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Reconsidering Katherine Anne Porter

Collected Stories

by Katherine Anne Porter
Harcourt, Brace, & World, 495 pp., $5.95

It is good to have Miss Porter’s stories collected in one elegant volume. The new book contains all the stories in Flowering Judas, Pale Horse, Pale Rider, and The Leaning Tower, with the addition of four not previously published in book form. (These are “Virgin Violeta,” “The Martyr,” “The Fig Tree,” and a remarkably beautiful story called “Holiday.”) With the stories in hand and the dust of Ship of Fools now settled, it is a good time to think of Miss Porter’s work in fiction and to reflect a little upon its direction. It is assumed, to begin with, that she is at least a minor writer of unusual distinction, a stylist, a craftsman.

Reading the fiction again, remembering some pieces almost in detail and others not at all, I find that the memorable stories declare themselves in a certain pattern. Miss Porter tends to write a story by sending the mind of a character to trouble the past, turning facts into myths and myths into mythologies; then to return, freighted and ready. In “Flowering Judas” Laura listens to Braggioni as he sings to her of the sea and his loneliness. Braggioni’s cadences play against her own, but not in harmony, because he is rehearsing cadences already made which he now prescribes as his own, while she is searching for new cadences made to the measure of her own feeling. Braggioni is locked in the cadences of a song his own because he sings it; he is a man of action in this as in other respects. But Laura is trying to find a song which will be her own measure only if she finds it. So in the pattern of the story Braggioni is fixed in his experience: Laura, caught in the frame of things, ranges abroad to discover herself. This pattern in Miss Porter’s stories is authoritative without being authoritarian; it allows other patterns as well to exist in the stories. Its most persistent form is the impression of memory. In “Old Mortality” John Jacob recalls the girls he had known in the family of his youth and, against heavy evidence, declares that “they had all been in every generation without exception, as slim as reeds and graceful as sylphs.” In “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” Granny is in bed, dying, but her mind is out in the past, knitting memories and desires. Coming back with this only half accomplished, she finds her death stealing upon her. “Granny lay curled down within herself, amazed and watchful, staring at the point of light that was herself; her body was now only a deeper mass of shadow in an endless darkness and this darkness would curl around the light and swallow it up.” So the story swings between the gritty world of fact and the new world made by adding to the old a qualified memory. In “Old Mortality,” the little girls live in dull lessons, stiff shoes, and scratchy flannels, but there is another land, graced by Aunt Amy, “the world of poetry,” in which the facts are touched by desire and awakened to wonder.

In stories of this pattern the characters are normally motionless, like statues: their memories move with their desires, but these are the only movements. Miss Porter holds her characters in the frame of her perception and keeps them there until the plenitude of their memory qualifies them to move on. For this reason many of her stories lodge in the mind as pictures or scenes, not as actions. In “Noon Wine” one recalls the picture of Mr. Thompson and Mr. Hatch on the front porch, or Mr. Helton playing the same old tune on the harmonica. In “He” one sees the simpleminded boy catching the black pig. The stories reach us more vividly in this way, as a set of pictures, than as “imitations of an action.” Indeed, Miss Porter’s account of the origin of “Noon Wine” gives it in terms of isolated pictures and sounds; the explosion of a shotgun followed by a scream, heard by a child in Texas, a strange horse and buggy standing at the front gate, a broken woman, and a man shouting, “I swear, it was in self-defense!” These are vignettes, and when the soil is thin, as in “That Tree,” they remain vignettes and nothing more. But when the soil is rich, the effect is like looking at Walker Evans’s photographs in Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, where the pictures say so much that the first written word is almost an intrusion. Miss Porter’s best stories are so transparent that they disappear as stories, as style, as literature, while leaving the humanity of their pictures wordlessly intact. Possessing this power, she is sensitive to it in others. In The Days Before she defends Thomas Hardy from T. S. Eliot’s charge of bad writing, claiming that scenes like that of Egdon Heath in The Return of the Native remain so indelibly in the mind that the bad writing does not matter. In the same idiom one would claim that scenes like the first meeting of Mr. Thompson and Mr. Helton are so vivid that the good writing does not matter. The particular quality of this writing is modesty: like Mr. Helton himself, it withdraws in self-possession when it has done all the chores. When Miss Porter’s writing is going well, it arranges things so that when you turn your back they will still be there.

