| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Katherine Anne Porter
Callie Russell Porter was born in Indian Creek,
Texas, to a land-poor family with Virginia and Kentucky roots, who had been
brought low by a series of bad business decisions and the economic aftermath of
the Civil War. When she died ninety years later, in Silver Spring, Maryland,
Katherine Anne Porter had long since assumed her paternal grandmother’s name.
She had abandoned an unhappy marriage and life in Texas for a nomadic existence
that took her to Mexico, New York, Paris, and eventually to Washington, D.C.,
where, as the doyenne of modern American literature, she dined frequently at
the Johnson White House.
on the cusp of the twentieth century, she was also born into the lap of
history. “I am the grandchild of a lost War,” she wrote in “Portrait: Old
South.” If her emotional history began with the Civil War, her personal history
would expose her to several other cataclysmic events of the modern era, all of
which went into her stories. In Colorado, she nearly died of influenza during
the epidemic that struck both the civilian population and the American
Expeditionary Forces preparing to enter World War I to save Europe for
democracy. That experience became “Pale Horse, Pale Rider.” In Mexico, she
“attended...and assisted at” the Obregon Revolution, an experience captured in
the classic “Flowering Judas.” In Berlin, she watched the rise of Hitler and
dined with Hermann Göring. Her sense of pre-Nazi Germany went into “The Leaning
Tower.” Through it all, writing was her way of bringing order out of both
personal and historical chaos.
settling on writing—as a young woman in her twenties—Porter performed as a
singer and movie extra, taught, and worked as a journalist. She won solid
critical notice from the publication of her first slim volume of short stories,
Flowering Judas, in 1930, but her writing brought her no wide public notice (or
sustained income) until her single novel, Ship of Fools, was published in 1962.
catalyst for the stories in that first edition of Flowering Judas was
apparently Porter’s first exposure to a foreign culture: several of the stories
are set in Mexico. Whatever the physical setting, all reflect the personal
conflict she herself was experiencing, and one quite familiar to contemporary
women: a conflicted wish for love and the conventional security belonging to
home and family, and a simultaneous desire for an independent identity and free
assertion of her personal ideals and talents.
the 1930s, while living in Paris (when marriage to her third husband, Eugene
Pressley, offered some financial security), she began to explore her own
psychological roots by creating a fictional southern family, the Gays, whose
youngest daughter, Miranda, is Porter’s principal persona. This focus on the psychologically
important experiences of a young girl growing up in a rigid, southern Victorian
culture produced “The Old Order,” “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” “Noon Wine,” and
“Old Mortality.” These last three major fictions were published under the title
Pale Horse, Pale Rider in 1939.
the twenty years it took to produce Ship of Fools, Porter traveled the lecture
circuit and taught to support herself. Her essays, under the title The Days
Before, were published in 1952. Much anticipated after its long gestation, Ship
of Fools was published to critical hoopla, and movie rights were quickly sold.
In 1965, all of her short fiction, complete with four previously uncollected
stories, was brought out. The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter was
awarded the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1966,
capping Porter’s career. Her non-fiction was expanded and updated in The
Collected Essays and Occasional Writings of Katherine Anne Porter (1970), and
finally, The Never-Ending Wrong, a non-fiction account of Porter’s
participation in the protest against the Sacco-Vanzetti execution, completed
her writings in 1977.
stories are full of historical texture and local color, each comprising a
different setting. This tends to obscure the fact that she writes over and over
about personal freedom, from a particularly feminine perspective. In the minds
of many of her female protagonists there is the wish for a nurturing love and
an equal desire for personal independence and autonomy achieved through
their own talents and perceptions. Porter spoke for generations of women who
experienced physical and psychological limitations because of their sexuality
and their society. Porter’s insight is that the power to give life can,
ironically, also inflict death, not only physically, but psychologically. In
“Old Mortality,” Miranda must sort out the complexities of Amy’s wish to be
free of the biological demands of her female body and, in addition, find her
own truth about what she has been told—not only about the family, but through
those stories, about herself and her femaleness. She must follow that truth,
even though she, like the rest of the family, yearns for the romantic myth.
Porter’s focus on the female conflict between following one’s own nature or
nurturing others leads to stories about the paradoxical relationship between
birth and death; about the loss of innocence that comes with recognizing that
those experiences are interwoven; about the evil of self-delusion and the price
to be paid for personal freedom. To Porter, the biggest sin is the refusal—or
inability—to love, an exercise that in her view inevitably ends in pain, but
which must be engaged if the world is to survive at all.
Jane Krause DeMouy|
University of Nevada–Las Vegas
In the Heath Anthology
The Jilting of Granny Weatherall
The Old Order
Flowering Judas and Other Stories
The Leaning Tower and Other Stories
The Days Before
Ship of Fools
The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter
The Collected Essays and Occasional Writings of Katherine Anne Porter
The Never-Ending Wrong
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Katherine Anne Porter
Biography and selected bibliography.
The Katherine Anne Porter Society
Includes information about membership, newsletters, meetings, and conferences.
The Never-Ending Wrong
An article published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1977.
Robert H. Brinkmeyer, Jr., Katherine Anne Porter's Artistic Development, 1993
Virginia Spencer Carr, ed., "Flowering Judas": A Casebook, 1993
Joyce Krouse DeMouy, Katherine Anne Porter's Women: The Eye of Her Fiction, 1983
Joan Givener, Katherine Anne Porter: A Life (1982; rev. 1991)
Joan Givner, ed., Katherine Anne Porter: Conversations, 1987
John Edward Hardy, Katherine Anne Porter, Katherine Anne Porter, 1973
Willene Hendrick and George Hendrick, Katherine Anne Porter, rev., 1988
Kathryn Hilt and Ruth M. Alvarez, Katherine Anne Porter: An Annotated Bibliography, 1990
M.M. Liberman, Katherine Anne Porter's Fiction, 1971
Enrique Hank Lopez, Conversations with Katherine Anne Porter: Refugee from Indian Creek, 1981
Janis P. Stout, Katherine Anne Porter: A Sense of the Times, 1995
Darlene Harbour Unrue, Truth and Vision in Katherine Anne Porter's Porter's Fiction, 1985
Darlene Harbour Unrue, Understanding Katherine Anne Porter, 1988
Darlene Harbour Unrue, ed., Critical Essays on Katherine Anne Porter, 1997
Thomas F. Walsh, Katherine Anne Porter and Mexico: The Illusion of Eden, 1992