Katherine Anne Porter Biography

Katherine Anne Porter did it all. She worked as a critic, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, a singer, an actress, and a writer. She built an impressive literary career despite relatively humble beginnings. Having completed only grammar school, she sought out the majority of her education independently. Through numerous marriages, divorces, and other personal crises, Porter established herself as a serious author whose works celebrated the perspective of women while illuminating more general issues of humanity and relationships.

An often-quoted and outspoken figure, Porter became more conservative in her later years but never stopped challenging readers. Though she is best known for the novel Ship of Fools, it was her short story collection, The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter, that won her the Pulitzer Prize in 1966.

Facts and Trivia

  • Porter, whose father’s middle name was Boone, claimed to be a descendant of historical figure Daniel Boone, yet no evidence has ever been found to support that claim.
  • Her father was also related to the writer, O. Henry.
  • Porter was born Callie Russell Porter. She changed her name in part to escape from her physically abusive first husband.
  • Rumors continue to circle about Porter’s thwarted desire to have a child. Suggestions of miscarriages, stillbirths, hysterectomies, and infertility have been put forth, but no single theory can be corroborated by Porter’s personal writings.
  • Porter’s one and only novel, Ship of Fools, was a huge success and was turned into an Oscar-nominated film in 1965.
  • Porter was not always in strong physical health, though she lived to be 90. She was diagnosed with tuberculosis, though she really had bronchitis, and spent two years in sanatoria. She also nearly died during the 1918 flu pandemic
  • Porter frequently stated that she often set out to write strictly autobiographical material, but her creative instincts for storytelling always took her down different roads.

Biography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2863

Article abstract: An important modernist writer, Porter was a fiercely independent and exacting artist whose life and work influenced many writers who followed her.

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Early Life

During Katherine Anne Porter’s unhappy early life, she received little encouragement to become a creative writer, yet her very misery may have spurred this sensitive and strong-willed young girl to greatness. Born Callie Russell Porter in a log cabin on the Texas frontier, she lost her mother, Mary Alice Jones Porter, when she was only two and struggled through poverty and the humiliation of being a motherless child. Her father, Harrison Boone Porter, seems to have lost his will to provide for himself and his family after his wife’s death. Thus, the burden of raising Porter, her brother, and two sisters fell to her father’s mother, Catherine Anne Porter, otherwise known as Aunt Cat, who had reared nine children of her own.

Moved to her grandmother’s house in Kyle, Texas, Porter was sensitive to the crowded conditions and the fact that neighbors regarded her and her siblings as charity cases. Her biographer, Joan Givner, believes that her father’s neglect left Porter with a yearning for affection from men that eventually led to four marriages and innumerable affairs, often with men whose circumstances almost guaranteed instability. Her grandmother’s strength of character, however, was a lifelong influence, and Porter eventually adopted her name, with a slight spelling difference, perhaps in an effort to internalize that strength. In later years, when asked about her early life, Porter frequently suppressed painful details and transformed them into more palatable ones. She was furious when researchers discovered her original name. Instead of dirt-poor Callie Russell Porter, she wished to be remembered as Katherine Anne, descendant of a long line of southern aristocrats.

Aunt Cat’s death when Porter was eleven deprived her of her only source of stability. After they had lived for a time with Porter’s aunt Ellen on a farm near Buda, Texas, which was probably the setting for the short novel “Noon Wine,” Porter’s father moved the family to San Antonio, where she attended the Thomas School, a private institution that introduced her to drama. Her marriage at age fifteen to John Henry Koontz was partially motivated by a desire to escape from the poverty and unhappiness of her home life. Although she later termed the marriage “preposterous,” it lasted nine years, longer than any of her subsequent ones. After she divorced Koontz, she felt liberated from marital restrictions, much as her autobiographical protagonist Miranda Gay felt in “Old Mortality,” one of her fine short novels:

She would have no more bonds that smothered her in love and hatred. She knew now why she had run away to marriage, and she knew that she was going to run away from marriage, and she was not going to stay in any place, with anyone, that threatened to forbid her making her own discoveries, that said “No” to her.

