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for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

Katherine Anne Porter (1890-1980)


American essayist, short story writer, and journalist, whose only novel was Ship of Fools (1962), an allegorical story set on a passenger ship. Before the work was finished, Porter spent twenty years with it. The name of the title came from an old German satire Das Narrenschiff (1494), by Sebastian Brant. Porter is also remembered as one of America's best short-story writers.

"I don't want any promises, I won't have false hopes, I won't be romantic about myself. I can't live in their world any longer, she told herself, listening to the voices back of her. Let them tell their stories to each other. Let them go on explaining how things happened. I don't care. At least I can know the truth about what happens to me, she assured herself silently, making a promise to herself, in her hopefulness, her ignorance." (from 'Old Mortality,' in Pale Horse, Pale Rider, 1939)

Porter started as a communist sympathizer but she became a friend of a Nazi leader; and she was a southerner who led a cosmopolitan life. Porter's literary production can be divided in three stages: her early writings done in Mexico, the rediscovery of her southern identity, and the last period of disillusionment. In her social life Porter's circle of acquaintances included such figures as President Obregon of Mexico, Herman Göring in Berlin, writers Eudora Welty and Allen Tate, and members of the Johnson White House.

Katherine Anne Porter was born Callie Russell Porter in Indian Creek, Texas, but she grew up in Hays County, Texas. Part of her childhood was spent also in Louisiana. She was the fourth child of Harrison Boone Porter and Mary Alice Jones Porter, who died when Katherine Anne was two. Later she blamed her father for the death of her mother, who had given birth to five children in eight years. Porter's father always claimed that he was a descendent of Daniel Boone, the legendary pioneer and explorer.

Porter's paternal grandmother, Catharine Ann Skaggs Porter, who raised Katherine's father, was a stern disciplinarian. However, Catharine's reminiscences of the Civil War and tales of her family's past were Porter's first introduction to the art of storytelling. She died when Porter was eleven, but her strong character provided a model for grandmothers in her stories.

Porter was educated in convent schools though her formal education was rather irregular. In 1904-05 she attended the Thomas School in San Antonio. At the age of sixteen she ran away from a New Orleans convent and married the first of her four husbands, John Koontz, the son of a wealthy Texas ranger. His parents were not pleased by their union. This marriage lasted nine years; religion was the first of many differences. Porter converted to Roman Catholicism, her husband's faith. Moreover, Koontz was not interested in literature or other arts and he was violent when drunk. In 1914 she fled to Chicago where she worked briefly as a movie extra before contracting tuberculosis. During her recovery Porter decided to became a writer. 

In the late 1910s, she earned her living as a reporter for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, Colorado. There Porter caught the so-called "Spanish flu" and nearly died from it. When she left the county hospital she was bald and weak and crippled from phlebitis in her left leg. To hide her baldness Porter wore turbans and hoods at the News. Her black hair grew back silver. For her 1920 passport photograph Porter dyed her hair henna black. Porter's near-death experience changed her forever: "It just simply divided my life, cut across it like that. So that everything before that was just getting ready, and after that I was in some strange way altered, ready." ('Enameled Lady: How Katherine Anne Porter Perfected Herself' by Hilton Als, The New Yorker, April 13, 2009)

After divorcing Koontz, Porter married and divorced T. Otto Taskett. Porter's marriage to Ernest Stock, an English interior decorator and painter, was short-lived and he left her with gonorrhea. Porter underwent surgery for removal of both ovaries in 1926. At the end of her life, Porter said that after her first marriage, she was "frigid as a cucumber." ('Katherine Anne Porter' by Wendy Martin, in Modern American Women Writers, edited by Elaine Showalter, Lea Baechler, and A. Walton Litz, 1993, p. 288) From 1933 to 1938 her husband was Eugene Dove Pressly, who worked in the Foreign Service. They had first met in Mexico City in 1930. Most of her friends disliked him. Pressly became the model for the character of David Scott in Ship of Fools. Porter's last husband was Albert Russell Erskine, Jr., a journalist, who was over 20 years her junior; he did not know it because Porter lied of her age. Porter and Erskine divorced in 1942.

While in Mexico, where Porter worked as a journalist and teacher of Indian children in Xochimilco, she became involved in revolutionary politics, but following the assassination of Pancho Villa, she ended her flirtation with propaganda. Mexico, Porter once said, gave her back her Texas past. Her feelings toward the country were ambivalent. Although it stopped being a land of dreams for her, it triggered her creativity. Porter kept calling Mexico "my second home" and "my familiar country."

In 'Xochimilco' (Christian Science Monitor, May 1921), the first of the Edens that appeared in Porter's fiction, she saw Mexico as the promised land, where people live in harmony with the nature. "These Xochimiko Indians are splendid remnant of the Aztec race; they have maintained an almost unbroken independence of passing governments, and live their simple lives in a voluntary detachment from the ruling race of their country." 'The Fiesta of Guadalupe' (El Heraldo, December 13, 1920) portrays Mexico as a place of suffering. The narrator follows tired Indian pilgrims, whose faces are strained with long-borne fatigue, to the basilica of Guadalupe. "It is their ragged hands I see and their wounded hearts that I feel beating under their work-stained clothes like a great volcano under the earth and I think to myself, hopefully, that men do not dream forever." Basically the initial optimism of Porter's Mexican experiences turned into disappointment.

One of Porter's numerous houseguests in Mexico was the poet Hart Crane. He got madly drunk every night, had homosexual affairs with youths, talked constantly of suicide. Porter was waked in the night about twice a week with Crane "bawling like a bull calf at the door for help." Eventually she had enough of him, writing in a letter to her father: "I keep the garden locked so he can't get in, and refuse to see him, because his conduct when he is drunk, and his language, are not pretty, and I mean to snub him formally from this time out.  He takes it very hard, climbs up on my roof and gets into conversation with my cook, but never succeeds in seeing me. (Selected Letters of Katherine Anne Porter: Chronicles of a Modern Woman by Darlene Harbour Unrue, 2012, pp. 84-85) Crane committed suicide in April 1932.

Porter travelled in the late 1920s to Europe, settling in Paris in the early 1930s. She took over the same apartment at 70-bis rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs, where Ezra and Dorothy Pound and the sculptor Janet Scudder had resided a decade earlier. During this period she became friends with the English modernist writer Ford Madox Ford, who showed her famous Paris attractions. Porter also contributed to leftist journals, such as The New Republic and The Nation. Her first published story was 'María Concepción,' which appeared in Century magazine in December 1922. Most of her early stories, published in such magazines as New Masses, transition and Second American Caravan, dealt with her experiences in Mexico.

Porter's first collection of short stories was Flowering Judas. The limited edition of 600 copies appeared in 1930. However, this work established her reputation as a highly original writer and earned her a Guggenheim grant. The collection was enlarged in 1935. According to an anecdote, she always wrote the last line first, claiming that if she didn't know how a story ended, she wouldn't know how to begin it. In the title story, originally printed in Hound and Horn in the spring of 1930, the protagonist is a rootless woman, Laura, an American expatriate in Mexico, who refuses to commit herself to love or ideologies. Laura's model was the journalist Mary Louis Doherty, the author's friend from 1921. Porter occasionally attended with her Winifred Hill's Sunday parties.

Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939) received also widespread critical acclaim. It consisted of three short novels: 'Old Mortality,' 'Noon Wine,' a study of evil, set on a Texas farm circa 1900, and the titlepiece, which tells of a short-lived love affair between a soldier and a young Southern newspaperwoman during the influenza epidemic of World War I. The central character in the stories is Miranda, whose background is roughly parallel to Porter's - she runs away from a convent, and in the last story she is working as a reporter on a western newspaper.

The Learning Tower (1944) consists of six related stories dealing with Miranda and the background of her family. 'The Old Order' gives the most complete picture of Miranda's family - the grandmother was the great-granddaughter of "Kentucky's most famous pioneer" (Daniel Boone). The unnamed narrator is Miranda.

In the 1950s Porter published two volumes of essays, The Days Before (1952) and A Defense Circle (1954). Her Collected Stories (1965) was awarded in 1966 both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Ship of Fools, which came out when Porter was 72, made her famous and secured her financially in her old age. The movie rights were sold to the director and producer Stanley Kramer for hundred thousand dollars.

The novel was set in 1931 aboard a German passenger ship, a kind of a floating purgatory, returning to Germany from Mexico. "The ship was none of those specialized carriers of rare goods, much less an elegant pleasure craft coming down from New York, all fresh paint and interior decoration, bringing crowds of prosperous dressed-up tourists with money in their pockets. No, the Vera was a mixed freighter and passenger ship, very steady and broad-bottomed in her style, walloping from one remote port to another, year in year out, honest, reliable and homely as a German housewife."

