Katherine Anne Porter Porter, Katherine Anne - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

Katherine Anne Porter 1890–-1980

American short story writer, novelist, essayist, critic, and translator. See also, "Flowering Judas" Criticism.

Porter is widely acknowledged as one of the finest modern authors of short fiction in English. Writing in an unadorned prose style, she endowed her works with vivid, sensitive characterizations and garnered much critical admiration for her arresting blend of imagery, detail, and subtle irony. Her stories often revolve around the relationships and emotions of her characters and explore such concerns as the differences between appearance and reality and the consequences of self-deception.

Biographical Information

Porter was born in Indian Creek, Texas. When she was two years old, her mother died, and the family moved to a farm in Hays County, near Austin, where Porter and her four siblings were reared by their paternal grandmother; this milieu provided the setting and characters for many of her short stories. After her grandmother died in 1901, Porter was sent to several convent schools in Texas and Louisiana, until, at the age of sixteen, she ran away to get married. This marriage ended in divorce, and Porter subsequently moved to Chicago, then to Denver. After a brief, unhappy stint as a ghost writer while living in New York City, Porter traveled to Mexico, where she studied art and became involved in the Obregón Revolution of 1920, a movement to overthrow the regime of President Venustiano Carranza, who had failed to move Mexico toward social reform. The revolutionary program of educational, agrarian, and labor reorganization intrigued Porter and influenced the nature of social commentary in her works.

During the 1920s, Porter's stories appeared in such literary journals as Century Magazine, Hound and Horn, and the Virginia Quarterly Review, and were later collected in Flowering Judas, her first collection of short fiction. The stories won her critical acclaim and a Guggenheim fellowship that allowed her to travel extensively in Europe for many years. In 1933, she settled in Paris. It was there she renewed many literary acquaintances and developed several lifelong friendships and wrote some of her best work, including Old Mortality, “The Witness,” and “The Grave.” In 1936 she returned to America and eventually settled in College Park, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C. She died after a succession of strokes at the age of ninety.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Porter's stories are often praised for their exploration of the human heart and nature of society through the treatment of grim, uncomfortable realities. The stories in Flowering Judas, for example, are united by the theme of betrayal. The title work explores the dilemma of a sheltered young American woman who joins forces with Mexican revolutionaries before learning of the group's cruelty. Her Pale Horse, Pale Rider is comprised of three novellas—Old Mortality, Pale Horse, Pale Rider and Noon Wine—that explore the uneasy correlations between life and death. In her final short story collection The Leaning Tower, Porter contemplates the constant change and growth of human relationships, often using a character's personal experience. The first six of the stories revolve around the character of Miranda, a young girl commonly acknowledged as Porter's fictional counterpart. These tales are largely autobiographical and provide the reader with insight into Porter's structured Southern upbringing.

Critical Reception

Throughout her life, Porter was a perfectionist in her art. She has written that she burned trunkfuls of inferior stories and, as a result, her oeuvre comprises less than thirty works of fiction. Although she received pervasive critical acclaim during her career, she never enjoyed wide readership or financial success until she wrote her novel Ship of Fools. Ironically, critics concluded from the novel that Porter's excellence in short fiction could not be sustained in a longer work. Miranda remains Porter's most popular protagonist, and the Miranda stories have been viewed as attempts by Porter to come to terms with the repressed Southern world of her childhood. Her studies of the foibles of human nature, though often set in the Old South, transcend regionalism and explore such themes as the nature of evil, self-delusion, and the importance of individuality.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Flowering Judas 1930

Hacienda: A Story of Mexico 1934

Noon Wine 1937

Pale Horse, Pale Rider: Three Short Novels 1939

The Leaning Tower and Other Stories 1944

The Old Order: Stories of the South 1955

The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter 1964

The Days Before: Collected Essays and Occasional Writings (nonfiction) 1952

Ship of Fools (novel) 1962

The Collected Essays and Occasional Writings of Katherine Anne Porter (nonfiction) 1970

The Never-Ending Wrong (nonfiction) 1977

Letters of Katherine Anne Porter (letters) 1990

This Strange, Old World and Other Book Reviews (essays) 1991

Uncollected Early Prose of Katherine Anne Porter (essays) 1993

Katherine Anne Porter's Poetry (poetry) 1996

William Troy (review date 1935)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Matter of Quality,” in The Nation, Vol. 141, October 30, 1935, p. 517.

[In the following essay, Troy offers a favorable review of Flowering Judas and Other Stories.]

