Katherine Anne Porter Porter, Katherine Anne (Vol. 3) - Essay

Porter, Katherine Anne (Vol. 3)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Porter, Katherine Anne 1890–

Miss Porter is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American short story writer and novelist. Considered a master of the short story, she constructs her stories around subtle psychological examination of her characters. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

[Miss Porter] is a contemporary of Faulkner, and although she has always stood completely alone as a literary figure, her art suggests some reflections on the First World War generation of American writers whose restless search for values and experiments with form introduced Americans to the modern age. She, too, questioned all that she inherited. She threw off the beliefs she was raised with, the quaint, hypocritical notions about the family, the human personality, love, art….

Only rare souls ever profit from the general historical experience of their times, and what we call the lessons of history are often other names for heartbreak and weariness. Katherine Anne Porter has, however, reached a kind of wisdom that a few Americans do achieve. It is the wisdom of those whose identity is a conscious reconstruction of their instincts, who have come to terms with the past they rebelled against, and who see themselves in the world with lucid impersonality. At their best, Americans like Miss Porter, or George Kennan, combine moral passion with a sense of moral complexity; their irony is profound, and its intention is never simply ironic.

She has lived much of her life outside this country, and few writers can equal her for sheer variety of characters and settings. She does city people, Texas blackland farmers, Mexicans, the American Irish, German-Americans and Germans in Germany; of all classes and generations. She never celebrates a region, although many of her stories might be called local color pieces. She gives the bitter essence of what a people's life is like, as if she were sketching an abstract stage set, and then concentrates on the dramatic revelation of character in the created setting….

What elusive, living spirit the modern age crushes, what natural rightness it destroys, is not altogether clear. Here and there are a few clean images and happy scenes, bright coins thrown into the threatening sea. They occur most often in the large number of stories dealing with Miss Porter's native Texas. Her Texas was the South, for it was peopled by Southerners from Virginia, