Porter, Katherine Anne (1890–1980)
Porter, Katherine Anne (1890–1980)
Pulitzer Prize-winning author, known for her novel Ship of Fools, who was a brilliant practitioner of the art of the short story. Name variations: (pseudonym) M.T.F. Born Callie Russell Porter on May 15, 1890, in Indian Creek, Texas; died on September 18, 1980, in Silver Spring, Maryland; educated at private schools; fourth of five children of Mary Alice (Jones) Porter and Harrison Boone Porter; married John Koontz, in 1906 (divorced 1915); married Ernest Stock, in 1925 (divorced around 1928); married Eugene Pressly, in 1930 (divorced around 1936); married Albert Erskine, in 1938 (divorced around 1942); no children.
(under initials M.T.F.) My Chinese Marriage (NY: Duffield, 1921); Outline of Mexican Popular Arts and Crafts (Los Angeles: Young & McCallister, 1922); Flowering Judas (NY: Harcourt, Brace, 1930, enlarged as Flowering Judas and Other Stories , Harcourt, Brace, 1935); Hacienda (NY: Harrison of Paris, 1934); Noon Wine (Detroit: Schuman's, 1937); Pale Horse, Pale Rider: Three Short Novels (NY: Harcourt, Brace, 1939, republished as Pale Horse, Pale Rider and Other Stories , London: Cape, 1939); The Leaning Tower and Other Stories (NY: Harcourt, Brace, 1943); The Days Before (NY: Harcourt, Brace, 1952); A Defense of Circe (NY: Harcourt, Brace, 1955); The Old Order: Stories of the South (NY: Harcourt, Brace, 1955); A Christmas Story (limited edition, NY: Seymour Lawrence, 1967); Ship of Fools (Boston: Little, Brown, 1962); Collected Stories (NY: Harcourt, Brace, 1965); The Collected Essays and Occasional Writings of Katherine Anne Porter (NY: Delacorte, 1970); The Never-Ending Wrong (Boston: Little, Brown, 1977); (edited by Ruth M. Alvarez and Thomas F. Walsh) Uncollected Early Prose of Katherine Anne Porter (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993).
Worked as a newspaper reporter; was a journalist in Mexico (1921); published her first short story (1922), based on her experiences; published three short story collections to considerable critical acclaim for their meticulous crafting and subtle irony (by 1944); brought to public attention and wide readership with publication of novel Ship of Fools (1962); won the O. Henry Prize for short fiction (1962); awarded National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize (1965) for Collected Short Stories ; suffered a debilitating stroke (1970) just as she finished her last published work, The Never-Ending Wrong , about the Sacco-Vanzetti case of the 1920s.
Of all of her formidable literary output, Katherine Anne Porter's favorite was the story of her own life. It was a work-in-progress that she repeatedly reinvented and rearranged. An early chapter was reported by a fellow patient who shared the next bed in a Texas tuberculosis ward in 1915. "Of one thing I am sure," Kitty Crawford wrote home to her husband in San Antonio, "Katherine Anne Porter came of a very fine family. She has been beautifully brought up with exquisite manners and taste in clothes." The truth was that her new acquaintance's childhood had been anything but exquisite; that the sophisticated wardrobe was an affectation intended to disguise an early life so fractured that Porter compared writing about it to undergoing a spinal tap; and that Katherine Anne was not her actual name.
She was born Callie Russell Porter on May 15, 1890, in Indian Creek, Texas, a rural outpost in the southwestern part of the state. Mary Jones Porter had chosen to name her second daughter after a close friend. Katherine's father was Harrison Boone Porter, who would bequeath on the little girl a fondness for embroidering family history. Harrison claimed to be a direct descendent of Daniel Boone, although in reality he was the latest in a long line of Porter farmers originating in Kentucky. Harrison's father had fought in the Civil War before moving to the Texas frontier, and Porter claimed all her life that at least two of the African-American servants she remembered from her childhood had been freed slaves. "I am the grandchild of a lost war," she would proclaim. Both parents were well educated and prolific letter writers, another trait they would pass on to their daughter.