In the five years that have passed since the almost surreptitious publication of Flowering Judas Miss Porter has apparently written only four stories which she believes worthy of being included in the same collection. With such a record, obviously, this writer can hardly expect to attain to the Titanic company of those recent fictionists who have been busily demonstrating the superiority of matter over mind in literary production. She offers no panoramic survey of modern society, no saga of the American or any other soil, no documentary materials for a study in the elephantiasis of the literary sensibility in our time. She cannot successfully be compared with Balzac, Tolstoy, or Proust—and Rabelais is quite out of the question. Confronted with Miss Porter's 285 widely spaced pages, the most popular of current standards, the standard of quantitative measurement, becomes as ineffectual as a yardstick in an Einsteinian universe. Quality rather than quantity being the only possible issue, criticism is suddenly made aware how little prepared it is for its task.

But it is possible to isolate the essential quality of these stories as an honesty that manages to steer a successful course between the two worst perils of the contemporary prose writer—artificiality and that self-conscious effort at sincerity which is a special kind of artificiality. “A spray of lantern light shot through the...

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Sister M. Joselyn, C.S.B. (essay date 1964)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘The Grave’ as Lyrical Short Story,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 1, No. 1, Fall, 1964, pp. 216–21.

[In the following essay, Joselyn maintains that a reading of Porter's “The Grave” “will serve to illustrate several of the main characteristics of the ‘lyric’ short story.”]

To those who enjoy the short story and are inclined to take it seriously as an art form, it is a constant source of surprise to find that although the genre has been with us for several centuries, there is still a marked dearth of systematic criticism concerning it. Thus, histories of the short story tend to be pedestrian, anthologies reprint and reprint the old...

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Robert L. Perry (essay date 1965)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Porter's ‘Hacienda’ and the Theme of Change,” in Midwest Quarterly, Vol. 6, No. 4, July, 1965, pp. 403–15.

[In the following essay, Perry appraises Porter's story “Hacienda” as a combination of her major thematic concerns, concluding that change is the most important theme in the piece.]

Katherine Anne Porter's “Hacienda” is one of those stories whose meaning is blurred by topicality. This story, as many of its readers know, had its genesis in a series of impressions Miss Porter gathered during an extended visit to the Tetlapayac Hacienda, one of the settings for Que Viva Mexico. This ill-fated masterpiece, directed by the famous...

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George Hendrick (essay date 1965)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “To Tell a Straight Story,” in Katherine Anne Porter, Twayne Publishers, 1965, pp. 83–117.

[In the following essay from his full-length study of Porter's work, Hendrick classifies Porter's short fiction into four main categories based on common thematic concerns, stylistic techniques, and settings.]

The stories which follow are divided into four sections. The stories in the first group have a Southern or Southwestern setting, and many have recognizable autobiographic details. “He” and Noon Wine have the familiar Southern setting but are concerned with poor whites instead of the aristocratic Rheas. “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” seems to...

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Howard Baker (essay date 1968)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Upward Path: Notes on the Work of Katherine Anne Porter,” in The Southern Review, Vol. 4, January, 1968, pp. 1–19.

[In the following essay, Baker places Porter's short fiction within a literary context and traces the influence of her time in Mexico on her life and her fiction.]


“The Downward Path to Wisdom” is the title of one of Katherine Anne Porter's most characteristic short stories.1 In it a boy, still almost a baby, comes into an elementary consciousness of himself and the world. He begins to realize that he is a thing apart from other things, something named Stephen; as for the world, he recapitulates...

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Leon Gottfried (essay date 1969)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Death's Other Kingdom: Dantesque and Theological Symbolism in ‘Flowering Judas,’” in Flowering Judas, edited by Virginia Spencer Carr, Rutgers University Press, 1993, pp. 99–120.

[In the following essay, which was originally published in PMLA in 1969, Gottfried examines Porter's use of religious imagery and language in “Flowering Judas.”]


I have a great deal of religious symbolism in my stories because I have a very deep sense of religion and also I have a religious training. And I suppose you don't invent symbolism. You don't say, “I'm going to have the flowering judas tree stand for...

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Elmo Howell (essay date 1972)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Southern Myth: A Note on ‘Noon Wine,’” in Louisiana Studies, Vol. 11, No. 3, Fall, 1972, pp. 252–59.

[In the following essay, Howell evaluates Porter as a Southern writer.]

