Katherine Anne Porter Essay - Porter, Katherine Anne (Vol. 10)

Porter, Katherine Anne (Vol. 10)


Porter, Katherine Anne 1890–

An American short story writer, essayist, and novelist, Porter is considered a technical master of the short story. The recipient of a Pulitzer Prize, Porter instills her work with profound irony, and her thematic considerations revolve around the workings of the heart and emotions, the difference between appearance and reality, and the consequences of self-deception. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

M. Wynn Thomas

[Katherine Anne Porter's] sense of what makes for an ending is similar to that found in Aristotle's definition of Greek tragedy; and that was an analogy that she was proudly conscious of, as she remarked. "Any true work of art has got to give you the feeling of reconciliation—what the Greeks would call catharsis, the purification of your mind and imagination—through an ending that is endurable because it is right and true. Oh, not in any pawky individual idea of morality or some parochial idea of right and wrong. Sometimes the end is very tragic, because it needs to be."

In terms of the act of writing, this can be put differently and very simply: the story must tell you, "I know where I'm going." And that is where Mr. Helton comes in. "He just clumped down his big square dusty shoes one after the other steadily, like a man following a plow, as if he knew the place well and knew where he was going and what he would find there." That's how Mr. Helton walks into the story "Noon Wine," and into Mr. Thompson's life. The story ends with Mr. Thompson walking out of his own life. As he says at the end of the story, "I still think I done the only thing there was to do" …; and there is no doubt that unless this statement of his made some kind of sense to us Miss Porter would feel that the story had failed. (pp. 230-31)

"Noon Wine," then, is a story which shows us where a man is going and what he finds when he gets there. But this sense of a direction is not something that can be grasped simply: what the story shows is the complex nature of "direction" in human life. To reverse Miss Porter's dictum, if the story creates a sense of order it does so successfully only insofar as it recognizes and respects life's confusion. The direction of a man's life is not the same as the direction a man takes when following a plow, and any writer who mistakes the one direction for the other is liable to clump down his big square dusty shoes one after the other all over his "story." When, after reading the story, we re-read that opening passage which describes the arrival of Mr. Helton, we must not only be struck by the implications of this description, now revealed by our sense of the ending, but must also believe anew in the particularity and incidental quality of the metaphor. The "as if" must genuinely lead us to the way the man walks as well as to the strange sympathies and antipathies in the story that follows.

This palpable sense of a world is vitally important to the story's meaning. What happens is intelligible only in terms of the place where it happens. It is a matter not only of direction (which is one metaphor) but also of texture (a different metaphor). The murder Mr. Thompson commits is as much a matter of the heat as anything else. "Meantime the August heat was almost unbearable, the air so thick you could poke a hole in it. The dust was inches thick on everything."… The word "thick" is just right: it comes to mean more and more from then on in the story. It is the word that describes Mr. Thompson's voice after he has struck Mr. Hatch down…. "Thick" becomes resonant, a word that explores all the bafflement and inarticulateness of the man, his dim sense of a world growing thick around him, until it becomes unbearable…. And yet that is the world which he had always felt as solidly familiar. (pp. 231-32)

The word "thick," in the phrase "thick hands," itself expresses and explains Mr. Thompson's helplessness. The same word used in the description of his Sunday suit makes us feel the solid respectability of the cloth, a respectability so important to the farmer and so stifling a part of his tragedy. Once the language of the story becomes familiar (and this need not involve noticing the repeated use of a word, of course), there seems a particular aptness and poignancy in Mr. Thompson's writing his lonely suicide note with "a stub pencil" and on "a thin pad of scratch paper" taken "from the shelf where the boys kept their schoolbooks."… It is then that he fully realizes and accepts his isolation. (p. 232)

What dominates and guides [Mrs. Thompson's] understanding of what happened is her fear and suspicion of male violence and physicality. And yet what the story, through the shape of its action and the shape of its language, makes clear, is that Mrs. Thompson's bitterness here, her frustration, is of the same order as the bitter indignation and frustration that leads her husband to kill Mr. Hatch. This is quietly brought out …: "Her thoughts stopped with a little soundless explosion, cleared and began again."… It is typical of Mrs. Thompson that her "explosions," compared to those of her husband, should be "little" and "soundless." One of the most distressing things about her husband is that he is big and loud. Mrs. Thompson is more liable to implode than explode…. (p. 234)

The measure of the difference between what the same scene means to Mr. Thompson and to Mrs. Thompson is beautifully and quietly brought out by the language of the two following passages. The first describes the slowly mounting anger that leads to Mr. Thompson's killing Mr. Hatch. "Mr. Thompson sat silent and chewed steadily and stared at a spot on the ground about six feet away and felt a slow muffled resentment climbing from somewhere deep down in him, climbing and spreading all through him."… Though he cannot find what other people would consider proper reasons for this, his sense of how things are is stronger than his sense of how they would look to other people; and in persisting to act according to his feelings he relegates everyone else to the situation of outsiders, lookers-on. When Mrs. Thompson appears, her reaction is also very much in character. "Mrs. Thompson sat down slowly against the side of the house and began to slide forward on her face; she felt as if she were drowning, she couldn't rise to the top somehow."… (pp. 235-36)

It is important that both of these reactions should be in character. Each does what he or she does upon coming to the end of thought, and something else takes over to resolve the matter. "Thought" is, in fact, an important word in the story, and part of the meaning of the story seems to move through its recurrence. It is not by any means the only word of such importance in "Noon Wine"; and of necessity these words pursue no solitary course through the narrative. They are centers of gravity, attracting and concentrating meaning. Or, to put it another way, they quietly intensify the language of the world of the story. Their relationships to each other become vital to the way they mean anything—as "thick" can be said to lead in the direction of the language of the end of the story.

