In response to:
Whose Life Is It, Anyway? from the January 20, 1983 issue
To the Editors:
Although Irwin [sic] Ehrenpreis’s review of Katherine Anne Porter: A Life [NYR, January 20] credits Joan Givner for exploding the many legends Porter invented about her life, it mainly offers readings of several of Porter’s stories, apparently to demonstrate the inadequacy of Givner’s readings. For instance, he calls her discussion of “Hacienda” “only the shabbiest example of her mischief.” The question is where the mischief lies.
Professor Ehrenpreis argues that “Porter uses pulque as her symbol for the inner death-life of Mexico” in contradiction to Givner’s contention that “the hacienda itself” supplies the story’s “symbolic pattern.” But Porter did call her story “Hacienda,” showing over and over that the hacienda in all its aspects has remained a corrupt, oppressive feudal institution despite “the true revolution of blessed memory.” Even Velarde, “the most powerful and successful revolutionist in Mexico,” owns several haciendas. Velarde is based on Mexican strongman, Plutarco Elias Calles, whom Porter knew and admired in 1921, ten years before her visit to the Hacienda Tetlapayac. Clearly, she uses the hacienda to express deep disillusion over the failure of the revolution to change the country. And because Porter uses a pulque hacienda as her multi-faceted symbol, Givner discusses the symbolic corruption of pulque as an aspect of the hacienda, quoting much the same passages about it that Ehrenpreis quotes and reaching the same conclusions. This Professor Ehrenpreis inexplicably fails to point out.
Professor Ehrenpreis also claims that the mural depicting the discovery of pulque is “so undistinguished that Porter dismisses it in a vague sentence,” questioning Givner’s statement that it is described “in detail” and “shows the Indian’s ability to transform his superstitious veneration of the liquor into a work of art.” In the sentence in question, the narrator describes “a faded fresco relating the legend of pulque; how a young Indian girl discovered this divine liquor, and brought it to the emperor, who rewarded her well, and after her death she became a half-goddess.” Porter does not dismiss the fresco. Another sentence tells us about how the old legend “has something to do with man’s confused veneration for, and terror of, the fertility of women” and in the next paragraph Betancourt calls the fresco “the perfect example” of the same legend the Spanish found painted on the walls of pre-Columbian pulquerias: “So it goes. Nothing ever ends”—like the hacienda itself.
The actual fresco that Porter found in the vat-room at Tetlapayac in 1931 is a copy of a painting by José Obregón (1832-1902) entitled “El Descubrimiento de Pulque,” which depicts Xochitl presenting the liquor to the Toltec king Tecpancaltzin. In “The Children of Xochitl,” a manuscript composed in 1921, Porter describes Xochitl as a “fruitful” deity who satisfies all the earthly needs of the Xochimilcan Indians who live in complete harmony with nature. But this view of Mexico as paradise quickly vanished. In 1931 the goddess of pulque is the goddess of death, her fertility inspiring terror and her liquor drugging rather than nourishing her children. Her role is more explicit in the first version of “Hacienda,” where she and Maria Santisima together are “anodynes” as the Indians “call upon the Mother of God,” drink “the corpse-white liquor,” and “swallow forgetfulness.” Porter uses the fresco scene to show that the Indian’s devotion to the goddess and her pulque is an ironic aspect of his enthrallment on the hacienda. There is no evidence that the fresco is undistinguished, as Professor Ehrenpreis claims in his attempt to make it serve his argument about good and bad art.
Although Professor Givner incorrectly refers to Kennerly as the American director instead of business manager, as Ehrenpreis points out, her over-all analysis of “Hacienda” is sound and undeserving of his harsh attack. Her purpose was to write a biography and she has written one that critics of Porter’s works cannot neglect. I doubt that Professor Ehrenpreis could have speculated about Porter in the first six paragraphs of his review if he had not read it.
Thomas F. Walsh
Irvin Ehrenpreis replies:
The real issue is Givner’s limitations as a critic, which I tried to document. Professor Walsh does not mention the errors I mentioned in my review of Givner’s book, except for the treatment of “Hacienda.” Instead of listing those errors again, I shall briefly add some that I passed over, and then return to “Hacienda.”