Although the body of Katherine Anne Porter's work has little regional implication and though Miss Porter has spent most of her adult life away from her native Texas, she has always acknowledged the importance of the regional in art and expressed satisfaction in her own provincial origin. In 1965, in an article in Harper's she declared the writers of the South and West are at the center of the American literary tradition—not those from the Eastern seaboard, who pour from...

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Constance Rooke and Bruce Wallis (essay date 1978)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Myth and Epiphany in Porter's ‘The Grave,’” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 15, No. 3, Summer, 1978, pp. 269–75.

[In the following essay, Rooke and Wallis assert that critical interest in Porter's “The Grave” has long ignored the story's dominant themes—particularly the fall of man—in favor of a series of less important symbols in the story.]

About a decade ago, there arose a flurry of critical interest in Katherine Anne Porter's story “The Grave.” This inquiry quickly subsided, apparently satisfied that “The Grave” had been adequately explained. In fact it had not, for an intense preoccupation with the predominating symbols of the...

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Sonia Gernes (essay date 1981)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Life after Life: Katherine Anne Porter's Version,” in Journal of Pop Culture, Vol. 14, No. 4, Spring, 1981, pp. 669–75.

[In the following essay, Gernes explores the autobiographical nature of the death sequence in Porter's Pale Horse, Pale Rider.]

“It's a true story …” Katherine Anne Porter responded to an interviewer's question about her short novel, Pale Horse, Pale Rider. “It seems to me true that I died then, I died once, and I never have feared death since. …”1 Porter's experience of “dying” took place in 1918 in the influenza epidemic that claimed more lives than the war that was coming to an end in Europe. She...

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Debra A. Moddelmog (essay date 1982)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Narrative Irony and Hidden Motivations in Katherine Anne Porter's ‘He,’” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 28, No. 3, Autumn, 1982, pp. 405–13.

[In the following essay, Moddelmog offers a psychoanalytical reading of Porter's “He.”]

“He” has received varied critical attention in the fifty-five years since its publication, so varied in fact that the interpretations of its critics make one wonder whether they have read the same story. “He” is ostensibly about the Whipple family, but because Porter develops in detail only the relationship between Mrs. Whipple and her retarded son, the story becomes essentially a study of the psychology of that...

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Minrose Gwin (essay date 1984)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Mentioning the Tamales: Food and Drink in Katherine Anne Porter's Flowering Judas and Other Stories,” in Mississippi Quarterly, Vol. 38, No. 1, Winter, 1984, pp. 49–57.

[In the following essay, Gwin praises the sensory details of Porter's short fiction, in particular her depiction of eating and drinking in the stories comprising Flowering Judas.]

Many efforts have been made to penetrate what Eudora Welty has called, with deliberate contradiction, “the eye” of Katherine Anne Porter's fictional art.1 Welty finds this “eye”—the penetrating vision of Porter's stories—to be interior, subjective, and nonsensory. Yet, even though...

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Thomas F. Walsh (essay date 1985)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Making of ‘Flowering Judas,’” in Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 12, No. 1, March, 1985, pp. 109–30.

[In the following essay, Walsh evaluates the autobiographical nature of Porter's story, “Flowering Judas.”]

Over the years Katherine Porter furnished many autobiographical details about her most celebrated story, “Flowering Judas” (1930), stating that “all the characters and episodes are based on real persons and events, but naturally, as my memory worked upon them and time passed, all assumed different shapes and colors, formed gradually around a central idea, that of self-delusion, the order and meaning of the episodes changed, and...

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Darlene Harbour Unrue (essay date 1985)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Systems and Patterns,” in Truth and Vision in Katherine Anne Porter's Fiction, The University of Georgia Press, 1985, pp. 60–105.

[In the following essay, Unrue explores Porter's attitude toward art, religion, politics, and philosophy as evinced in her short fiction.]

Katherine Anne Porter portrays persons who never look within and confront dark truths but look instead to external forms for affirmation of life's meaning. External forms, however, are made up of attractive deceptions, among which are codified aesthetic theories, philosophical and religious structures, political and revolutionary doctrines, social codes, and visible patterns. In pure form,...

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Robert H. Brinkmeyer, Jr. (essay date 1986–1987)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘Endless Remembering’: The Artistic Vision of Katherine Anne Porter,” in Mississippi Quarterly, Vol. 40, No. 1, Winter, 1986–1987, pp. 5–19.

[In the following essay, Brinkmeyer considers the role of memory in Porter's work, concluding that her “exploration of memory places her in the company of a number of other modern Southern writers who made similar if less extreme quests.”]