After a failed attempt to earn a living as an actress in Chicago in 1914, she eventually moved to Dallas seeking office work. There she contracted tuberculosis. In the hospital, she befriended Kitty Barry Crawford, one of the first newspaperwomen in Texas. From her she learned of Jane Anderson, Kitty’s college roommate and a war correspondent in Europe. Jane’s and Kitty’s examples suggested journalism as a career. Consequently, after leaving the sanatorium in 1917, Porter worked for the Fort Worth Critic as a society columnist and theater reviewer. When Jane and Kitty moved to Colorado, she went there too and eventually got a job on the Denver Rocky Mountain News. In 1918, just two years after her bout with tuberculosis, she was victimized by an influenza epidemic that was sweeping the country. Hospitalized with a temperature of 105 degrees for nine days and with death imminent, she was saved by an experimental dosage of strychnine. The near-death experience caused by the strychnine would eventually be immortalized in the excellent short novel “Pale Horse, Pale Rider.” She herself regarded the incident as an important dividing line in her life, after which she devoted herself more purposefully to her writing career.

Life’s Work

In 1919, Katherine Anne Porter moved to New York’s Greenwich Village, where she was surrounded by artists like herself who were committed to their work. She found work with a magazine promoting Mexico and was soon asked to visit that country as part of her assignment. This began a long relationship with Mexico that influenced several of her works, including her first important story, “Maria Concepcion” (1922). This character study of a strong Indian woman, who is generous despite being oppressed and who is wronged but does something about it, earned her $600 from Century magazine and launched Porter’s fiction writing career.

She had numerous affairs in New York and Mexico, and in 1926 she was married to Ernest Stock, an Englishman. The marriage lasted only a short time. In 1928, in an episode that was characteristic of her behavior of plunging into love with a man very soon after a breakup with another, she met and had an affair with Matthew Josephson, who was married. Porter was impressed by the fact that his first interest was in her writing: “From a man I surely never had that before.” A writer himself, Josephson provided Porter with encouragement and literary guidance that helped her develop confidence in her work.

She began a biography, “The Devil and Cotton Mather,” on which she worked periodically for the rest of her life but which she never completed. She was drawn to the subject because of her interest in the phenomenon of mass hysteria as manifested in the revival meetings of her youth, Adolf Hitler’s Germany, and Mather’s Puritan New England during the witch trials. Another manifestation of mass hysteria and social injustice that attracted her passionate interest was the case of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Italian immigrants who had been accused of murder. Porter and others believed that the two men were condemned because of their anarchist political beliefs rather than on the basis of legitimate evidence. On the night of their execution in 1927, she took part in a group vigil outside the prison. It would take her many years, but she would eventually publish her account of that event in The Never-Ending Wrong (1977).

Porter was exacting in her craft and uncompromising in her artistic vision. She would forgo the large sums of money paid by commercial magazines in order to prevent her works being edited for mass consumption. Thus, many of her finest works were published in “little magazines”; that is, small-circulation journals specializing in experimental writing that would not appeal to the general public. In the company of some of the finest writers of 1920’s and 1930’s America, Porter published “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” and “Magic” in Transition; “Theft” in Gyroscope; “Flowering Judas” in Hound and Horn; “Circus,” “Old Mortality,” and “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” in Southern Review; and “The Grave,” “That Tree,” “Two Plantation Portraits,” and “Hacienda” in Virginia Quarterly. Most of the books published by Porter consist of collections of these scattered stories. Flowering Judas, and Other Stories (1930) was published in a limited edition by Harcourt, Brace, then expanded and reissued four years later. Three short novels—“Old Mortality,” “Noon Wine,” and “Pale Horse, Pale Rider”—were published under the title Pale Horse, Pale Rider: Three Short Novels (1939), and another volume appeared under the title The Leaning Tower, and Other Stories (1944).