Writing about the story “Theft,” Givner says that the protagonist’s “indifference” invited the theft of her beautiful purse by a janitress. According to Givner, the protagonist is the guiltier party because she is responsible for the “moral decline” of the thief (p. 206). Yet in the story, the lady is explicitly, deeply attached to the purse, and in an “almost murderous anger” strives to recover it (The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter [Harcourt Brace, and World, 1965], p. 63). Porter nowhere suggests that the janitress has suffered a moral decline or that the lady thinks so. It is herself alone that the lady’s ill-founded trustfulness injures.
Givner fails to consider the sexual symbolism of an empty purse made of gold cloth. She fails to notice that the purse was a gift from a lover who has just ended an affair with the lady. She fails to remark that the lady impulsively offers to let the thief keep the purse because a speech made by the janitress reminds her that the present now betokens not love but loss (Collected Stories, p. 65).
Writing about “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall,” Givner says that the indomitable woman’s error, recalled as her life closes, lay in not giving voice to anger when her first finacé, George, left her standing at the altar (p. 198). Yet one point of the story is that John, who did marry her, died young anyhow; and the matriarch established a thriving family by unaided, independent energy. Even losing her favorite child, Hapsy, she kept her absolute self-reliance. As death inescapably comes to her, she searches for an omen of God’s blessing, but finds once more that the bridegroom eludes her.
Nowhere in the story does Porter suggest that Granny Weatherall had less than appropriate feelings in response to George’s treachery. What we do hear constantly is that the lady turned inward, not upward, and chose to succeed by her own powers. The death of John, the death of Hapsy, never directed her to the heavenly bridegroom. Why should he enter her life only as it closes?
Givner’s habit of seeing what is not there, and ignoring what is, makes her a dangerous biographer. Instead of letting knowledge bring insight, Givner substitutes hard-won data for critical sympathy. In “Hacienda,” Porter gives three-sevenths of the story to an account of a railway journey across Mexico. Here she dwells on the essential character of the humble Mexican people, contrasting their patience, gentleness, and repose to the busy arrogance of the American manager. Pictures displayed by a Russian film maker illustrate the natives’ tragic acceptance of suffering, their dignified acceptance of death. Porter draws a contrast between the Mexico revealed during the journey and the style of the decadent family in the hacienda.
Givner says the hacienda is Porter’s symbol for the varied elements in Mexico as a whole (p. 239). This is untrue. The disruption of the family in the hacienda is opposed to the closeness of the native families. Don Genaro’s grandfather, alienated from mindlessness of the young, stays as far as he can from the master of the household. Julia, the wife of Genaro, says they never really live in the hacienda anyhow. She has a perverse liaison with an actress whom Genaro has made his mistress. The discontent, feverish activity, depravity, and utter selfishness of Genaro’s kind convey the corruption of the rulers of Mexico.
As for Professor Walsh, who cannot spell my name, his complaint is that I deal with the story rather than its sources. Like Givner (whom he supplied with information about Mexico), he offers data where the reader wants insight. Givner does quote two passages concerning pulque, in addition to the sentences about the fresco. She also says the liquid smells nasty and has a menacing character. But when examining the exploitation of the Indian, she opposes that process to his rich artistic heritage (p. 240). She blames the exploitation on his “refuge in superstition and narcotics.” She connects the fresco, which represents the discovery of pulque, with the artistic ability of the Indian, and she passes over the consequence that pulque would then be identified with an admirable artistic heritage. She does not observe the poisonous, pervasive omnipresence of pulque in the whole story, nor does she state that it symbolizes the techniques of corruption used by the rulers of the nation.
Professor Walsh objects to my statement that Porter gives no detailed description of the fresco. Actually, Porter has one sentence on the fresco as a picture, and all she says of its appearance is that it is “faded” and covers the walls of the vat room. She then summarizes, in two clauses (twenty-eight words), the legend that inspired the picture (Collected Stories, p. 165). Professor Walsh’s information is beside the point.