One of the chief obstacles facing a biographer of Katherine Anne Porter is separating fact from fiction. Porter had a lifelong tendency to romanticize, to fantasize, to transfer experiences or circumstances of other people to herself, to mislead, to falsify, and sometimes even to lie outright. Perhaps, as the years passed, she may have forgotten what was the truth about many events in her earlier life.
Joan Givner, Porter’s chosen biographer, remarks, “She edited the story of her life as she might have shaped one of her short stories.” She became angry when critics erred about “facts” and even more so when she was confronted with the actual record which proved her own distortion. Yet, astonishingly, says Givner, Porter was eager to “achieve immortality by having the story of her life told,” and she carefully preserved many of the materials that her future biographer would need.
Givner’s portrait of Porter includes blemishes that might have infuriated the living subject. However, Givner has balanced objectively Porter’s charm with her faults, her genius with her pettiness, and her accomplishments with her failures in this story of the long life of one of America’s most gifted writers of fiction. Although Givner devotes some critical attention to Porter’s writings, the emphasis is properly on the character and the life. Since the life contributed so much to the writings, though, Givner frequently cites and discusses characters, places, and incidents that were transformed or transmuted from reality to fiction.
Porter was born in Indian Creek, Texas, in 1890 (not 1894, the year given in many reference books). She shed her given names, Callie Russell, which she disliked, and appropriated, with a slight spelling change, the given names of her beloved grandmother, Catherine Anne Skaggs Porter. The new names she considered better suited to a daughter of the aristocratic Southern family she created to replace the undistinguished one to which she actually belonged. Having lost her mother at two, she was cared for by her grandmother until she too died seven years later. This double loss so early in life had a profound and lasting effect: Porter frequently believed, whether with justification or not, that she had been abandoned or rejected by people she had trusted or on whom she had depended.
At sixteen, to escape from her difficult father, she married the first of her four husbands, John Henry Koontz, whose name she would refuse to reveal in later life. They were temperamentally unsuited to each other, and the marriage ended after nine years, including two of separation. Porter said the marriage was never consummated, but Givner disbelieves this. Miranda, Porter’s alter ego in “Old Mortality,” one of her Texas stories, asserts her independence in the same way that Porter did, by leaving her husband and striking out on her own.
Dreaming of motion-picture stardom, Porter headed for Chicago at the age of twenty-three and did a little acting but soon returned, disillusioned, to Texas. Yet, says Givner, there was a long-term benefit from the experience, since Porter developed the “ability to dramatize the psychological, internal action of her stories” and learned to read dramatically.
Before beginning to write for a Fort Worth newspaper, Porter was treated for tuberculosis in a Dallas sanatorium and at another in West Texas. Later in life, she developed frequent bronchial troubles, which were further aggravated by her smoking. A near brush with death came in Denver when she was struck down by influenza during the epidemic of 1918. This experience led her, years later, to write her remarkable short novel Pale Horse, Pale Rider: Three Short Novels (1939), in which Adam, the soldier friend who has helped the frail Miranda survive the disease, dies of it himself. Typically, Porter gave on different occasions several versions of the “facts” on which she had based this story.
Unhappy with her writing for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and wishing to get away from Parke French, to whom she had become engaged, Porter moved east. She settled in the Bohemian atmosphere of New York’s Greenwich Village, and soon became acquainted with a number of writers and artists there. When she received an offer to write for the Magazine of Mexico, she moved to Mexico City. Here and in the surrounding countryside, she found the inspiration for such later stories as “Maria Concepción,” “Hacienda,” and...
(The entire section is 1850 words.)