The word "think"...

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Jane Flanders

Like so much American writing—particularly Southern writing—Katherine Anne Porter's stories of the Old South ("The Old Order" series and "Old Mortality") based on her family past in antebellum Kentucky and Texas during the Reconstruction Era offer a statement about the past and its impact on the present. At the same time, these stories provide a way of approaching Porter as a woman writer. Like Faulkner—also writing about the Southern past in the mid-1930's—Porter takes as her subject the artificiality and inhumanity of the Old Order, presenting it from the standpoint of the woman's experience. While Faulkner emphasizes slavery and racial injustice, Porter takes as her subject the rigidly circumscribed experience and sexual repression of the white Southern woman—kept like the blacks in submission and fear by the doctrines, taboos and social realities of a paternalistic culture.

This theme is not restricted to Porter's stories of her native South. The theme of woman's oppression, especially emotional and sexual inhibition, may be found in everything she wrote. A feminist critical stance is a primary element in her view of American society—a view confirmed by her experience as an expatriate living in Mexico during the 1920's. Compared with the vividness of Mexican life, particularly the simplicity and spontaneity of the Mexican Indians, American culture seemed emotionally impoverished, narrowminded and dishonest. The damage to women in such a society appeared even more obvious to her. During this period Porter frequently attacked the "puritanism" of American culture, joining in with other critics of the twenties, and along this line she began a fictional biography of Cotton Mather which portrayed him as a sanctimonious hypocrite whose wife suffered martyrdom under his tyranny—jointly condemning self-serving Puritan piety and male-dominated marriage. (pp. 48-9)

Woman's emotional frustration, sexual repression and subjection to the laws of a man's world constitute a major theme in Katherine Anne Porter's fiction. Female characters, who predominate in her work, are typically damaged by their experience. Family ties, marriage and love are threats to freedom; those women who attempt to escape are usually thwarted; and even those who gain independence achieve it at great cost. For many of Porter's heroines, like those of "Flowering Judas," "Theft," and Pale Horse, Pale Rider, escape takes the form of inner withdrawal from life. Although she has long maintained an enigmatic silence about herself, the insistence with which Porter returns to the themes of female entrapment and resistance, the damage of sexual inhibition and the failure of love in the lives of women, tempts one to speculate about the personal statement embedded in her work. Her autobiographical stories may provide us with some clues.

The stories of the Old South are central to Porter's oeuvre, illuminating the fiction leading up to them and following them. They are unusual in several ways: they are openly autobiographical; though written over the span of a decade, they fall into a pattern, being united around the heroine and called the "Miranda stories" (together with Pale Horse, Pale Rider); they present a wide variety of characters illustrating the kinds of feminine models Porter grew up with, thus providing insight into her ideas about herself and woman's role in society.

These stories make it clear that Porter's childhood experience offered her no acceptable models of womanhood. No "normal," happy young women, no satisfying or fulfilled marriage relationships are described in the Miranda stories. Closely following the author's own life, the stories tell us that Miranda's mother died when she was two, and her father is a shadowy figure. Men are usually weak, or absent characters; Miranda grew up in a matriarchal household dominated by [Sophia Jane] her grandmother, a figure (modeled on Porter's own grandmother who raised her from infancy) who stands in striking contrast to the many trapped and damaged females found throughout Porter's work.

Miranda's grandmother illustrates the only kind of freedom or self-sufficiency a woman could achieve in Porter's childhood world, yet she achieved it only after long obedience to the conventional role of wife and mother, slowly surmounting the limitations of that role, and finally freed from it only by her husband's death. A woman must be alone to be free. (pp. 49-50)

But the alternative roles are no better. Another, very different response to the woman's situation under the Old Order is exhibited by the spirited and flirtatious belle, Miranda's Aunt Amy; but Amy's capricious behavior became self-destructive, and she had died young. Amy had capitulated to the sexual role demanded of her in many ways. But she refused to relinquish her supremacy as a coquette, a sought-after object of male desire. She resisted marriage because it meant giving up her freedom.

Miranda's cousin Eva, a homely spinster, illustrates a third alternative: having failed in the sexual competition of her youth, never having found her "definition" in marriage and maternity, she had compensated by becoming self-supporting as a teacher and campaigner for women's rights. Yet Eva is bitter about her past: independence was thrust upon her because she did not succeed in fulfilling the expected feminine role. Indeed, none of these women fulfills that role—that impossible combination of beauty, charm, chastity and grace which flowers into the capable wife and devoted mother, upholding the moral, religious and cultural standards of the household, while remaining submissive to...

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Joan Givner

[In a speech given to a group of University of Maryland students in 1972, Katherine Anne Porter] said that all her fiction is reportage, it really happened, but she arranges it and it becomes fiction.

Her most ambitious attempt to explain her creative process was made at the invitation of Robert Penn Warren and appeared as "'Noon Wine': The Sources" in Yale Review in 1954. In this essay she related the separate anecdotes which formed the basis of "Noon Wine," saying that the story was "true" in the way that a work of fiction should be true, created out of all the scattered particles of life she was able to absorb and shape into a living new being. (p. 217)

A comparison of the...

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