Katherine Anne Porter American Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3096

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...

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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 example, she contrasts the busy, matter-of-fact lives of the Müllers with the lonely, strenuous life of the crippled mute who is a member of the family yet totally ignored by them. Another counterpoint is that of the narrator, a young woman who may well be Miranda, though she is not named. (Several of Porter’s stories have as their main character a girl or young woman named Miranda or someone like her; she is a kind of stand-in for the author.)

Porter’s relatively small body of work encompasses a notable variety of characters, situations, and settings. In itself, that is not a remarkable achievement, but when one also notes the skill with which Porter selects her details, the concentration of effect, the way that the impact of the story is sometimes felt only after one has finished it and put it aside, and perhaps most especially, the transcendent beauty of the style, one understands why Porter’s work is so admired by critics, academicians, other writers, and readers.

“Flowering Judas”

First published: 1930 (collected in Flowering Judas, and Other Stories, 1930)

Type of work: Short story

A young woman works so diligently and selflessly to help Mexican revolutionaries and children that she seems untouched in her secret inner self.

Laura, the principal character in “Flowering Judas,” is a young woman who spends her days teaching English to Mexican Indian children, attending union meetings, and visiting political prisoners, for whom she runs errands and brings messages. Despite all this activity, Laura appears emotionally uninvolved, doing her work, listening to the children and the prisoners, and particularly, listening courteously to the wretched singing almost nightly of Braggioni, a revolutionary leader. Egotistical and cruel, Braggioni appears unaware of Laura’s unspoken revulsion and anger at him.

Laura does feel betrayed by the discrepancy between the way she lives and what she feels life should be. She also feels fear—of Braggioni, who symbolizes her disillusionment, of danger, of death. She is caught between her commitment to her present life and her rejection of her life before she came to Mexico.

Laura has been courted by a young captain in the army, but she rejects him, making her horse shy when the soldier tries to take her in his arms. Another young man has serenaded her as he stood under the blossoms of the Judas tree on her patio, but again she is only disturbed by him; she feels nothing more for him than she does for her pupils, who she realizes are strangers to her.

Wearing a nunlike dress with a lace-edged collar, Laura strives to attain stoicism, drawing strength from a single word which epitomizes her aloofness and fear: no. Using that word as a talisman, she can practice denial, fearlessness, detachment.

Eugenio, the third young man in Laura’s life, is not a suitor; he is a prisoner to whom she brought the narcotics he had requested.

When she tells Braggioni that Eugenio has taken all the tablets at once and has gone into a stupor, Braggioni is unmoved, calling him a fool. He then departs, and Laura senses that he will not return for a while. She realizes that she is free and that she should run, but she does not leave. She goes to bed; in her sleep, Eugenio appears and takes her to “a new country,” which he calls death. He makes her eat of the flowers of the Judas tree, calling her a murderer and cannibal. The sound of her voice crying “No!” awakens her, and she is afraid to go back to sleep.

The theme of betrayal is first suggested by the title of the story, the red blossoms of the Judas tree being a well-known symbol of the betrayal of Jesus Christ by one of his disciples. Laura feels that she has been betrayed by the separation between her past life and her present one. She does not seem to realize fully that she has also betrayed herself by closing herself off from commitment and love. This is an ambiguous story which, like so many of Porter’s stories, places the burden of interpretation upon the reader. Porter offers only subtle hints and clues to what she might mean.

“The Grave”

First published: 1935 (collected in The Leaning Tower, and Other Stories,1944)

Type of work: Short story

Two children hunt rabbits and explore the emptied graves in their family cemetery.

“The Grave” is the final story in a collection titled “The Old Order,” which was included in The Leaning Tower, and Other Stories. The seven stories in the collection are commonly called “the Miranda stories,” as the principal character in each one is named Miranda; she also appears in Old Mortality and Pale Horse, Pale Rider. It is generally thought that Miranda is the author herself at different points in her life.

