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.1
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 her power like a child with an indulgent parent; she had to try the extent of her lover’s (or husband’s) patience and obedience. Given such conditions, the men who seemed right were almost bound to be inappropriate; weak and epicene; strong but already married; too young, too remote. Anybody reliable, intelligent, and clear-sighted fell away.
It would be absurd for us to complain about Porter’s style of life. It was by yielding to impulse and indulging herself in a far greater range of experience than most people know that she found out the possibilities of human nature—especially the reversals of direction that can take place in emotions, careers, and principles of conduct. At the end of “That Tree,” when we are told of the ex-wife’s decision to return, after years of separation, to her obviously impossible mate, we must be surprised. Yet we understand too that people have an amazing way of forgetting the pain and remembering the pleasure of an intimacy, that an existence without anxiety may be suffocatingly dull, and that a man who infuriates a woman may also give her the feeling that she is truly alive—especially if from seeming a vagabond, he has become a success in his chosen career.
What astonishes one in Porter’s imagination is not only her grasp of such unpredictable metamorphoses of personality, or the power of inventing scenes remote from her experience; it is also her skill with a variety of incidents that ask for almost incompatible techniques. In “Noon Wine,” there is a bedroom scene of a wife growing hysterical because she thinks her husband may kill her. The few words and the gestures of the wife are utterly convincing, although she is barely literate. Yet in the same story Porter has a scene between the husband—an incompetent farmer—and the oafish, evil stranger who will finally destroy him; and the speech and reflections of the men are equally persuasive. It is hard to believe that the same writer produced both the domestic crisis and the masculine exchange. Finally, Porter describes the last actions of the husband as (in a unique display of efficiency) he goes about killing himself. We see him thoughtfully obliterate a tactless reference to his wife after scribbling it in the suicide note; we watch him manage to lie down and pull the trigger of the shotgun with his toe. Each of the scenes by itself is a tour de force, and the cumulative effect of Porter’s versatility is unforgettable.
“Rope” is a powerful story, compactly made, about a quarrel between husband and wife. There are two crafty features in its construction. One is that the author takes neither side, for both partners to the quarrel are childish and abrasive. The other secret is that while the story is almost entirely in dialogue, the speech is all indirect, with penetrating touches of description and narrative. The consequence is to make the action seem impartially reported, typical of human behavior, almost the enactment of a fable. Going through the ugly, funny crescendo and decrescendo, we feel this is the way things happen—the way they must happen. However painful the gibes and recriminations of the young couple become, they seem comically tolerable through the shield of reported conversation.
It would be puerile to sink a triumph of technique like “Rope” into a biographical document. Biography is a treacherous instrument for judging or interpreting a work of art, although it remains invaluable. When we discover the events that provoked an author to write a story, we seldom learn what the tale means or how good it is. Yet even an ancient epic relies for its effect on the assumption that the poet lived in a time and place that we can specify. A good critic must know that the language of the Iliad was remote from the ordinary speech of its creator (or creators), whose lifetime belonged to a later era than that of the Trojan War. We must not read Homer as if he deliberately alluded to the plays of Euripides.
So biography can help us to avoid errors. It can also enthrone error. When Glenway Wescott reduces a magnificent story like “Hacienda” to something “all à clef; mainly a portrait of the great Russian filmmaker, Eisenstein,”2 he destroys its deepest elements. Professor Givner regularly substitutes biographical data or a muddled recollection of a story for the text itself. As we shall see, she can outdo Wescott in the wrecking of “Hacienda”; but that is only the shabbiest example of her mischief.
Apart from narrative techniques, Porter gets much of her strength from a habit of writing about people taken out of their natural setting. Laura, the heroine of “Flowering Judas,” is a puritanical American girl living among passionate Mexicans and working with revolutionaries. The sinister Mr. Hatch of “Noon Wine,” like his victim Mr. Helton, is a North Dakotan in Texas. Porter centers other stories on a little boy paying a long visit to his grandmother, on a girl spending a holiday with a German family in Texas, on an American living in Berlin.
The separation of the main characters from their homes has a peculiar effect because Porter normally tells a story from their point of view. In the strange environment, they have a sharp eye for the people around them; and their condition hints at the bleak rootlessness often attributed to Western, civilized society after the First World War. That the significance at last grew conscious to Porter (if it was not always so) seems plain from Ship of Fools, in which all the characters are out of place, on a ship carrying them from a disappointing existence to a monstrous destination.
Darkening the theme of homelessness is Porter’s obsession with mortality. The omnipresence of sudden or early death in her work suggests the insubstantial brevity of passion and ambition. It implicitly heightens the value of imaginative art, which gives men a way to transcend their fate. A connection between death and creative imagination is evoked by Porter’s first important work, “María Concepción” (1922).
