Katherine Anne Porter is a case of a writer whose last fiction seemed oddly ill-matched with the work that preceded it. Readers of a certain age may remember the literary hoopla surrounding the publication of her only novel, Ship of Fools, in 1962. A work of twenty years’ labor, the book was reviewed everywhere, called “a great work of art” by Mark Schorer, went onto the best-seller list, and was sold to the movies for $400,000. The author’s shrewd, imperious visage appeared in the pages of the Saturday Review and other publications. But readers who actually bothered to start this 497-page novel did not often finish it. Finally a critic told the truth about the book: Theodore Solotaroff, in a long essay-review in Commentary, did an inventory of its faults that still seems, from a distance of over four decades, definitive and irrefutable.
But at the time of its publication, Ship of Fools appeared to have almost everything: a large cast of pan-European blowhards, a historical moment of considerable importance (1931), and great themes having to do with prejudice and international relations. Indeed, Ship of Fools had almost everything except the one element it needed, the breath of life. After a few years, the novel fell off the shelf into oblivion.
None of this would have mattered very much if Katherine Anne Porter’s short stories hadn’t been among the best ever written by an American. But they were so remarkably good, so touched with genius, that the spectacle that followed their publication is more than a bit disheartening. A writer whose work could justly be compared to Tolstoy’s spent over twenty years of her life working on a bloated and sententious novel. With the publication of the Library of America’s edition of the Collected Stories and Other Writings, some questions naturally arise, although most of them are unanswerable. Where did the stories come from? And then what happened?
Katherine Anne Porter made a habit of misrepresenting the year of her birth, 1890, claiming that she had been born in 1894 (two years after her mother died). She also maintained that she had grown up as a descendant of four generations of Southern aristocracy—though in fact she was born in a two-room log house in Indian Creek, Texas. Other misrepresentations followed. Like many other American writers of her generation, she regarded her autobiography as unnecessarily factual and in need of revision.
“I was fed from birth on myth and legend,” she noted, “and a conviction of natural superiority bestowed by birth and tradition.” For her, snobbery and fantasy tended to stimulate each other. But the conditions of her early life were so difficult that one is surprised that she survived it with her faculties intact. After her mother’s death, her father moved her and her siblings to Kyle, Texas, where she was educated by her grandmother until she …