In “The Grave,” Miranda is nine and her brother, Paul, twelve. While hunting rabbits, they come upon the family cemetery, which has been emptied because the land has been sold. The children explore the pits where the graves had been and discover two small objects: a gold ring and a tiny silver dove. Miranda persuades Paul to give her the ring he has found, and Paul is pleased with the dove, which he guesses was once the screw head for a coffin.

Feeling like trespassers, they then continue to look for small game, and Paul shoots a rabbit. Skinning it, he discovers that the rabbit was pregnant and carefully slits the womb, exposing the tiny creatures within. At first Miranda is filled with wonder (not by chance is she named Miranda), but then she becomes agitated without understanding what it is that disturbs her. Paul cautions her not to tell a living soul what they have seen.

Miranda never does tell their secret, which sinks into her mind, where it lies buried for nearly twenty years. One day, wandering in the market of a foreign city, the episode returns to her consciousness as she looks with horror at a tray of candy in the shapes of small animals and birds. The heat of the day and the market smells remind her of the day that she and her brother found their treasures.

The theme of death and birth is expressed in several ways. The family graves and the body of the dead rabbit are related; perhaps most important, however, is the image of Miranda’s mind as a burial place. For many years, she has not thought of her brother’s face as a child, but it is that sudden recollection of him, smiling, pleased, sober, as he turned “the silver dove over and over in his hands” that wipes out the horror and disgust at the sight of the candied creatures and the long-forgotten feeling of agitation at the sight of the unborn rabbits.

Noon Wine

First published: 1937 (collected in Pale Horse, Pale Rider, 1939)

Type of work: Short novel

An encounter between a poor, shiftless farmer and a stranger seeking a hired man ends in murder.

Noon Wine is the second of a trilogy of short novels, as Porter preferred to call them (instead of novelettes or novellas, as many critics and commentators have insisted on designating those pieces of her fiction that are longer than a short story but shorter than a conventional novel). Noon Wine appeared in book form with Pale Horse, Pale Rider, from which the book took its title, and Old Mortality. In an essay, “’Noon Wine’: The Sources,” published in her Collected Essays in 1970, Porter explained how she shaped a work of fiction out of her memories of disparate incidents, persons, and impressions.

The setting of this short novel is a small farm in south Texas; it begins in 1896 and moves swiftly to 1905. As befits the concentrated form of a short novel, there are only three major characters in Noon Wine: Royal Earl Thompson, a proud and slothful man; Ellie, his weak-eyed, ailing wife; and Olaf Helton, a taciturn Swede from North Dakota, who appears one day in search of a job as a hired hand and who, through untiring industry, transforms the farm from a run-down, subsistence-level operation into a profitable concern.

Helton does not endear himself to the family, however, which includes two small boys, Arthur and Herbert, whose growth over the next nine years marks the passage of time. One day there arrives the last person to take a prominent part in the story, Homer T. Hatch, to whom Thompson takes an immediate dislike even before he has reason to do so. Hatch is seeking Helton, who escaped years ago from a lunatic asylum to which he had been committed after killing his brother for losing one of his harmonicas, the only possessions he seems to have or care about.

Hatch admits that he earns handsome rewards for rounding up escaped lunatics and convicts. In a confused burst of actions by Thompson, Hatch, and Helton, Thompson kills the stranger, believing that he was attacking the hired man. In court, Thompson is exonerated, but he still feels a need to justify his act, and he and his wife go from farm to farm as he tries to explain himself and to understand what happened. Finally, when his two sons turn on him, he realizes that he cannot continue. He writes a short note, and the story ends as he figures out how to work his shotgun with his big toe, the barrel of the gun under his chin.

The story takes its title from a drinking song that the hired man played endlessly on one of his harmonicas. As Hatch explained to Thompson when they heard Helton’s tune, it is about feeling so good in the morning that all the wine intended for the midday break is drunk before noon. It is typical of Porter to choose such a passing reference for her title; the reader may comment on the significance of such a title, but Porter does not. Thus she maintains her impersonal, detached position and forces the reader to confront the story without hindrance or help from the author, except in the matter of a tightly constructed, unembellished tale with an impact that has its source in the tale itself.

