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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

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.

Born 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.

Before 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.

The 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.

During 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.

During 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.

Her 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.

Thus, 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
Darlene Unrue
University of Nevada–Las Vegas

In the Heath Anthology
Flowering Judas (1930)
The Jilting of Granny Weatherall (1930)

Other Works
The Old Order (1939)
Flowering Judas and Other Stories (1940)
The Leaning Tower and Other Stories (1944)
The Days Before (1952)
Ship of Fools (1962)
The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter (1965)
The Collected Essays and Occasional Writings of Katherine Anne Porter (1970)
The Never-Ending Wrong (1977)

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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.

Secondary Sources

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