In the mid-to-late 1920s Katherine Anne Porter began showing a strong interest in the South and her Southern upbringing. Before this time, she could have been called a “rebel” only in the sense of being a woman scornful of tradition and authority. Early in her life...

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Janis P. Stout (essay date 1987)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Miranda's Guarded Speech: Porter and the Problem of Truth-Telling,” in Philological Quarterly, Vol. 66, No. 2, Spring, 1987, pp. 259–78.

[In the following essay, Stout examines the reticence of the central character, Miranda, and perceives it as evidence of her wisdom.]

I loved that silence which means freedom from the constant pressure of other minds and other opinions and other feelings, that freedom to fold up in quiet and go back to my own center …

—Porter, “Holiday”

Katherine Anne Porter is well known as a writer of much in little, who speaks by indirection in a style...

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Barbara Bell (essay date 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Non-Identical Twins: Nature and ‘The Garden Party’ and ‘The Grave,’” in The Comparatist, Vol. 12, May, 1988, pp. 58–66.

[In the following essay, Bell provides a detailed comparison of Katherine Mansfield's “The Garden Party” and Porter's “The Grave.”]

From certain points of view “The Garden Party” and “The Grave” are so alike as to be all too easily confused. Even their authors can be mistaken for each other. Katherine Mansfield and Katherine Anne Porter, besides having similar names, led circumstantially similar lives. Their careers overlapped in time, although Mansfield died young; they shared relatively privileged backgrounds;...

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George Cheatham (essay date 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Literary Criticism, Katherine Anne Porter's Consciousness, and the Silver Dove,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 25, No. 2, Spring, 1988, pp. 109–15.

[In the following essay, Cheatham argues against an antiformalist approach to Porter's fiction.]

I recently received a rejection notice for a paper I've written on Katherine Anne Porter's Pale Horse, Pale Rider, arguing that religious images suggest the Christian myth of fall and redemption which the story affirms and Miranda seems to accept.1 Along with other comments from the rejecting referee came this one: “Porter is an existentialist, an atheist one at that, not a Christian.”...

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Mary Titus (essay date 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘Mingled Sweetness and Corruption’: Katherine Anne Porter's ‘The Fig Tree’ and ‘The Grave,’” in South Atlantic Review, Vol. 53, No. 2, May 5, 1988, pp. 111–25.

[In the following essay, Titus discusses the relationship between aspects of Porter's life—particularly the death of her mother—and her short stories “The Grave” and “The Fig Tree.”]

Earth, my tender, soberly smiling mother, oh fruitful nourisher, oh demonic fury, oh drinker of blood, insatiable devourer of rotting flesh!

[Notes: Mexico 1921, copied Basel 1932]

From 1930 to 1940 was Katherine Anne...

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George Cheatham (essay date 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Death and Repetition in Porter's Miranda Stories,” in American Literature, Vol. 61, No. 4, December, 1989, pp. 610–24.

[In the following essay, Cheatham discusses the theme of death in Porter's Miranda stories.]

Early in Pale Horse, Pale Rider, in one of Miranda Gay's dreams, Katherine Anne Porter introduces the obsessive center of her final Miranda story, indeed of the whole Miranda series: death, specifically Miranda's perception of her own death. (“The Grave,” Old Mortality, Pale Horse, Pale Rider—the major titles alone reveal as much.) “And the stranger [death]? Where is that lank greenish stranger I remember hanging...

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Jan Nordby Gretlund (essay date 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘The Man in the Tree’: Katherine Anne Porter's Unfinished Lynching Story,” in Southern Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 3, Spring, 1993, pp. 7–16.

[In the following essay, Gretlund explores Porter's treatment of racism in her unfinished story “The Man in the Tree.”]

Katherine Anne Porter's manuscript “The Man in the Tree” focuses on the racism of her native region at the turn of the century.1 The notes for this story read like a contribution to later debates on integration, and I always felt that it was unfortunate that she chose not to finish it. Her strong opinions on racial issues, as expressed in this manuscript, deserve to be...

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Darlene Harbour Unrue (essay date 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Katherine Anne Porter, Politics, and Another Reading of ‘Theft,’” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 30, No. 2, Spring, 1993, pp. 119–26.

[In the following essay, Unrue provides a close reading of Porter's “Theft” in order to reveal “the extent to which politics was interwoven into Porter's concept and practice of art.”]

When Katherine Anne Porter accepted the National Book Award in 1966 for her Collected Stories, she characterized herself as a “disappointed idealist.” Porter's habit of mind in assessing her life or in creating her art was to look through a lens of memory and see a harmonious whole,1 and that phrase, as...

