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 was ten. Following the death of her grandmother, her father took the children to various relatives, or dropped them in one boarding school or another, and generally left them to fend for themselves. By the age of sixteen, her formal schooling having ended, she was married to her first husband, John Henry Koontz, who habitually beat her. She lived with his alcoholism and physical abuse for eight years. She survived a bout of influenza in 1918. The illness turned her hair permanently white.
There has been a tendency among quite a few of Porter’s critics to criticize her life instead of her work and to give it low marks. According to these commentators, she should have lived some other kind of life than the one she actually had. What kind is not specified—perhaps one with fewer deceptions would have been better. Joan Givner’s biography does not present a particularly attractive picture of Porter, who was much married and given to more than a few of the usual human vanities.1 She seems to have engaged, rather frequently, in betrayal of people close to her. Still, compared to the alcoholic stupidities of other American writers of her time, her misdeeds seem rather amateurish.
In any case, a reading of the stories, essays, and reviews collected in the new edition presents us with an author who is (for the most part) generous, lucid, witty, and intelligent. In print at least, she hated mystification and cant. She was well traveled, at home in several languages and cultures, and particularly attuned to the condition of outcasts and the people who prey on them. In an autobiographical statement, she wrote that “my bent is to the left,” and says of her own life that it
has been the jumbled and apparently irrelevant mass of experiences which can only happen, I think, to a woman who goes with her mind permanently absent from the place where she is.
Porter’s stories were collected in three books, Flowering Judas (1930), Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939), and The Leaning Tower and Other Stories (1944), the later stories showing a slight falling-off. When The Collected Stories was published in 1965 and won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, it contained four previously uncollected stories, which brought the total number, depending on how you count, to about twenty stories on which her reputation rests. In my judgment, twelve of these can be considered classics of American literature, and five of them (“Rope,” “Flowering Judas,” “Old Mortality,” “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” and “Noon Wine”) unsurpassed in American literature in their genre.
Her tales tend to take place on a small dramatic stage with characters who find themselves claustrophobically entrapped. These protagonists typically discover themselves to be at a logical or emotional stalemate at the very moment when they must make a decision; if they don’t make such a decision, it will be made for them. Refusing to do what the moment demands, they enact a buried impulse, often violent, or they go into a kind of impersonal delirium quickly followed by remorse. The reliance of her characters on impulse puts them rather neatly within the short-story genre, which as a form tends to downplay history in favor of sequences in the present tense. Dramatized impulsive behavior requires very little background material to be plausible, and short stories thrive on it.
Porter is as sympathetic to the men who find themselves in boxed-in conditions as she is to the women, and she has a great understanding of male insecurity disguised as bluster. Self- inflation evidently fascinated her, and both male and female preening appear frequently in her fiction, as does the spectacle of entrapment.
Unable to make a move in any direction out of fear of breaking a spell (a dramatic locution that seems quite characteristic of Southern writing generally), her men and women fall into a kind of hysteria in which the rapt sufferer is encased in a cloud of possibilities, most of them unpleasant. The claustrophobia effect pushes the stories to great heights of eloquence. The resulting endings of her stories can startle the reader in part because they remain so disarmingly lucid even when their thematic elements are absolutely contradictory. The narrative model I have just described begins (in Flowering Judas and Other Stories ) with narratives set in Mexico, but the voice is equally at home in Texas or Germany. She rarely writes about North American urban life and never about the East or West Coasts—her characters are resolutely landlocked wherever they are.
Her typical dramatic structures appear in situations having to do with courtship (“Pale Horse, Pale Rider”), politics (“The Leaning Tower”), and stale traditions (“Old Mortality”). In almost all these cases the narratives hinge on moments of betrayal. Betrayal is Katherine Anne Porter’s great subject—it gives off a very particular hum in her work—and seemingly constitutes the basis of most encounters between her characters. She seems to have known everything about how betrayal works and how it succeeds. As a theme, it provides the author with a handy epistemological acid, since under the sign of betrayal a person can trust no one and finally can know almost nothing for certain. The ground of all knowledge dissolves, and at that moment the character is forced to make a move. This is a surefire dramatic setup. For sheer narrative efficiency, it is hard to beat.
“María Concepcíon,” the first of her stories to be published and to gain some attention, presents the reader with an almost schematic outline of what was to follow. Although frequently anthologized, the story is not one of her best. In its efforts to evoke the texture of the protagonist’s consciousness, the tone is uncertain and occasionally stilted, sounding like a pastiche translation from Spanish.
But the sequence of events in the story is clear enough: love, marriage, infidelity, a murder (of the husband’s girlfriend, who has also given birth to his son), followed by reconciliation of the betrayed wife and her husband, with the collaboration of the community. The story is formal and orderly, and the murder and María Concepcíon’s subsequent abject confession of the killing to her husband have the quality of ritual. It is only after María Concepcíon has committed mayhem that her husband truly values her, though he does not know why. He is dismayed, of course, by his own inability to understand anything:
He could not fathom her, nor himself, nor the mysterious fortunes of life grown so instantly confused where all had seemed so gay and simple. He felt too that she had become invaluable, a woman without equal among a million women, and he could not tell why. He drew an enormous sigh that rattled in his chest.
This is the note one hears repeatedly in Katherine Ann Porter’s fiction. All action has meaning and consequence. But most actions can’t be explained retroactively, and thinking, especially planning, typically gets you nowhere in a world ruled by betrayals. Thinking cannot prepare you for action; what matters are intuitions that incite action, and these intuitions usually remain obscure even to the person who has them.
Porter’s stories efficiently illustrate an inability to think rationally under stress, which in turn becomes a feature of certain American personality types —quite a few of them, as it turns out, and still nationally visible. “Mavericks,” let’s call them, these people who rely on their gut feelings in situations of crisis. Her characters are not so much actors as reactors, prone to violence because they’re unprepared for what’s happening to them.
What she knew about betrayal is expressed in multifarious ways. It may, for example, have an unexpectedly ecstatic component. In “Flowering Judas” (1930), a story again set in Mexico, the protagonist, Laura, a lapsed Roman Catholic, is a sentimentalist of the revolution, a recurring type, as Porter knew, during the twentieth century. Laura, an American drawn to Mexico, tries to believe in the revolution and in her Catholicism, but her faith fails in both directions, and she is a secret snob who loves handmade lace. What the revolution actually offers up to her is a suitor, a leader of men, Braggioni—fat, murderous, and vain:
Katherine Anne Porter: A Life (University of Georgia Press, 1991).↩
Katherine Anne Porter: A Life (University of Georgia Press, 1991).↩