Whose Life Is It, Anyway?

Katherine Anne Porter: A Life

by Joan Givner
Simon and Schuster, 572 pp., $19.95

A woman who, when nearing fifty, finds a handsome, talented man of twenty-seven coaxing her into marriage might well become the subject of an interesting story. If she was born in a two-room log house but persuaded her admirers that she grew up in a mansion occupied by four generations of family (along with old retainers), she may deserve a documented account. If she also struck Robert Penn Warren as a writer of stories “unsurpassed in modern fiction,” we may hope for a detailed study.

Joan Givner supplies these wants in Katherine Anne Porter: A Life. Professor Givner’s most dramatic feat is to expiode the many legends invented by Porter to bless her kin with social distinction and aesthetic culture. But the unvarnished truth only sharpens one’s sense of Porter’s accomplishment. As the great house, the ancient family, and the convent school fade from sight, the genius gains stature, and the excess of Porter’s self-indulgence becomes unimportant.

To a woman who started out in rural Texas in the 1890s, who was not yet two when her mother died, whose father was monumentally shiftless—a woman who was moved as a child from one cramped, comfortless home to another and who received only the slenderest education—to such a woman many weaknesses may be allowed by a prosperous reader with a BA degree securely behind him. Melancholia and a hankering for large jewels are hardly to be censured in a character who could rise from such beginnings to produce some of the finest work in recent American literature.

I don’t think anybody had to analyze Porter’s temperament for her. The moody, capricious wife in the story “Rope” is surely a self-portrait. Equipped with great intelligence, a powerful imagination, and vast experience of human nature, Porter must have known how frivolous and demanding she was. Precisely to keep her mind off these qualities she welcomed sexual adventures. Her beauty and talent were enough to attract men who should have pleased her. But each intimate attachment—and Givner describes many of them—was an effort to substitute another person’s judgment for her own.

Necessarily, the men who kept Porter’s affection for any length of time were those who deceived themselves or connived at her own self-deceit. If they were opportunists, or if they pitied her, they offered flattery. If they had other occupations, sexual or professional, they could prolong the affair by measuring out their visits. But if they really ignored her limitations, they soon had knowledge forced on them. On her side, Porter loathed the sense of being jailed in an unchanging partnership that required continual self-restraint. The need for freedom drove her to expose contradictory but inordinate impulses and longings.

Porter needed a lover to soften her view of herself and to persuade her that ordinary existence had some point to it. Passionate intimacy seemed to offer an escape from the ennui of routine and isolation. But she had to keep testing …

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Letters

In Porter’s “Hacienda” June 16, 1983