Porter always pointed to the early death of her mother in 1892 from pneumonia as the defining event of her early years, for Harrison's grief at the loss of his young wife left him a broken man. He turned to his mother for help, moving with his three daughters and son to nearby Kyle, Texas, and into his mother's house. The next years, Porter said, were ones of both economic and emotional poverty, her distant and morose father having sold the family's land in Indian Creek at a loss in his haste to leave painful memories behind. "I have never seen a more terrible example of apathy," she later wrote of her father, "the almost unconscious refusal to live, to take part, to do even the nearest, most obvious human thing, which was to take care of the children left to him."
The Porter children were looked after in Harrison's stead by their grandmother, Katherine's beloved "Aunt Cat," Catherine Anne Porter. The old woman exerted such an influence on her that Porter would legally adopt the name as her own with only the minor change of one letter. Strong-willed, opinionated and unwilling to suffer fools gladly, Aunt Cat made her greatest contribution to her granddaughter's future with her talent for telling stories filled with characters drawn from the immediate community and from her memories of the arduous journey from Kentucky to Texas in the 1850s. But even the security provided by Aunt Cat's sturdy presence was taken away with her death in 1896. "It was said the motherless family was running down, with the grandmother no longer there to hold it together," Porter wrote years later in one of her most famous short stories, The Grave—inspired, like much of her fiction, by family history.
Over the next five years, as Porter completed her education at convent schools, she developed a fascination with the fine clothes and high style of an outside world that held such promise of escape, but which seemed impossible to experience directly. In 1903, however, Katherine and her older sister Gay Porter convinced Harrison to let them live and work in San Antonio, where Katherine intended to become an actress. Harrison borrowed the money to let the two girls live in a house rented from friends. Porter attended the only private school in San Antonio offering a dramatic arts program, but moved to suburban Victoria to teach music and dance to young girls to pay the rent for a small room in a dreary boarding house. Now almost 20 years old, Porter rashly decided that marriage was the only escape and quickly accepted an offer from John Henry Koontz, the eldest son of a nearby ranching family. They were married on June 20, 1906, in a union that Porter later referred to as "that preposterous marriage." She nevertheless remained Mrs. Koontz until she left her husband in 1914, running away to Chicago with her persistent dream of becoming an actress. (A divorce from Koontz was granted in 1915.) The only bright spot of those years with Koontz, she later said, was that she wrote her first short story, "The Opal Ring." Although she found work in Chicago as an extra in a few silent films, Katherine had returned South by 1917 to live with her sister Gay in Louisiana and earn a meager salary by traveling the vaudeville circuit through the rural counties.
It was the onset of tuberculosis at this point that sent Porter to the hospital where she reinvented her life story for Kitty Crawford, who found Katherine a job on her husband's Fort Worth newspaper. Echoing Porter's liberality with the facts, the Fort Worth Critic touted its new society columnist as "late from the staff of several prominent newspapers." But readers of the Critic had hardly gotten used to the new staff writer when Porter fell victim to the catastrophic, worldwide influenza epidemic of 1918, becoming so ill that her family prepared her obituary for the local Texas papers and made arrangements for her burial. She ran a temperature of 105° for nine days before beginning a slow recovery. During her illness, World War I still raged in Europe, families throughout the country mourned the loss of sons sacrificed to battle, and Katherine herself grieved over the loss of a beloved niece from spinal meningitis. The combination of illness, war and death left Porter with a powerful sense of the inevitability of evil, even from apparently well-meaning actions, and gave her the theme that would recur throughout her writing. Her struggle was, she said, the crucial event that marked her determination to become a writer. "It just simply divided my life, cut across it like that," she wrote to a friend many years later. "So that everything before that was just getting ready, and after that I was in some strange way, altered, ready." One result of the experience was her harrowing, and most famous, 1939 short story "Pale Horse, Pale Rider," in which the fevered thoughts of her dying narrator recreate her own brush with death and loss.
A dramatic sign of Porter's newfound dedication to writing was her sudden move in the summer of 1919 to New York's Greenwich Village, the artistic and intellectual center of the East Coast. She took a job writing publicity for a movie studio to pay her rent, but by 1920 had seen her first published work—a story for a children's magazine—appear in print. She quickly sought out the Village's peripatetic population of artists, writers and social activists, not a few of them artistic and political refugees from the upheavals of Mexico's long-running civil war. Among them was the publisher of an American-based magazine sympathetic to the Mexican socialists, who soon offered Porter a job as a staff writer for the Magazine of Mexico. To her further delight, she learned the job would require her to live for part of the year in Mexico City.
