Katherine Anne Porter

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Katherine Anne Porter American Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Compared to many other successful and renowned writers, Porter published a rather small amount of writing. Among the reasons were that, by her own account, she burned many of her manuscripts and made no attempt to publish anything at all until she was thirty years old. Her fiction comprised twenty-three short stories, four short novels, and one long novel. Perhaps another reason for this rather small amount of published fiction is that Porter had to earn her living in ways other than writing, primarily as a teacher and lecturer.

Her fiction is closely related to her firsthand experiences, thus avoiding generalizations in favor of close observation, deeply felt emotions, and careful craft. Although the work is not obviously autobiographical, it is clearly based on places and people that she knew. Three distinct groups constitute Porter’s fiction: working-class or middle-class families, situations and persons in Mexico or Germany (including a ship voyaging between the two countries), and various relationships explored against a background of the South and the Southwest.

Porter lacks what could be called “vulgar appeal,” but her meticulous devotion to clear, plain writing and her conviction that human life has meaning, even in the chaos of world catastrophe, made her a writer whose themes—love, marriage, other relationships, and alien cultures—appeal to readers who value serious subjects treated seriously and language that is precise and pure.

In a foreword to Flowering Judas, Porter wrote about her craft and asserted her faith in “the voice of the individual artist” and in the unchanging survival of the arts, which, she said, are indestructible because “they represent the substance of faith and the only reality.” It is this conviction and this spirit that informs in some way everything Porter wrote.

With her own credo in mind, Porter’s fiction can be seen to have a meaning that is related to her views of human nature and her ideas about the human spirit. For example, Ship of Fools, her only novel and her most ambitious work, explores the ways that human beings reveal themselves—in all their meanness, self-centeredness, vanity, lust, and greed. In the foreword mentioned above, Porter indicated the connection between her fiction and her effort to “grasp the meaning” of threatened world catastrophe and to “understand the logic of this majestic and terrible failure of the life of man in the Western world.” Her attempts to deal with this large question are found primarily in Ship of Fools, but her faith in the larger human spirit of love, generosity, and tenderness is present only by implication as she exposes without pity that side of human nature which is least admirable, least lovable.

In her shorter fiction as well, Porter presents the same ambiguity. For example, Noon Wine, “Theft,” and “Magic” are only three stories that portray human nature at its worst—weak, dishonest, and cruel. By contrast, the stories set in the familiar world of her girlhood, the seven stories included under the heading “The Old Order” (such as “The Source,” “The Last Leaf,” and “The Grave”), are tender, gently humorous, and poignant evocations of people and situations that were part of Porter’s past. These stories and others portray a view of humanity that is in strong contrast to the harsher realities of Ship of Fools.

A notable quality of the fiction that depicts people in friendly, loving, close relationships, such as Old Mortality, Pale Horse, Pale Rider, and “The Fig Tree,” is that of timelessness. These works are not dated in the way that Ship of Fools is. Thus Porter seems to be asserting the faith that is mentioned in the foreword to Flowering Judas, though the title story seems to belie it.

It is these contradictory elements that make Porter’s work ambiguous, not easy to summarize or categorize. Within individual works, Porter uses counterpoint to underline the ironies of life.

In “Holiday ,” for...

(The entire section is 3,096 words.)