Katharine Anne Porter (1890-1980)
Contributing Editor: Jane Krause DeMouy
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Porter's stories are powerful, but understanding their true content requires thought and sensitivity. They should be read for the psychological as well as the representational reality. In addition, her style is highly complex; even the best critics are not very specific in describing exactly what it is Porter does to achieve her impact. She may be difficult for undergraduates to understand, but I think some fruitful discussion can come from focusing on issues of identity. This is an issue that all students know about instinctively; it can lead to interesting discussion to note that Granny Weatherall has had the same problems with identity that many adolescents have; one question becomes whether she has ever shaken them.
Students of Porter would do well to remember the Jamesian principle that art is selection. When Porter, like other artists, chooses certain subjects, she is not only shaping an entity but saying what she considers important, so it is essential to know what she is writing about. Porter does utilize personal experience in her work, but more often than not it is her internal experience that is true, while the factual events have been heightened, dramatized, and symbolized into fiction. In her most complex stories, symbols carry multiple meanings, and the writer's memories are transformed into mythopoeic structures based on the alogical associations common to dreams, rather than precise logical sequences. Since art exists not in facts, but in myth, it is also important to note what she does to change personal knowledge into meaningful, universalized fiction.
Students respond strongly to Porter's theme of rebellion--the wish for independence and personhood.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Themes include the conflict between personal freedom and belonging to conventional society; Porter's Miranda/Laura as a female American Adam; the human confusion experienced when one has to confront the passing of the traditions/myths/structures of old southern society into the chaos of a technologically speeded-up, wartorn, and jaded society; biological, cultural, and traditional constraints on women.
Miranda, for instance, has grown up seeing that women are valued for their beauty and ability to bear children; that women who want identity or power can get it only by marrying and bearing children; that land, money, and political voice (real power) belong to men; that women who want these are outcasts.
Miranda's problem is that while she has come to recognize that these practices and beliefs are inherently unjust, they are also part of her cultural imperative. She internalizes the moral "rightness" of these things even as she rejects them. This results in enormous conflict for her. Choosing her culture's values, she is biologically trapped; choosing her self, she must reject everything she has been without knowing what she might be. Being unable--or refusing--to choose results in the emotional paralysis of characters like Laura in "Flowering Judas."
Perhaps most important in approaching a study of Porter are several caveats. Readers must, first of all, be wary of false biographical accounts, and the tendency of reviewers and critics to confuse Porter's fiction with those false accounts. For specific facts, one can consult Joan Givner's Katherine Anne Porter: A Life (New York, rev. ed., 1991), which carefully tracks a monumental amount of detail to clarify names, dates, and events. It is a diligent compilation of research, but a book that fails to find the personality that charmed lovers, friends, and audiences to the last days of Porter's life. Thomas F. Walsh's Katherine Anne Porter and Mexico: The Illusion of Eden (University of Texas Press, 1992) is a thoroughly researched and insightful discussion that sheds light on both Porter's biography and work.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
"I shall try to tell the truth," she said in "My First Speech," (Collected Essays, p. 433), "but the result will be fiction." Porter felt that we really understand very little of what happens to us in the present moment, but by remembering, comparing, and waiting for the consequences, we can begin to understand the meaning of certain events. For her, that process of remembering and comparing takes place as she writes. It is a process clearly recorded in "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall," "The Grave," and "Old Mortality."
Fiction is made, she said, first of legend: those things told to her or read when she was a child. It is also made of memory: her childhood emotional experiences of certain events, as well as present memory; the adult's memory of what happened and explanation to herself of what that meant to the child. This confusion of experiences that took place in and over time is difficult to understand, but humanly true. Each person is a mesh of his or her "child," and what they understand themselves to be in the present, which may be illusory, deluded, or "true" by someone else's objective observation.
It is out of this understanding that Porter creates richly layered characters, events, and conflicts. Characters are who they were, who they are, who they think they were and are, as well as who they are going to be --given what happens to them in the story and their capacity to deal with that conflict. It is no wonder that Porter's stories have tremendous impact while being incredibly hard to decipher.
Porter is a master of the twentieth-century short story; it was her métier--so much so that she found it all but impossible to write Ship of Fools.
These stories are universal and timeless; however, the diversity of Katherine Anne Porter's experience and stories offers a wealth of teaching approaches. Her stories range from the regional focus of nineteenth-century Texas ("The Grave," "Old Mortality," and others) to the urban sophistication of twentieth-century New York and Mexico ("Theft," "That Tree," "Hacienda") and even to horrible visions of an inverted brave new world, where every man is for himself; moral standards do not exist; and the waste land is realized in loveless sex and human isolation.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Thematically, the bildungsroman experiences and the loss of innocence recorded in "The Grave" and other stories in "The Old Order" invite comparison with Hemingway's Nick Adams stories, just as do "Pale Horse, Pale Rider" and A Farewell to Arms. Like Faulkner, Porter has the historic memory of the southern temper, but it is a more feminine and particular vision, arising from a heightened social awareness that makes her sensitive to social mores, moral values, and the individual strengths that allow a person to survive.
To best understand Porter, one can do no better than to thoroughly read her essays, particularly "Portrait: Old South"; "Noon Wine: The Sources"; the "Introduction to Flowering Judas "; and "Three Statements About Writing."
The most comprehensive bibliography is Kathryn Hilt and Ruth M. Alvarez, Katherine Anne Porter: An Annotated Bibliography (Garland: New York, 1990).
One of the best secondary sources, Lodwick Hartley and George Core's Katherine Anne Porter: A Critical Collection, is out of print, but available in library collections.
Robert Penn Warren's Katherine Anne Porter for the Twentieth Century Views series (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1979) also contains some of the seminal critical essays on Porter and essays that represent the critical controversy over Ship of Fools.
The newest collection of this kind is Harold Bloom's Modern Critical Views: Katherine Anne Porter (New Haven: Yale, 1987).
Thomas F. Walsh's Katherine Anne Porter and Mexico: An Illusion of Eden, already mentioned, provides interesting perspective on how Porter's experience with her "familiar country" reflected her psychology and informed her art. Janis P. Stout'sKatherine Anne Porter: A Sense of the Times (University of Virginia Press, 1995) is a thoughtful intellectual biography that views Porter's "interests and contradictions" as a model of modernism itself, a "window on the pivotal social and intellectual movements within her century." Good articles may be also be found in Virginia Spencer Carr, ed., "Flowering Judas": A Casebook (Rutgers University Press, 1993).
Expanded comment on the ideas in this article are in Jane DeMouy's Katherine Anne Porter's Women: The Eye of Her Fiction (Austin: Texas University Press, 1983); and those interested in the role of southern women will want to look at Anne Firor Scott's The Southern Lady: From Pedestal to Politics, 1830-1930, 1970.
In addition, a fine overview of Porter, including interviews with her contemporaries Robert Penn Warren and Eudora Welty, as well as dramatization of parts of "The Grave" and "The Circus," is available in the one-hour PBS program, "Katherine Anne Porter: The Eye of Memory," American Masterworks Series, produced by Lumiere Productions, New York, 1986.