My life has been incredible. I don't believe a word of it.
—Katherine Anne Porter
Porter arrived at the height of the country's decade-old revolution and, while researching her articles and consorting with politicians and revolutionaries of every stripe, developed her lifelong fascination with Mexico, especially its suffering peasant population. She took careful note of everything she heard in voluminous journals that would for years afterward provide material for such short stories as "Virgin Violetta" and "Flowering Judas," and for her first published short story, "Maria Concepción," which appeared in Century Magazine in 1922. "Virgin Violetta" was printed in the same magazine in the winter of 1924, after her return from a second Mexican trip where she had organized an exhibition of Mexican artifacts that was refused entry to the United States for being "socialist political propaganda." "Virgin Violetta" was written at an artists' colony in rural Connecticut, where Porter met a gracious young Englishman named Ernest Stock. They were married early in 1925, but Katherine's quickly adopted moniker for her new husband, "Deadly Ernest," was an indication of the union's future. She left Stock after only a few months to return to New York, where she took rooms in a boarding house on the southern edge of the Village.
Among the boarding house's other residents were Dorothy Day , who would abandon her socialist-themed fiction to become a dedicated social worker for the Catholic Church, and Southern writers Alan Tate, Caroline Gordon , and Robert Penn Warren. Warren was one of the founders of the now venerable Southern Review, in which Tate's poetry was first published and which would later publish several of Porter's short stories. It was Warren who urged Porter to pay more attention to her Southern upbringing as a source for her work—advice Katherine quickly took to heart to produce stories such as "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall," drawn from her memories of Aunt Cat. "Katherine Anne Porter's fiction remains, perhaps, the best source of biography in the deepest sense," Warren would later write. Energized by Warren's encouragement, Porter once again felt herself on the threshold of a new phase of her career and a new chapter in her own life. "It is my firm belief that all our lives, we are preparing to be somebody or something, even if we don't do it consciously," she said.
By the late 1920s, Porter herself had grown into the Southern aristocrat that Kitty Crawford had believed her to be 13 years earlier. She was described by an admirer in 1928 as "a small woman, [who] bore herself with great poise, was low-voiced, soft-spoken, and full of old-fashioned airs and graces." Porter had established enough of a reputation by then that a collection of her fiction seemed warranted. "For some years she has been one of the brightest promises of the surrounding scene," a writer friend wrote to the publisher Harcourt, Brace. "Her short stories have really caused underground admiration and murmur." Flowering Judas (later titled Flowering Judas and Other Stories), the first of three collections to be published in her lifetime, duly appeared in 1930. By then, Porter had won a Guggenheim fellowship and had boarded a ship for Germany, setting sail from Vera Cruz with a collection of South American exiles and German nationals and heading to a continent already growing dark from the approaching storm of World War II. During the crossing in 1929, Porter took her usual careful notes of the people around her, although she did not yet know that these were the beginnings of the novel that would, over 30 years later, bring her world fame.
At the beginning of the 1920s, it had been revolution that had greeted her in Mexico. Now, ten years later, it was German nationalism after the humiliations of World War I that awaited her arrival in Bremen. Germans were being drawn in great numbers to the National Socialist Party and its charismatic leader, Adolf Hitler. "He's nothing but a common criminal," Porter wrote home to the United States in 1930. "That man, unless he's checked right now, will cause serious damage to the country and all over Europe." She remained in Europe for six months, during which she married for the third time. Eugene Pressly, an amateur writer and a secretary for an international charitable organization, had made the crossing with her from Mexico. The two were married on March 18, 1930, in Paris. Her European sojourn
proved to be another epiphany in her rapidly expanding life story. "I didn't begin to feel contemporary, or as if I had come to my proper term in life, until just a few years ago," she wrote in 1934, after she had been back in America for three years. "I think after I went to Europe… I got a perspective and somehow without a struggle my points of view fell into clear focus." That focus produced a burst of short stories like "The Leaning Tower" which were, she claimed, written in one sitting and required only minor revisions. Most important, she made serious progress on her novel about a group of passengers on a cruise ship bound from South America to Germany. The book, she said, "took the bit in its teeth, galloped past the 21,000 word mark" during 1935 and 1936—the years her marriage to Pressly ended. A fourth marriage in April 1938—to a business manager for The Southern Review named Albert Erskine—was even shorter, the two separating after only two years. The only man she ever really loved, Porter once claimed, was a young soldier named Charles Shannon with whom she had had a brief affair in Washington during the early 1940s, before Shannon's wife traveled from Alabama to join him. "I thought then, and still do think, that if my man was anywhere to be found, he was the one," she later said.
