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