Helton’s harmonica, Hatch explains that it is “a kind of Scandahoovian song.... It says something about starting out in the morning feeling so good you can’t hardly stand it, so you drink up all your likker before noon. All the likker, y’ understand, that you was saving for the noon lay-off.... It’s a kind of drinking song” (Noon Wine, p. 246).
Thompson develops an instant dislike for Hatch, a feeling that turns out to be justified when he discovers that Hatch is a bounty hunter intent on taking Helton away. It seems that years ago in North Dakota, Helton killed his own brother with a pitchfork for losing Helton’s harmonica, and that instead of being executed for the crime he had been sent to an asylum, from which he later escaped. Two weeks earlier, after nine years of silence, Helton had made his whereabouts known when he sent his mother a letter containing a check for the enormous sum of $850—presumably all of his savings. Hatch pulls out a pair of handcuffs; he wants Thompson’s help in apprehending Helton.
But Thompson refuses. He defends Helton’s character, claiming that “if he’s crazy, why, I think I’ll go crazy myself for a change” and ordering Hatch off the farm (Noon Wine, p. 247). Hatch draws a blade, and Helton appears from nowhere and intercedes between the two men, only to get stabbed in the stomach. Instinctively, Thompson grabs an ax and brings it down on Hatch’s head, inadvertently killing him.
Although the court acquits Thompson of any wrongdoing, his life is never the same. With Helton gone, the farm quickly regresses to its former state of dilapidation. The real damage, however, is to Thompson’s reputation and to his soul. Not satisfied with the court’s acquittal, he spends his days traveling from house to house, talking to every neighbor about “self-defense” in a campaign to save his good name. Although most nod in agreement, he is convinced they don’t believe him.
A FATAL SHOT
Sometime during her childhood, after hearing the sound of a distant shotgun, and shortly thereafter of the fatal shooting of a man named Pink Hodges, Porter watched a man she had never seen before walk through the gate of her family’s farm with his wife. Their purpose was to speak to Porter’s grandmother; “I swear, it was in self defense! His life or mine! If you don’t believe me, ask my wife here. She saw it. My wife won’t lie!” (Porter, “Noon Wine: The Sources,” p. 476). Here was a man who, like Thompson in Noon Wine, took pains to declare his innocence in a neighbor-by-neighbor effort to clear his sullied reputation.
Thompson has apocalyptic visions. He is convinced this is the end for him. And one night this proves to be the case when he awakens from a dream about the murder of Hatch to find himself trying to strangle his own wife. When his sons come in, he explains that he did nothing wrong, but they don’t believe him. Right then Thompson walks to the kitchen, takes his shotgun, goes to the edge of his property, writes a note to the world swearing his innocence of Hatch’s murder, puts his mouth over the barrel of the gun, and pulls the trigger.
The woman’s role on the Texas frontier
Thompson is convinced that many of his chores are “woman’s work.” His wife, Ellie, however, does not share this notion. In any case, Thompson never has the chance to ask her to do the work because she is continually sick in bed. When Thompson leaves for town, she says, “Looks like my head never will get any better.” Later, she wakes: “There she was, thank God, still alive, with supper to cook but no churning on hand” (Noon Wine, p. 227). Curiously, Ellie’s vague infirmities prevent her from doing any farm work, but when it comes time to fix supper, she miraculously recovers.
Thompson, of course, is sorely disappointed at Ellie’s inability to help out on the farm, considering himself “deprived of the main support in life which a man might expect in marriage” (Noon Wine, p. 234). And yet it was not Ellie’s suitability for work that first attracted Thompson to her. In fact, it was quite the opposite: “He had fallen in love with her delicate waist and lacetrimmed petticoats and big blue eyes” (Noon Wine, p. 234). Thompson, it seems, wants both a lady and laborer. But as Ellie’s behavior shows, these two roles are irreconcilable in her.
Despite the hardships that inevitably accompanied agrarian life on the frontier, the Anglo-American woman in Texas was nevertheless expected to fulfill the Victorian ideals of the “woman’s woman.” As Ann Patton Malone points out in Women on the Texas Frontier, “The ideal Victorian woman was passive, childlike, unreflective, self-sacrificing, and dependent” (Malone, p. 14). Malone points out that many of these women were not at all used to physical labor and were often bewildered when faced with the untraditional array of tasks that frontier life demanded of them. They had to contend with cooking, spinning, gardening, and frequently with sickness. Outbreaks of cholera and fevers were common, so that women became preoccupied with their health, as Ellie is in Noon Wine. Moreover, they suffered an isolated existence since other white settlers tended to situate in a scattered pattern of separate households and women were confined largely to the home.