By the time her second short-story collection (The Learning Tree and Other Stories) was published in 1943, Porter had been lured to Hollywood by a $1,500-per-week salary as a scriptwriter for MGM which, like all the major studios, was trying to broaden the appeal of its scripts by getting respected writers to work on them. Porter was surprised to find that underneath the glamour, the film world was depressingly dull. "The whole territory is crawling with babies," she complained, calling Hollywood "the most philoprogenitive place I ever saw." She lasted only three months before asking to be released from her contract, fleeing back East just as World War II ended with the D-Day invasion of 1944. Newspapers were flooded with the shocking photographs taken by Allied troops as they liberated Germany's concentration camps. While governments around the world warned against backlashes directed at Germans who had fled Hitler's regime, Porter had no sympathy. "This time I hope [the Germans] really pay for their periodic binge of blood drinking," she angrily wrote. "And I hope … that all the fake refugees and German sympathizers will be sent out of this country. They poison the air for the rest of us." The force of her revulsion propelled her into a renewed assault on her novel, which she had decided to call Ship of Fools.
She worked furiously on the book, with its huge cast of characters, intersecting plot lines and grand themes, for the next decade, while gaining a fearsome reputation on several college campuses as a merciless Muse in courses on American fiction and short-story writing, and as an acerbic reviewer of American literature and society. She called Saul Bellow "an awful writer" in print because of "all that pity, pity, pity me. Ugh!" She openly questioned the wisdom of the Nobel Prize committee for awarding William Faulkner its 1949 medal for contributions to literature, criticizing him for "a moral and human confusion" and for sympathizing with what she saw as his ethically dubious characters. Similarly, she took books like Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited and Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano to task for glorifying "morally reprehensible" characters. She reported after a tour of the Midwest that many Midwesterners who "thought they were good democratic Republicans" were "Nazis or Fascists (same thing, really. One speaks German, the other Italian.)." With the stiff, principled backbone she had inherited from her Aunt Cat, it was not surprising that she described Ship of Fools to a friend as being "about the constant, endless collusion between good and evil. I believe that human beings are capable of total evil, but no one has ever been totally good. And this gives the edge to evil. I offer no solution," she said. "I just want to show the principle at work and why none of us has any real alibi in the world."
She recorded June 15, 1961, in her journal as the date she finished the final draft of Ship of Fools. The book appeared in print on April 1, 1962, although its reception was not as universally positive as Katherine had hoped. While The New Yorker cited the book for "the clarity of its viewpoint" and The New York Times told its readers that the long-awaited book was so good it was worth waiting another ten years for, others took Katherine to task for creating caricatures rather than characters and for attempting to cram a whole life's worth of political and social philosophy into a single book. Not a few critics noticed the stereotypical nature of her portrayal of the ship's only Jewish passenger, Julius Lowenthal. Lowenthal was, one critic complained, "a caricature of Jewish vulgarity" while even one of Katherine's closest friends wrote that "she poses her one Jew as the least appetizing of mortals." It would not be the only time Katherine would be charged with anti-Semitism, and she herself indicated her feelings in a marginal note scribbled in a book called Portrait of a Jew found among her collection after her death. "Everybody except the Jews knows the Jews are not chosen but are a lot of rough, arrogant, stupid, pretentious people, and then what?" she had written.