The young heroine of this story kills the mistress of her young and immature husband, Juan. In a burst of pride over her passionate devotion, Juan organizes her defense as if he were composing a play. On the day of the investigation, María escapes punishment because the neighbors accept their parts in Juan’s design and back up her lies. She takes possession of her rival’s infant and enjoys a “strange, wakeful happiness.”
But once the drama is over, the congenitally faithless Juan rebounds ominously from his exaltation. He feels a “black unendurable melancholy” and does not know “why he fought to save her.” Alas, Professor Givner misses the point and reports that María Concepción “regains the affection of her husband and the admiration of the townspeople, and she lives happily ever after.”
Which version of the murder is true? Thanks to the author, we enjoy the privilege of knowing. But the village gendarmerie are baffled, and the neighbors of María Concepción hide what they really think. The truth is veiled by love, jealousy, admiration. For Porter, the opposition between illusion and reality involves her other themes.
In “Flowering Judas” (1930) Laura is a Roman Catholic by birth and a disillusioned revolutionary by avocation. For the sake of her false ideals she represses her ripe sexuality; but she is nevertheless pursued by Braggioni, the corrupt revolutionary leader with whom she works. Of him Porter says, “He has the malice, the cleverness, the wickedness, the sharpness of wit, the hardness of heart, stipulated for loving the world profitably. He will never die of it.” Braggioni habitually deceives his wife, who habitually begs his pardon. Too many women have loved him, Porter declares; and in the story it is obvious that Laura is an unprecedented riddle for him. Yet Professor Givner says, “It is Laura and those like her who have caused him to change from idealist to opportunist.”
Truth or faith and the note of death become subtly related as the story goes on. Laura cannot revive her Catholic faith; nor can she believe any longer in the revolution. Still she acquiesces in the lies of Braggioni, who feels no concern for his followers. When she visits the workers who have been jailed, Laura pretends to share their hopes. One of them, Eugenio, dies of an overdose of tablets which she supplied to him. But Laura must endure Braggioni, on one of his evening calls.
At last, Braggioni leaves Laura’s house for his own. There, in a sinister evocation of Christ, he lets his wife wash his feet. So also when Laura goes to bed, she has a nightmare in which Eugenio acts out a shrunken parody of the Last Supper. Fragments of her vanished faith become symbols of her true condition, for in the dream he denounces her as a murderer. His sterile martyrdom gives concrete shape to the drift of her existence—passionless, faithless, lifeless.
In “Hacienda” (1932) Porter uses pulque, the drink made from the fermented sap of the maguey, as her symbol for the inner death-life of Mexico. This is a “thick gray-white liquor” which appears early in the story, when it is sold by women running alongside a train. A good-natured Russian named Andreyev explains the manufacture of pulque to the narrator while they are traveling together on the train. He is one of a group of Russians producing a film about Mexico; she is a writer. The couple, together with a noxious American who is business manager for the Russians, are headed for a hacienda where pulque is prepared and where the film makers are working on important scenes.
We are almost halfway into the story before we reach the hacienda and meet the bizarre assemblage of rootless and uprooted characters gathered there. The theme of the story is the appalling contrast between these deracinated figures at the top and the exploited, deeply rooted Indians who constitute the real Mexico. We see the pulque fermenting; we smell it; we hear the barrels rolled down a slide to be loaded on a flatcar.
Near the end of the story, Porter connects the few at the top with the many at the bottom through the corrupting drink, which tames the Indians while enriching their oppressors. “The white flood of pulque flowed without pause; all over Mexico the Indians would drink the corpse-white liquor, swallow forgetfulness and ease by the riverful, and the money would flow silver-white into the government treasury.” The fluid embodies the rottenness of Mexican society and politics; it is the Styx, the death wish, of a nation. (But Professor Givner finds that the symbolic pattern on which Porter’s story rests is “the hacienda itself.”)
A secondary theme is the difficulty of seeing Mexico truly. The film makers would like to show how the revolution has changed the nation. However, it has in fact changed little. Government censors want the film to conceal the failure. In an almost symbolic act of violence, an Indian taking a lead role in the film has killed his sister. At first we are told the shooting was an accident. Then it appears to be the outcome of passionate jealousy on the brother’s part. Yet we also learn that the boy was realizing a scene in the film, of a boy killing a girl. The final touch is a hint that the brother was incestuously jealous of his best friend, the one who brought him back when he ran away. Reality blurs into illusion even as revolution fades into fraud.
