Katherine Anne Porter Porter, Katherine Anne (Vol. 1) - Essay

Porter, Katherine Anne (Vol. 1)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Porter, Katherine Anne 1890–

A Southern American short story writer and novelist, Miss Porter is best known for Pale Horse, Pale Rider, and Ship of Fools. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1966. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Ship of Fools suggests many of the qualities of the traditional "solid" novel that has virtually dropped out of sight in recent years. Like the nineteenth-century classics, it comes at life in a straightforward and comprehensive way. There are many characters and they all have the uncomplicated distinctiveness, bordering on caricature, that allows the reader to keep them straight and to know where he is with each of them…. Though she has dispensed with the old-fashioned elaborate plot, she does contrive an almost continual movement of the narrative among the characters which serves much the same purpose as complicated plotting once did: it brings different classes (in this case, nationalities) and types into relation and into the kind of revealing patterns of connection and conflict that can take on a large public significance. And tied as the novel is to crucial historical events such as the world-wide depression of 1930's and the coming of fascism, the over-all effect is that of a novelist, as confident in her sense of moral order as Dickens or Balzac, creating the private history of an age….

The main … weakness is that no effective principle of change operates on the action or on the main characters or on the ideas, and hence the book has virtually no power to sustain, complicate, and intensify any real responsiveness to it….

Ship of Fools is not a novel of action or character or ideas, but one that is held together and given significance by its point of view—that is to say, by the direct presence and pressure of Miss Porter's sensibility…. Under the cold, smooth plaster of her prose is … an alternately smug or exasperated or queasy hostility toward most of the behavior she is describing. The art of the book lies mostly in the covert little ways it has of showing up and putting down the characters, and almost any passage of description or dialogue brings out some of them….

[There] is nothing either "majestic" or "terrible" about Miss Porter's image of human failure. Far from being a profound account of the "ship of this world on its voyage to eternity," Ship of Fools is simply what it is: an account of a tedious voyage to Europe three decades ago that has been labored over for twenty years by a writer who, late in life, is venturing, hence revealing, little more than bitchiness and clever technique.

Theodore Solotaroff, "Ship of Fools: Anatomy of a Best-Seller" (1962), in his The Red Hot Vacuum and Other Pieces on the Writing of the Sixties, Atheneum, 1970, pp. 103-21.

Katherine Anne Porter's work is the result of a lifetime of devotion to artistic honesty. Nowhere can she be said to exploit effects for their own sakes. She is at home in the situational metaphor, and her development of it, plus her sense of tradition (of antiquity renewing itself as active memory), gives her a rare eminence. Her only novel, Ship of Fools (1962), is one of the most significant books to appear since World War II: not only because of its intrinsic merits (which are many and become more clear the more one contemplates her work), but also because it is the first full-scale attempt to make a literature of the great, abiding demonology of the 1930's.

Frederick J. Hoffman, in his The Modern Novel in America, Regnery, revised edition, 1963, p. 238.

Katherine Anne Porter's output has not been great, considering the years that she has been writing; but there is probably no other writer of fiction in America who has maintained so consistently high a level. (p. 5)

As a non-practicing Catholic and a liberal southerner, Miss Porter has found the principal themes in her fiction in the tensions provided between fixed social and moral positions and the necessities of movement and alteration. Within a broad framework, she has dealt subtly with the distinctions between orthodox Christianity and revolution, between Roman and Protestant attitudes, between desire and responsibility, between reality and the dream. In brief, she has utiltized the divine vision, but she has qualified it by focusing sharply upon "the human condition"; she has rejected irresponsible decision, as she has indecision. Her fiction portrays a small but inclusive, grotesque but convincing, world, rendered as at times absurd, always pathetic, but rendered, finally, with compassion. (p. 7)

Christian morality in a world where traditional values are threatened is at the heart of all [of the stories in Flowering Judas]; and they are, ultimately, complex fables in which the tensions between the old order and the new provide a dramatic framework for the events…. The problem of the modern wasteland, as displayed in these stories, is the pathetic inability of man to live according to his dreams. (pp. 8-9)

There can be no better phrase to describe Miss Porter's special sensibility than to call it "historic memory."…

The rendering and utilization of myth is, in Katherine Anne Porter's stories, both subject matter and method. Neither as a southerner nor as a Catholic is she orthodox (that is, she does not mistake the myth for the reality); for her it becomes only another kind of reality. (p. 14)