The publication of Ship of Fools marked another turning point in her life, for after its appearance she suffered a nervous breakdown, grew increasingly querulous and opinionated, and wrote and spoke more "incendiary things," as one journalist described them. Asked her opinion of the desegregation of the nation's schools ordered by the Supreme Court in 1954, Katherine replied that "the downtrodden minorities are organized into tight little cabals to run the country so that we will become the downtrodden vast majority if we don't look out." As she advanced in years and her health grew weaker, she reminisced in public about the "wonderful old slaves" of her childhood and otherwise offended African-Americans to such an extent that she received a letter of protest from the NAACP. She flew into a rage when other writers criticized her, especially when one writer dared to reveal that her given name was not Katherine. The profitable sale of film
rights to Ship of Fools and the subsequent picture directed by Stanley Kramer helped her mood; as did the Pulitzer Prize and the prestigious Gold Medal of the National Institute of Arts and Letters for 1965's The Collected Stories, the first time all of her short stories had been collected in one volume. But her perverse nature surfaced again when she decided against leaving her journals and private papers to the University of Texas because it had failed to name a building after her. Instead, she left them to the University of Maryland, which had wisely given her an honorary doctorate in 1966 after Katherine had settled permanently in nearby Washington. Her last published work was The Never-Ending Wrong, a memoir of the Sacco-Vanzetti case. (In the summer of 1927, she had journeyed to Boston to join many of her friends who were involved in the protest movement surrounding the execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti.) By the time the book appeared in the late 1970s, a stroke had left Porter's mental and physical health so precarious that her estate was given over to guardians, and she was admitted to a nursing home in Silver Spring, Maryland. She died there on September 18, 1980.
Given the almost frightening power of her writing, and the clear, unadorned treatment of her grand theme of good and evil, it is hardly surprising that her stories are still endlessly anthologized and are taught to thousands of literature students every year. It would certainly not surprise Porter. "I believe, I hope, I shall have my place in the story of American literature," she had written in 1956, when she was still hard at work on Ship of Fools. "Even at this point, how could they write it and leave me out?"
sources and suggested reading:
Bloom, Harold, ed. Katherine Anne Porter, Modern Critical Views Series. Philadelphia, PA: Chelsea House, 1986.
Carr, Virginia Spencer. Flowering Judas: A Casebook. Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1993.
DeMouy, Jane. Katherine Anne Porter's Women: The Eye of Her Fiction. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1983.
Givner, Joan, ed. Katherine Anne Porter: Conversations. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1987.
——. Katherine Anne Porter: A Life. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1982.
Gordon, Caroline. "Katherine Anne Porter and the ICM," in Harper's. Vol. 229. November 1964, pp. 146–148.
Hendrick, Willene and George. Katherine Anne Porter. Rev. ed. Boston, MA: Twayne, 1988.
Krishnamurthi, M.G. Katherine Anne Porter: A Study. Mysore, India: Rao & Raghavan, 1971.
Lopez, Enrique Hank. Conversations with Katherine Anne Porter: Refugee from Indian Creek. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1981.
Machann, Clinton, and William Bedford Clark. Katherine Anne Porter and Texas: An Uneasy Relationship. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 1990.
Schwartz, Edward. Katherine Anne Porter: A Critical Bibliography. NY: New York Public Library, 1953.
Stout, Janis P. Katherine Anne Porter: A Sense of the Times. University of Virginia Press, 1995.
Thompson, Barbara. "The Art of Fiction: Katherine Anne Porter, An Interview," in Paris Review. No. 29. Winter–Spring 1963, pp. 87–114.
Unrue, Darlene Harbour. Truth and Vision in Katherine Anne Porter's Fiction. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1985.
Wescott, Glenway. "Katherine Anne Porter Personally," in his Images of Truth. NY: Harper & Row, 1962, pp. 25–58.
West, Ray B., Jr. Katherine Anne Porter. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1963.
Wilson, Edmund. "Katherine Anne Porter," in The New Yorker. Vol. 20. September 30, 1944, pp. 64–66.
The Katherine Anne Porter Room at the McKeldin Library, University of Maryland, is the chief repository of Porter material, containing most of her manuscripts, papers, correspondence, personal library, books, phonograph records, photographs, furniture, and assorted memorabilia; the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Yale University is the second largest repository of Porter material.
Norman Powers , writer-producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York, New York