Porter also implies that art nourishes a proper social conscience; and she draws a savage contrast between the film makers, who see the Indians as attractive fellow creatures, and the callous, racist business manager. (Professor Givner mistakenly describes him as a director of the film.) The American regrets that they missed the chance to get a close-up of the dead girl and her murderer; one of the Russians gives him an ironic look of contempt. (Professor Givner misunderstands and tells us, “The Russian technicians regret that they did not capture the killing on film.”)
Meanwhile, if censors are trying to keep the Russians from showing anything to the discredit of the state, the film makers themselves are hoping to produce a work of art, but their business manager would like to make money for the American backers. Wherever the true Mexico resides, it will not appear in the film. Nevertheless, Porter implies that art belongs on the side of truth. So it is a composer and Andreyev who reveal the incestuous love that motivated the crime.
Bad art promotes deceit. In “Flowering Judas” the corrupt revolutionary leader was once a poetaster; and he insists on singing to the girl he would like to seduce, but his voice is grotesque. So also in “Hacienda” a faded fresco representing the legend of pulque, a picture so undistinguished that Porter dismisses it in a vague sentence—“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.” (Professor Givner thinks the fresco is “described in detail” and that it shows the Indian’s ability to transform his veneration of the drink “into a work of art.”)
Neither in “Hacienda” nor elsewhere does Porter make a simple connection between roots and truth. It is the foreign artists who see Mexico most clearly. Families, for Porter, can hand on the myths that falsify life. By leaving them and finding a detached existence, we may begin to liberate ourselves from such deceptions; or we may fail. Thus the Ship of Fools is ironically named Vera (i.e., truth); and so early as “María Concepción” Porter has given us a heroine whose religious faith supports her in the enactment of a lie.
At the end of the long story “Old Mortality” (1937), Miranda thinks she has now escaped from the romantic falsehoods that colored her childhood; she can never perhaps know the truth about others—about the aunts and uncles whose inner characters seemed to change worryingly as she met them in fresh situations. But she can know the truth about herself—or so she thinks, “in her hopefulness, her ignorance.” And as it happens, the story is itself a myth inviting us to endow the author with the roots she never had.
One more example will show how cunningly Porter can employ the same patterns for a fresh revelation. In “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” (1938) the heroine, Miranda, is a newspaper reporter caught up against her will in the country’s submission to the First World War. The imminence of death oppresses her not only because of the war but also because an epidemic of influenza is raging over the land. Miranda herself is succumbing to the disease without realizing the fact, and the symptoms blend with her almost mystical depression.
As consolation she has just found Adam, a young second lieutenant who expects shortly to be sent overseas and has been granted a brief leave of absence. Both characters have been uprooted and are far from their families. They meet not through friends or relations but through the accident of living in the same rooming house. When Miranda collapses, Adam takes care of her, returning to his camp as she is hospitalized. But after her long, nearly fatal siege ends, Miranda learns that Adam too had contracted influenza and had died. So the forebodings that envelop her mind or shape her dreams during the first three-fifths of the story turn out to be for Adam’s doom, as if she had perished in him.
A startling feature of the story is the failure of Miranda or the author to declare that Adam may have caught his illness from the girl. On the contrary, he is quickly marked for death by Miranda, who never expects that their intimacy can survive the forces threatening it: “He was not for her nor for any woman, being beyond experience already, committed without any knowledge or act of his own to death.” This is why the actual news of his death is muted and receives little attention: it was bound to come soon, somehow. (Yet Professor Givner goes out of her way to describe Miranda as feeling “that she infected him and that she was the cause of his death.”)
Miranda’s satisfaction is to know that if her heart deceived her into loving Adam, it was not for want of true instruction. She had told herself constantly that the affair would be unfruitful, that there was no time for passion; but still she “clung to the lie, the unpardonable lie of her bitter desire.” Porter implies that passion depends on illusion. Only because we need it so terribly do we submit to the fever.
The patterns I have sketched can easily be linked to Porter’s early life. The obsession with death could be said to spring from the loss of her mother when Porter was an infant and the loss of her grandmother nearly a decade later; for after each of these shocks the family’s way of life deteriorated painfully. The preoccupation with homelessness must go back to the disruptions suffered by the family as a result of the calamities. The theme of truth and illusion may derive from her father’s evasions of reality coupled with his vocal dissent from his own mother’s religious faith. Art was of course the vocation that rescued Porter from obscurity. Professor Givner makes such connections (particularly for “Noon Wine”), but without the care and discrimination that produce insight. Instead of clarifying them, she mixes them in with so much trifling matter that their meaning evaporates.
January 20, 1983