While many women adapted to these conditions—especially if they had grown up on the Texas frontier—others never quite managed to adjust. Ellie’s illness in Noon Wine might be legitimate or it could be an escape from or means of rebelling against such conditions. Even the thought of having to discipline her sons for their mischief-making paralyzes her: To get out of trouble, “they might tell her a lie, and she would have to... whip them. Or she would have to pretend to believe them, and they would get in the habit of lying. Or they might tell her the truth, and it would be something she would have to whip them for. The very thought of it gave her a headache” (Noon Wine, p. 238).
Her husband takes a perverse sort of pride in her delicate condition. Explaining to Hatch that she’s been an invalid for fourteen years, Thompson boasts that his wife had four operations that cost him every nickel he made. In his view, a wife as expensive as his was a credit to have.
Noon Wine takes place on a small Texas farm between 1896 and 1905, which corresponds roughly to the time Porter spent in that region. At one point during her childhood, her father left his daughters with his cousin Ellen Skaggs Thompson. The Thompsons ran a chicken, dairy, and cotton farm and had a hired man by the name of Helton. At the time, Ellen Thompson was an invalid, the victim of an undiagnosed illness, much like the fictional Ellie Thompson in Noon Wine. It is less probable, however, that her easy-going husband, Gene Thompson, served as the basis for the fictional Royale Earle Thompson. A more likely choice would be Porter’s own father, Harrison Porter, who exhibited “exactly the same kind of pride which Porter in the story attributed to Thompson” (Givner, p. 74).
The character of Helton has its roots in another experience from Porter’s childhood: “I saw a bony, awkward, tired-looking man, tilted in a kitchen chair against the wall of his comfortless shack.... I was told he was someone’s Swedish hired man” (”Noon Wine: The Sources.” p. 477).
During the 1920s and 1930s, Porter lived in Mexico, Bermuda, Germany, Switzerland, and France. She later wrote that those places were “right” and “timely” for her at this period in her life but confessed that she had not felt at home in any of them. She was continually making notes for stories about Texas. “I was almost instinctively living in a sustained state of mind and feeling, quietly and secretly, comparing one thing with another, always remembering” (”Noon Wine: The Sources,” p. 470).
While Porter was abroad, the Texas economy suffered through the Great Depression that wracked the rest of the nation in the 1930s. Farms in Texas slumped into decline with laborers such as the story’s Helton remaining jobless, gathering in cities where they joined unemployed workers. The average income in the South-west dropped from $334 a year in 1929 to $141 in 1932. So low were prices that farmers left fields of cotton and oranges unharvested. To compound problems, black blizzards, or “dusters,” blighted the Texas Panhandle in 1934 and 1935, along with the drought that crippled farming in nearby states as well. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt responded to the disaster by overseeing the passage of the Farm Relief Act (also called the Agricultural Adjustment Act) that required farmers to limit their production of dairy and other products. In 1937, the year Porter’s story appeared, the government set up the Farm Security Administration to enable those who worked hard to become landowners. The generous policy, which provided low-interest loans and a long-term payback period, was reminiscent of the Homestead Acts that had encouraged settlement of Texas in the late 1800s, when Porter’s story was set.
A STORY IN SEVEN DAYS
Thirty years after she left her childhood home, the story of the Thompsons and Helton came to Porter in a rush of memory; “I wrote it [the story] as it stands except for a few pen corrections, in just seven days of trancelike absorption in a small room in an inn in rural Pennsylvania, from the early evening of November 14, 1936. Yet I had written the central part, the scene between Hatch and Thompson, which leads up to the murder, in Basel, Switzerland, in the summer of 1932” (“Noon Wine: The Sources,” p. 487).
Upon the publication of Noon Wine, the real-life Thompsons did not take kindly to Porter’s portrayal of them as hateful and ignorant people, and thought the author should be sued (Givner, p. 76). Few critics agree with the Thompsons’ reading; indeed, many have argued that the Thompsons are extremely sympathetic.
Whatever the case, Porter’s vivid depictions of farm life were singled out as extraordinary, and critical response to the story as a whole was almost unanimously positive. Robert Penn Warren once said that, “Of the world’s best twenty novelettes, she might probably have two of them.” He then proceeded to name three: Old Mortality, Pale Horse, Pale Rider, and Noon Wine (Penn Warren in Stout, p. 256).
Givner, Joan. Katherine Anne Porter: A Life. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1991.
Malone, Ann Patton. Women on the Texas Frontier: A Cross-Cultural Perspective. El Paso: University of Texas Press, 1983.
Nunn, W. C. Texas under the Carpetbaggers. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1962.
Porter, Katherine Anne. Noon Wine. In The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1965.
Porter, Katherine Anne. “Noon Wine: The Sources.” In The Collected Essays and Occasional Writings of Katherine Anne Porter. New York: Dell, 1970.
Schafer, Joseph. The Social History of American Agriculture. New York: Macmillan, 1936.
Stout, James P. Katherine Anne Porter: A Sense of the Times. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995.