Katherine Anne Porter
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 symbolic “Flowering Judas.”
In childhood, Porter suffered from a short attention span, and for much of her mature life she was easily distracted from her writing by her love of entertaining and socializing. The poet Marianne Moore called her the world’s worst procrastinator. Givner suggests that Porter’s delays and evasions relative to her work were also the result of an “uneasy balance between confidence and self-doubt.” Certainly, Porter was late developing as an author. She was thirty-two when she published what she referred to as her first story, “Maria Concepción.” There had been several earlier children’s stories, but she chose to forget these. At her death, she left as her contribution to literature one collection of short stories (including several short novels), one long novel, and a collection of essays and occasional writings. The total is small for an important author who lived to be ninety years old.
Distractions from Porter’s writing also included her four marriages, which brought her much quarreling and misery, and a series of love affairs extending even into her old age. She once told the critic Malcolm Cowley that she had had four husbands and thirty-seven lovers. One should allow for the characteristic exaggeration, but Givner names a dozen of the lovers, who included artists and writers, as well as less-notable men. The theme of rejection, which appears so often in Porter’s fiction, relates closely to her own experience, since she felt herself rejected by her lovers. Yet there seems at times to have been a perversity in Porter’s nature. Though a highly intelligent woman, she was impulsive, and she plunged into situations or involvements that were almost certain to bring her pain. She was pretty, vivacious, and an entertaining talker, but when drinking, she could become noisily quarrelsome. Narcissistic, she desired masculine adoration, but there were limits to her lovers’ capacity for devotion. Though she thought she might have been happy married to one of her lovers, who already had a wife, the probability is that she could never have achieved a long, happy marriage with anyone.
For several years, Porter engaged in varied activities or projects in Mexico and the United States, mingling with Mexican revolutionaries, with expatriate Americans, and with New York Bohemians. She earned pesos in Mexico by teaching and translating, and she earned dollars in New York by ghostwriting and reviewing books. During the Sacco-Vanzetti troubles in Boston, she was jailed briefly on several occasions for picketing. Among the friends she made in New York were the writers Caroline Gordon and her husband, Allen Tate. Through them, she was introduced to several members of the Fugitive Group, who were prominent in the Southern literary renaissance of the 1930’s. Porter came to appreciate the value of using her own Southern experience in developing her art, and several of the best stories she later wrote used Texas locales, incidents, and characters drawn from her past.
Attracted to the life and character of the fanatic Puritan minister Cotton Mather, Porter planned to write his biography, and she moved to Salem, Massachusetts, for several months to gather material. Suffering from one of her many periods of ill-health, though, she next sailed for Bermuda, where she remained for five months to recuperate and to continue work on the Mather book. Blocked in this project (which she never completed), she returned to Mexico to work on a novel which she tentatively called “Thieves’ Market.” It was never published, but excerpts from it appeared as the Mexican stories in Flowering Judas and Other Stories (1930).
In Mexico, as so often in Porter’s life, the temptations of socializing seriously interfered with her writing. Also, she fell in love with Eugene Dove Pressly, Jr., whom she would marry three years later. An award of a two-thousand-dollar Guggenheim fellowship offered her the opportunity to escape a welter of unpleasant complications in Mexico and to make a long-desired trip to Europe. Pressly accompanied her as they set sail in 1931 for France on the German ship S. S. Werra (which would become the Vera of her novel, Ship of Fools, 1962, still many years away from publication; she and Pressly would become Jenny Brown and David Scott in the novel). They were not permitted to land in France; they debarked at Bremen and went on to Berlin.
Irritation, anger, and malicious accusations against various persons marked Porter’s unhappy months in Germany. From this point on in the biography, Porter’s travels or moves from one country or one city to another become so numerous that one wonders how a woman subject so often to spells of ill-health managed to survive to old age: Paris, Madrid, Paris, Basle, Paris, New York, Texas, Paris, Washington, Pennsylvania, New Orleans, Saratoga Springs, California, Georgetown—Porter was always on the move.
With the publication of Pale Horse, Pale Rider: Three Short Novels, Porter began to receive increasing attention and praise from critics. Her writing was not of the sort to attract a large following, though, and in order to increase her income, she began to accept speaking and reading engagements on college and university campuses. A lucrative offer from a Hollywood motion picture studio led to nearly four years of life in California, though less than one year was spent as a screenwriter. Admittedly prodigal in nature, she squandered much of the movie money after paying off her accumulated debts.
Ship of Fools was finally published in 1962 after more than twenty years of delays. Though it had a mixed critical reception, it immediately became a best-seller and was sold for $400,000 to United Artists for filming. Porter, then seventy-two, was freed finally of the burden of supplementing her writer’s income through university teaching and speaking and anticipated a “new life of peace and ease” in her remaining years. For a time, however, she was besieged by a multitude of writers, publishers, autograph-seekers, columnists, and photographers. Her novelist friend Glenway Wescott gave her sound financial advice, but she spent twenty thousand dollars for a diamond-set emerald ring and set out on a trip to Europe with her niece Anna. She later bought a large Maryland home and hired a secretary and three servants. Porter in her last years declined to senility, became increasingly paranoid, and was put into a nursing home, where she died in her ninety-first year. She was buried in Texas, next to her mother’s grave, in a wooden coffin which she had ordered by mail several years earlier and had kept standing in a closet, reserved for future use.
Givner’s well-written biography is a fine memorial to an author whose stories such as “The Circus,” “The Grave,” “Noon Wine,” and “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” are classics of modern fiction.
America. CXLVIII, February 19, 1983.
The Atlantic. CCL, December, 1982, p. 105.
Library Journal. CVII, November 15, 1982, p. 2177.
Ms. XI, November, 1982, p. 32.
National Review. XXXIV, December 10, 1982, p. 1559.
The New Republic. CLXXXVII, November 22, 1982, p. 30.
New York Review of Books. XXIX, January 20, 1983, p. 13.
The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, November 7, 1982, p. 3.
Time. CXX, December 6, 1982, p. 92.