Perhaps the most complete instance of a short story that utilizes a specifically southern background and memory for the creation of [a] larger, more generalized "truth" is "Old Mortality," where Miss Porter's subject matter is southern attitudes as expressed through family history, and where the theme is concerned with the nature of reality—particularly with self-definition. (p. 15)

Ship of Fools … might be called "a moral allegory for our time," or, perhaps more accurately reflecting the present concerns, "an existentialist fable." The ship is called Vera (truth), and the most general contrast represented in its passengers and crew (who are the characters of the novel) is a familiar one from the author's short fiction; a juxtaposition of passionate, indolent, irresponsible Latins with the cold, calculating, and self-righteous Nordics…. As a voyage, events may be likened to Dante's progress in The Divine Comedy, not in any specific way, but in the sense that Katherine Anne Porter, in this novel, is concerned with arriving at a sense of felicity for our time in much the way that Dante was for his. Ship of Fools is a comedy for today in the same high sense that Dante used the term in the fourteenth century.

The word "fool," as used by Miss Porter in her title, contains a double irony. In one sense she is using it as Brant must have used it, as "God's fool," suggesting man's foolishness as compared to God's wisdom. Similarly, the foolishness of the acts committed aboard ship resemble the absurdities of human action as portrayed by modern existentialism. Whether one takes the traditional Christian view of man as fool or the modern atheistic view of man as absurd, one comes from either with a feeling that truth is being expressed, only the framework has been altered. In each case man is viewed as a pathetic creature, struggling in one instance to overcome his limitations and approach God's province, in the other to organize the actions of his life around an impossible dream. In each case, he is more to be pitied than condemned. (pp. 32-3)

Ray B. West, in his Katherine Anne Porter ("University of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers," No. 28), University of Minnesota Press, © 1963 (and in Dictionary of American Literary Biography, Scribner's, © 1973).

Through an inability to compromise and sheer endurance. Miss Porter, who is an artist, has come to represent Art, and though the role has never obscured the quality of her work, it has shifted attention away from the content of the work itself. The first concern of [her] stories is not aesthetic. Extraordinarily well-informed, often brilliantly written, they are firmly grounded in life, and the accuracy and precision of their surfaces, so disarmingly easy to read, hold in tension the confused human tangles below. Experience is the reason for their having been written, yet experience does not exist in them for its own sake; it has been formulated, but not simplified.

[Miss Porter's] stories turn on crises as stories should, but two special gifts are evident: depth of characterization, which is more usually the province of the novelist, and a style that encompasses the symbolic without sacrificing naturalness. Miss Porter is a "realist," but one who knows the connotations as well as the meaning of words. Understatement and inflation are foreign to her; she is never flat and she is never fancy. In the best of her work, the factual and the lyrical are kept in perfect balance. She values the symbol, but she is not, strictly speaking, a symbolic writer. Observed life is the generating factor, and though it may connect with a larger metaphor, it is rooted in the everyday realities of people, situations, and places….

If it is the function of the artist to produce a masterpiece, Miss Porter may rest easy. In "Noon Wine" she has written a short novel whose largeness of theme, tragic inevitability, and steadiness of focus put it into that small category of superb short fiction that includes Joyce, Mann, Chekhov, James, and Conrad. A study of the effects of evil, it is a story one can turn around in the palm of one's hand forever, for so many meanings radiate from it that each reading gives it a new shade and a further dimension. Without once raising its voice, it asks questions that have alarmed the ages, including our own: When a good man kills an evil man does he become evil himself? If the answer is yes, then how are we to protect ourselves against evil? If the answer is no, then how are we to define what evil is? It is one of the nicer ambiguities of "Noon Wine" that the two "good" men in it commit murder while the one character who is "evil" does not….

In the perfection of "Noon Wine," Miss Porter has achieved what she has worked for—the artist in total command, totally invisible.

Howard Moss, "Katherine Anne Porter: A Poet of the Story," in New York Times Book Review (© 1965 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 12, 1965, p. 1.

Each of [Katherine Anne Porter's] stories is an investigation of what [she] has rightly called the "terrible failure of the life of man in the Western world." Her aim as a writer, she says, has been "to tell a straight story," and she has succeeded admirably. These stories, set in the South, in New England, and in Germany, and dealing with poor whites, Irish-Americans, artists, Berliners, German peasants, and many others are a remarkable literary achievement. They are as subtle and perceptive as the best works of Joyce or James. (p. 117)

One of the most brilliant qualities of [Ship of Fools] is the deft handling of point of view, which constantly shifts from character to character. As a result of the shifts, the reader sees characters and events from multiple angles of vision; and he begins to understand the complexity of the characters and the events. No one observer has the "truth"; no one observer is Miss Porter's spokesman. (p. 132)