Although her stories featured many themes, one of the major ones was her view that the dark side of human life was an important part of reality even though many of her characters attempted to evade it. She had an interest in evil characters, but she seemed to be more fascinated by the innocent bystander who effectively collaborates with evil by allowing it to perpetuate itself. She attributed the successes of Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Joseph McCarthy, and Huey Long to the tacit consent of bystanders who had the moral sense to know that these men were wrong. Both “Theft” and “Flowering Judas” exhibit this theme. To complicate matters, as often as not, the evil person is on the “right” side of a particular cause. Her Homer T. Hatch of “Noon Wine,” for example, is evil in spite of the ostensible justice of his attempt to reincarcerate a man convicted of criminal conduct; likewise, the men who visit Miranda in “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” to ask why she has not bought liberty bonds are ostensibly working for a good cause, the U.S. war effort, but are clearly portrayed as the basest form of humanity. Porter was convinced that evil, because it was innate in humans, manifested itself everywhere, even in the best of causes or institutions.

Returning to Mexico in 1930 for her health, she met Eugene Dove Pressly, a dozen years her junior, to whom she was eventually married in Paris in 1933. Long wanting to go to Europe, she sailed with him for Germany in 1931. This trip and the diversity of persons aboard the ship provided much of the inspiration for Ship of Fools (1962), which would take another thirty years to complete. Her only full-length novel, it attempted to expose the flaws in Western society that had led to two world wars within three decades. Porter was deeply influenced by her visit to 1930’s Germany, for during this period Hitler’s rise to power had begun. Her impressions of the weakness at the base of Germany’s empire-building are recorded in “The Leaning Tower.”

Porter loved and needed men, but she was never able to maintain a long-term relationship. According to Givner, she sought two attributes in men: They had to be willing to take care of her and they had to be interested in her work. Whereas Matthew Josephson had satisfied the second but not the first of these criteria, Eugene Pressly satisfied the first but not the second. After several years in Europe, she separated from him. Returning to the United States in 1936, she visited with her father in Indian Creek. As was her pattern, soon after deciding to divorce Pressly, she fell in love with another man, Albert Erskine. A graduate student at Louisiana State University, business manager of the Southern Review, and young enough to be her son, he was a friend of her good friends, the writers Allen Tate and Caroline Gordon. After their marriage in 1938, Erskine was horrified to discover that she was nearly fifty years old, while he was in his mid-twenties. She left him just two years later.

Porter had many female friends. From Kitty Barry Crawford and Jane Anderson, early role models, to several younger women who looked up to her, she formed friendships with women who were as committed to their work as she was to hers. Among the most famous of these women were the writers Caroline Gordon, Josephine Herbst, and Eudora Welty. She firmly rejected the advances of lesbians such as Carson McCullers, whose behavior repulsed her. As had been the case with her male friends, personality conflicts often led to permanent breaks in her relations with female friends. She condemned Josephine Herbst for being a dupe of the communists, and, according to Herbst’s biographer, even went so far as to denounce her former friend to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

Although she leaned toward the Left, Porter rejected involvement with the Communist Party because she did not want to be made a propagandist and lose her artistic freedom. Furthermore, she believed that evil existed in every political movement, even those with which she sympathized: “the mere adoption of a set of ideas, no matter how good the ideas may be, is [no] cure for the innate flaws of the individual.” This innate depravity “accounts for the comparative failure of all movements towards human improvement.”

Like many artists, Porter struggled to earn enough money to buy the freedom to write what she wanted. In 1940, she spent some time at Yaddo, the writers’ colony in New York, took a salaried job in Washington, D.C., assisting Allen Tate at the Library of Congress in 1944, and even went to Hollywood to be a screenwriter at $1,500 a week in 1945. Financial security, however, came only with the increased recognition she received in her later years. The long-awaited publication of Ship of Fools in 1962, more than any other event, secured her reputation and ended her financial worries.