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Suzanne W. Jones (essay date 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Reading the Endings in Katherine Anne Porter's ‘Old Mortality,’” in Famous Last Words: Changes in Gender and Narrative Closure, edited by Alison Booth, University Press of Virginia, 1993, pp. 280–99.

[In the following essay, Jones discusses Porter's treatment of feminist issues in Old Mortality.]

I won't have false hopes, I won't be romantic about myself. I can't live in their world any longer, she told herself, listening to the voices back of her. Let them tell their stories to each other. Let them go on explaining how things happened. I don't care. At least I can know the truth about what happens to me, she assured herself...

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Robert H. Brinkmeyer, Jr. (essay date 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Achievement of the Miranda Stories,” in Katherine Anne Porter's Artistic Development: Primitivism, Traditionalism, and Totalitarianism, Louisiana State University Press, 1993, pp. 146–81.

[In the following essay, Brinkmeyer traces Porter's growing interest in familial identity and Southern heritage and determines its effect on her fiction.]

Katherine Anne Porter's developing interest in memory and the southern tradition signaled a profound fascination with her upbringing and family, immediate and ancestral. Her relationship with her family, particularly with her father, had been and would always remain ambivalent and strained, with her feelings...

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John Blair (essay date 1995)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “South by Southwest: Texas and the Deep South in the Stories of Katherine Anne Porter,” in Journal of the Southwest, Vol. 37, No. 3, Autumn, 1995, pp. 495–502.

[In the following essay, Blair explores the discrepancy between Porter's Old South origins as described in her fiction and the realities of her background.]

When I first came to live in San Marcos, Texas, about ten miles or so south of Katherine Anne Porter's hometown of Kyle, I discovered I would be living on a kind of geographical cusp between what to all appearances was the Wild West and the Old South. To the west is the Texas Hill Country with its sere white limestone and its scrubby post oak...

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Bruce A. French (essay date 1995)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Granny Weatherall: A Life of Quiet Desperation,” in Essays in Arts and Sciences, Vol. 24, October, 1995, pp. 63–76.

[In the following essay, French offers a thematic and stylistic analysis of Porter's “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall.”]

In the introduction to his collection of critical essays on Katherine Anne Porter, Robert Penn Warren quotes Porter's journal from the year 1936: “‘Now and again thousands of memories converge, harmonize, arrange themselves around a central idea in a coherent form, and I write a story’.” Warren himself goes on to say, “There are thousands of hard facts. We know only a few” (Warren 2). When Porter wrote...

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Mary Titus (essay date 1995)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘A Little Stolen Holiday’: Katherine Anne Porter's Narrative of the Woman Artist,” in Women's Studies, Vol. 25, No. 1, November, 1995, pp. 73–93.

[In the following essay, Titus considers Porter's depiction of the female artist in “Holiday.”]

According to Katherine Anne Porter's friend, Robert Penn Warren, the “alienation of the artist” occurs as a “basic theme,” “implicit, over and over” in her fiction and “finds something close to explicit statement” in her story, “Holiday” (Warren 11). Warren's suggestion, made almost fifteen years ago, points toward a central concern of this beautiful, neglected story.1 In...

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Gary M. Ciuba (essay date 1996)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “One Singer Left to Mourn: Death and Discourse in Porter's ‘Pale Horse, Pale Rider,’” in South Atlantic Review, Vol. 61, No. 1, Winter, 1996, pp. 55–76.

[In the following essay, Ciuba analyzes the roles of mourning and death in Porter's Pale Horse, Pale Rider.]

Like all of Katherine Anne Porter's fiction, Pale Horse, Pale Rider is underwritten by bereavement. As Miranda Rhea, Porter's quasi-autobiographical surrogate, lies dying, she voices this pervasive grief when she fitfully remembers the spiritual that provides the title for the short novel. “‘Pale horse, pale rider, done taken my lover away …’” Miranda whispers hoarsely to Adam,...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Hendrick, George. Katherine Anne Porter. Chicago: University of Illinois, 1965, 176 p.

Biographical and critical study.


Brinkmeyer, Robert H., Jr. Katherine Anne Porter's Artistic Development: Primitivism, Traditionalism, and Totalitarianism. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1993, 237 p.

Traces Porter's development as a short story writer and novelist.

Christensen, Peter G. “Katherine Anne Porter's ‘Flowering Judas’ and D. H. Lawrence's The Plumed Serpent: Contrasting Visions of Women in the Mexican Revolution.” South...

(The entire section is 323 words.)