Miss Porter has, by the end of [Ship of Fools], explored attitudes toward life and death, love and sex, religion and religiosity, love and hate, racism and politics; she has presented the deadly sins in old forms and in new guises…. Miss Porter has written in Ship of Fools a gigantic novel, subtle and forceful, naturalistic and symbolic, allegorical and political. (p. 140)

Over the last four decades, Miss Porter's short stories have been marked by a mastery of technique, by honesty, and by a desire to explore the human heart and mind and society itself, without lapsing into popular clichés. No matter whether she has written about Mexicans, Texans, Irishmen, or Germans, one feels that she knows the people and their backgrounds perfectly; she has lived and relived the experiences and emotions so thoroughly that she has often written her stories and short novels in a matter of hours or days. (p. 153)

She has constantly dealt with the chaos of the universe and with the forces within man and within society which have led to man's alienation. Her probings of the human condition are deeply personal and yet, because of the constant play of irony in everything she writes, impersonal also. Her often and justly praised style is never mannered, is perfectly adaptable to her material, and is characterized by clarity. She has consciously avoided stylistic characteristics or peculiarities which would make it instantly recognizable. (pp. 154-55)

Ship of Fools does not pander to middle-class taste or morality. The theme of the novel could hardly give aid and comfort to any class or nationality. The novel is more than a series of vignettes, for it is carefully planned, each sketch integrated into the allegorical, political, social, and psychological themes. It is a candid, frank, realistic, symbolic story which brings together all of Miss Porter's knowledge of the world and its people; and in it she demonstrates that her artistic powers have not diminished. (p. 155)

George Hendrick, in his Katherine Anne Porter, Twayne, 1965.

Until the publication of Ship of Fools in 1962, Katherine Anne Porter enjoyed the reputation of a writer who had never failed in public. What she had published had proved her a master craftsman in the art of the short story, the sketch, and the short novel; even such a critic as Edmund Wilson was reduced to admitting that he could not formulate his praise. The advice he gave the reader, to merely go and read Miss Porter's stories, is still good, in spite of the belief of some critics that Ship of Fools is not a good novel. (p. 1)

If the word "regional" is to be used in any perjorative sense, Miss Porter is not a regional writer; the regionalism of her work is in no sense a limiting factor on her writing, as it is occasionally in the works of other regional writers. In all of her writings, her main concern is people, and her people are universal. The truths that some of her people arrive at are universal, too. (p. 4)

Winfred S. Emmons, Katherine Anne Porter: The Regional Stories ("Southwest Writers," No. 6), Steck-Vaughn, 1967.

A maker of darkish parables, a producer of wines as dry as wines ever ought to be, [Katherine Anne Porter] has proved hard to deal with, except in simplistic terms such as those applied to Heraclitus. For years she was praised by discerning critics as the cleanest, clearest, and as they say of vines, most shy-bearing of the writers of our times: which in my opinion she probably is. Then, after writing the bestseller Ship of Fools, she came to be regarded in wider circles with a certain uneasiness, as being negative, skeptical, prejudiced, formalistic: which in my opinion she is not. She is no more negative, I must argue, no more skeptical, et cetera, than it is very good to be.

Howard Baker, "The Upward Path: Notes on the Work of Katherine Anne Porter," in The Southern Review, Vol. IV, No. 1, Winter, 1968, pp. 1-19.

The Collected Essays [and Occasional Writings of Katherine Anne Porter] is a good-looking and expensive production, not very ambitiously edited, and without sufficient apparatus to satisfy the professional. But it doesn't matter much for, more importantly, it makes a great deal of sense as a collection. It gives us Miss Porter over the years as writer, critic, woman, aunt, friend, and, above all, unflaggingly hard-headed, clear-minded, and sublimely eloquent enemy of that puking dragon, Error….

[Here] and there in the fiction, notably in Ship of Fools, and especially in the essays, there has been seen, mistakenly I believe, a pervasive peevish feminism, or perhaps, if you will, a variety of man-hatred. I can understand how a superficial reading of Miss Porter's work might supply this impression and … how a careful attention can correct it….

A complete critic in a way no longer in fashion, Miss Porter speaks to questions of literature and its makers as if she thought them to be of the utmost importance in themselves, which is perhaps why she seems to us much more at home, if no less compelling, when she is discussing Katherine Mansfield than when she is discussing World War II.

M. M. Liberman, "Circe" (© 1970 by The University of the South), in Sewanee Review, Autumn, 1970, pp. 689-93.