Ship of Fools

First published: 1962

Type of work: Novel

On a ship traveling in 1931 from Veracruz, Mexico, to Bremerhaven, Germany, more than thirty passengers of various nationalities reveal themselves as they interact with one another.

Porter derived the title of her only novel, Ship of Fools, from a fifteenth century moral allegory by Sebastian Brant. In her brief introduction, Porter states that she had read a German translation of the work while she still vividly recalled her impressions of her first trip to Europe in 1931. The thirty-odd important characters include men and women of various ages and classes from the United States, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Cuba, Mexico, and Sweden. The novel opens as the passengers embark on August 22, 1931, from Veracruz, Mexico. (Part 1 is titled “Embarkation,” the middle section is named “High Sea,” and the third and final section is “The Harbors.”) The novel ends on September 17, 1931, when the ship, having stopped at several ports to allow all the passengers except the Germans and three Americans to disembark, finally reaches the last port, Bremerhaven, Germany.

The ancient and familiar image of the world as a ship on its journey to eternity provides the framework of the novel. Temporarily isolated from their normal, ordinary lives, the travelers include people of all kinds and conditions as well as the ship’s officers at one end of the ship’s social scale and 876 passengers in steerage at the other end. Thus Porter can examine a large number of her many characters in highly concentrated and revealing detail—their personalities, their principal relationships of varying duration and quality, and, by implication, her own attitudes toward the people she has collected and brought together in association with one another for a brief time.

There is no one protagonist, but two characters are notable for their singularity: Dr. Schumann, the ship’s physician, and La Condesa (the countess), a fallen noblewoman being deported for revolutionary activities from Cuba to exile in Tenerife. Addicted to drugs and adored by a group of six noisy Cuban medical students, La Condesa becomes a patient of Dr. Schumann, who falls despairingly and futilely in love with her. The physician is also suffering from a weak heart and a sense of alienation and depression.

Two American women are especially distinguishable from the crowd because of the apparent sympathy felt for them by the author, a feeling that she does not show for the other characters. The latter are pitilessly exposed in all their unlikable natures and habits, such as the elderly couple who lavish inordinate amounts of attention on their white bulldog, the alcoholic hypochondriac, the lecherous publisher of a ladies’ garment trade magazine, the abusive mother of a sickly little boy, two psychopathic children, and the company of singers and dancers who prey upon the ostensibly respectable passengers.

Instead of a plot in the usual sense, the novel consists of a series of anecdotes or scenes in which the characters appear in groups, usually as a family or a couple, with a few solitary figures. Porter’s skill as a writer of stories is evident; the novel is a collection of scenes that reveal the weaknesses, if not vices, of a large number of repellent people who can only be characterized, because of the way Porter portrays them, as hateful, destructive, and evil.

Porter presents a portrait of humanity that is characterized by a large assortment of follies and sins, unrelieved, for the most part, by any redeeming qualities. The general situation of the book is that of Western civilization heading toward Fascism and on the brink of another world war. Lacking a narrative structure that builds on developing action, conflict, and resolution, the novel instead depends for its interest on the author’s apparent theme of Western civilization’s failure. This theme must be inferred from the unattractive, even despicable characters, not from any direct or clear statement by the author, who tells her tales, as usual, with dramatic intensity, vivid characterization, and plain, direct language.

When Ship of Fools appeared, the large majority of critics were enthusiastic, if not ecstatic, in their praise, but a small percentage found the book dull, repetitive, indiscriminate, and harsh—redeemed by neither humor nor compassion. As the immediate responses to the book were followed by more considered and objective evaluations, it seemed clear that Porter’s reputation as a distinguished woman of American letters would rest on her short fiction, not her novel.

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