The mixed bag of passengers, Germans, Americans, Spaniards, Gypsies, and Mexicans represent a microcosmos of peoples, whose life are characterized by jealousy, cruelty, hatred, love, and duplicity. In the first part the reader becomes acquainted with the various characters. The second part contains the torment of the passengers in steerage, their attempts to love and their struggle for detachment. In part three a bacchanalian fiesta brings out all the hidden fears and guilt. Porter explores the origin of human evil through the allegorical use of characters, who represent various national and moral types. Captain Thiele is the embodiment of Teutonic authority, one passenger is a Basque, a Christ figure, who plunges into the sea to save an aged bulldog but drowns himself. The Oscar winning film version of the novel from 1966 was directed by Stanley Kramer, starring Vivien Leigh.

In the 1970s Porter published The Collected Essays and Occasional Writings (1970) and The Never-Ending Wrong (1977), an account of the infamous Sacco-Vanzetti trial and execution. Porter died in Silver Spring, Maryland on September 18, 1980.

For further reading: Arranging Stories: Framing Social Commentary in Short Story Collections by Southern Women Writers by Heather A. Fox (2022); Southern Hyperboles: Metafigurative Strategies of Narration by Michał Choiński (2020); 'Politics, Rhetoric, and Death in Katherine Anne Porter' by William Solomon, in Modernist Women Writers and American Social Engagement, edited by Jody Cardinal, Deirdre Egan-Ryan, and Julia Lisella (2019); Katherine Anne Porter's Ship of Fools: New Interpretations and Transatlantic Contexts, edited by Thomas Austenfeld (2015); Katherine Anne Porter: The Life of an Artist by Darlene Harbour Unrue (2005); Katherine Anne Porter: Conversations, ed. by Joan Givner (1998); Critical Essays on Katherine Anne Porter, ed by Darlene Harbour Unrue (1997); Katherine Anne Porter by Janis P. Stout (1995); Katherine Anne Porter. Fiction As History by Lakshmi Chandra (1993); Katherine Anne Porter's Artistic Development by Robert H. Brinkmeyer Jr (1993); Katherine Anne Porter and Mexico by Thomas F. Walsh (1992), The Texas Legacy of Katherine Anne Porter by James T.F. Tanner (1991); Katherine Anne Porter and Texas, ed. by Clinton MacHann, William Clark (1990); Katherine Anne Porter: Conversations, ed. by Joan Givner (1987); Katherine Anne Porter: A Life by Joan Givner (1982)

Selected works:

  • Outline of Mexican Popular Arts and Crafts, 1922
  • Flowering Judas, 1930 (enlarged Flowering Judas and Other Stories, 1935)
  • Hacienda, 1934
  • Noon Wine, 1937
  • Pale Horse, Pale Rider, 1939
  • The Leaning Tower and Other Stories, 1944
  • The Old Order, 1944
  • The Days Before, 1952
  • A Defense of Circe , 1955
  • The Old Order: Stories of the South, from Flowering Judas, Pale Horse, Pale Rider, and The Leaning Tower, 1958
  • Holiday, 1962
  • Ship of Fools, 1962
    - Narrilaiva (suom. Kaija Kauppi, 1967)
    - film 1965, dir. by Stanley Kramer, starring Vivien Leigh, Oskar Werner, Simone Signoret, Jose Ferrer, Lee Marvin, George Segal, Jose Greco (Oscar for cinematography)
  • The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter, 1965 (National Book Award; Pulitzer Prize)
  • A Christmas Story, 1967
  • The Collected Essays and Occasional Writings, 1970
  • The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter, 1976 (illustrated by George Jones)
  • The Never-Ending Wrong, 1977
  • The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter, 1980 (illustrated by Kenneth Francis Dewey)  
  • Katherine Anne Porter: Conversations, 1987 (edited by Joan Givner)
  • Letters of Katherine Anne Porter, 1990 (selected and edited and with an introduction by Isabel Bayley)
  • Mae Franking's My Chinese Marriage: An Annotated Edition , 1991 (ghostwritten by Katherine Anne Porter, from Mae Franking's manuscript; edited by Holly Franking ; foreword by Joan Givner)
  • This Strange, Old World and Other Book Reviews, 1991 (edited by Darlene Harbour Unrue)
  • Uncollected Early Prose of Katherine Anne Porter, 1993 (edited by Ruth M. Alvarez and Thomas F. Walsh)
  • Katherine Anne Porter's Poetry, 1996 (edited with an introduction by Darlene Harbour Unrue)
  • Selected Letters of Katherine Anne Porter: Chronicles of a Modern Woman, 2012  (edited by Darlene Harbour Unrue)

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