But there is always a problem of development. In Miss Porter’s best stories the past is so rich that it suffuses the present and often smothers it, and even when there is nothing more there is enough. But this means that her characters are utterly dependent upon the past for their development. One of the many ills of Ship of Fools is that the characters have nothing in the past to make such a development possible. Frau Rittersdorf sends herself greetings by flowers, but it doesn’t amount to anything; the flowers are paper because she is cardboard. When Mrs. Treadmill yearns, the sound comes not from her soul but from magazine-fiction. It may be enough to say that Miss Porter is simply incapable of handling the international theme, the proof being that when she tries, the writing becomes so bad that even Hardy couldn’t survive it. Comparison with Henry James is absurd, the point being that in this line Miss Porter is not at all as good as Somerset Maugham. What she does with her characters on this absurd ship is irrelevant; they are nothing because they have never been anything. If Ship of Fools is the most tedious novel of recent years, with the possible exceptions of The Group and By Love Possessed, the reason is that there is not enough in any of the characters to care about. Indeed, the ease with which Miss Porter tears up the cardboard in each case suggests that even she, the “onlie begetter,” found it impossible to care. But the ill goes much deeper. Miss Porter’s imagination is statuesque, not dynamic: it does not see life in dramatic terms as the grinding of past and present. She does not think at all in terms of action. In her best stories, to exist is to remember: this is the source of their identity, their stability. (Unamuno says somewhere: “Intelligence is a terrible thing, it tends to death as memory tends to stability.”) When Miss Porter cares about her characters, she gives them a past dense enough and a memory searching enough to ensure their stability. But she feels a force only when it has fixed its object in position in its frame; and then she probes it by retrospection. A dynamic imagination works differently; as in John Crowe Ransom’s poems, for instance, where actions speak louder than words or pictures. Very few of Miss Porter’s characters struggle out of their past; except for Miranda in “Old Mortality” who repudiates the old glory and demands that new things will yield a different future.

But this exception is important. Disloyalty is a particular risk where characters are fixed in storied dust and old glory. And it is, at least to Miranda, a relief, a comfort. Miss Porter says of her: “And her disturbed and seething mind received a shock of comfort from this sudden collapse of an old painful structure of distorted images and misconceptions.” I sometimes think one can feel the same shock of comfort in Miss Porter herself, occasioned by the same collapse. Be that as it may, the only explanation I can offer for Ship of Fools and the equally bad Irish-American pieces which deface the Collected Stories is that Miss Porter longed to free herself from the “old painful structure” of her fated themes. It is as if Allen Tate, having written the poems and The Fathers, were now to repudiate the whole painful structure by writing a novel by Kingsley Amis. Miss Porter may only have wanted to “do something different.” But this desire is often more radical than it seems.

Anyway, it is disturbing that Miss Porter spent twenty years writing Ship of Fools, as she informs us with a magisterial note at the end of the novel: “Yaddo, August, 1941: Pigeon Cove, August, 1961.” It is not only the waste of time that one regrets, but the fact that an astonishingly gifted writer spent so long in alien countries of the mind. This is a problem of some complexity. I mention it here because the implied disloyalty to the old painful structure may explain some of the more jarring lurches in the present book. Four pages after “Flowering Judas,” for instance, we come upon this:

Rosaleen said, “Come in and welcome!” He stood peering around wondering what she had been making. She warned him: “I’m off to milk now, and mind ye keep your eyes in your pocket. The cow now—the creature! Pretty soon she’ll be jumping the stone walls after the apples, and running wild through the fields roaring, and it’s all for another calf only, the poor deceived thing!”

When critics of Synge complain that people in Ireland don’t talk like that, his devotees answer: “It’s a pity they don’t.” But this defense is not available to Miss Porter, because her story is bogus, true to nothing; it merely takes Synge’s theme in The Shadow of the Glen, old man married to young woman, and tells it again with a sentimental ending that Synge would have scorned.

It is time to make some discriminations. I am arguing that Miss Porter’s best stories commit themselves to their fated material in knowledge and pain. Her strongest references are fact and vision, the true and false of memory, the loss of fact in the stress of perception, the old structure as a live presence or a dead weight. I would also suggest that Miss Porter, like Miranda, eloped from her tradition and that her elopement, like Miranda’s, was a failure. But failure is a complex matter, as the last paragraph of “Old Mortality” makes clear. Miranda is sitting up front with Skid, the Negro boy. Her father and Cousin Eva are in the back seat, talking over old times, “comfortable with each other.” Miranda resents the comfort and the traditional loyalty that makes it possible. “I will be free of them,” she says, “I shall not even remember them.” And she demands to know the truth for herself, on her own authority. “At least I can know the truth about what happens to me,” she says, and Miss Porter adds: “making a promise to herself, in her hopefulness, her ignorance.” This is the note of Miss Porter’s finest work: reality and justice in a single thought, to invoke Yeats’s great phrase. Everywhere in her best stories there is a remarkable feeling for justice, balanced against “the way it was”; as in “Noon Wine” when Mr. Thompson writes his suicide-note to explain things, starts a sentence with the words, “My wife,” and then releases the poor broken woman by erasing the words. Miss Porter then says:

He sat a while blacking out the words until he had made a neat oblong patch where they had been, and started again.

Allen Tate selected as a classic instance of the art of fiction the scene in Madame Bovary when Emma looks out the window and sees old Binet turning the lathe. The oblong patch in Mr. Thompson’s note is another example hardly less complete.

It is necessary to make a list of Miss Porter’s best things, the gap between her best and her worst being unusually wide. The irreplaceable stories seem to me these: “Noon Wine,” “Old Mortality,” “Flowering Judas,” “Rope.” “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall,” and “Holiday.” And of these “Holiday” and “Noon Wine” are flawless.

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