After the publication of Ship of Fools, Porter increasingly became a public figure. She was a visiting professor at various universities, was awarded several honorary degrees, and was sought after to appear on panels with other literary figures. She even became a guest in the White House of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. She did little new writing in her later years, spending most of her time reaping benefits from past work. At the age of seventy-six, for example, she won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for the Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter (1966).

Her spirit did not abate with old age. In her sixties and seventies she had affairs with younger men. As had been the case in her earlier years, when these relationships did not work out, she became as passionate an adversary as she had been a lover. Even in her seventies and eighties, she hired younger men as personal assistants to keep her literary and legal affairs in order, and she carried on at least platonic love affairs with them. She also remained passionate about her artistic independence. At eighty, she was enraged when her publisher wrote an acknowledgment to several of her friends who, in the publisher’s view, had helped to collect the works in The Collected Essays and Occasional Writings of Katherine Anne Porter (1970). Feeling betrayed, she wrote indignant remarks on copies of this book to the effect that her publisher was impudent for believing that she could not conduct her own affairs and that it was ludicrous to suggest that the men who had been acknowledged were competent to put together a book for her.

A series of strokes paralyzed her writing hand and impaired her speech when she was eighty-seven, and she eventually died in 1980, at ninety years of age. Her body was cremated and buried alongside her mother’s grave in Indian Creek.

Summary

Rising from artistic isolation and an unhappy childhood, Katherine Anne Porter became one of the most conscientious of literary craftsmen. Nearly all of her fictional works, despite their relative brevity, took many years to complete. Finely crafted and intensely focused, her small body of writings has been inspiring to other artists, just as her life story has been. Fiercely independent yet also strongly desiring love and care, she vacillated between her role as artist and southern belle. The conflicts that she experienced regarding gender roles are effectively sublimated into much of her fiction and, along with her interests in other aspects of human nature, create a lasting testament to Porter’s life and imagination.

Bibliography

Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Views: Katherine Anne Porter. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. This is a book of twelve interpretations of Porter’s fiction. It also includes a chronology of her life and a bibliography.

DeMouy, Jane Krause. Katherine Anne Porter’s Women: The Eye of Her Fiction. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983. An analysis of feminine psychology in the fiction, particularly the protagonists’ conflicting desires for the security of a traditional female role and for the freedom from convention necessary to be an artist.

Givner, Joan. Katherine Anne Porter: A Life. Rev. ed. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1991. The most thorough account of Porter’s personal and professional life, this excellent biography often dispels myths propagated by Porter herself.

Givner, Joan, ed. Katherine Anne Porter: Conversations. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1987. Porter sometimes fictionalized her life story. This collection of interviews with the author provides her view of her life and art.

Hendrick, Willene, and George Hendrick. Katherine Anne Porter. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1988. An overview of Porter’s life and work, this carefully researched book provides a chronology of important dates, a bibliography of works by and about her, and chapters of her life and major works. A good place to begin study.

Porter, Katherine Anne. The Collected Essays and Occasional Writings of Katherine Anne Porter. New York: Delacorte, 1970. Reprint. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990. According to Porter, these essays were the opposite of her fiction in that they were limited by time, space, and subject requirements. They range from the personal and biographical to criticism of other writers’ works.

Unrue, Darlene Harbour. Truth and Vision in Katherine Anne Porter’s Fiction. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985. An interpretation of Porter’s fiction that stresses her exploration of the dark side of life and humankind’s vain effort to evade it.

Warren, Robert Penn, ed. Katherine Anne Porter: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1979. These essays on Porter’s work include contributions from some of the most influential interpreters of twentieth century writing: Warren, Cleanth Brooks, Eudora Welty, V. S. Pritchett, Edmund Wilson, and Mark Schorer, among others.

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