Katherine Anne Porter

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(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...

(The entire section is 174,774 words.)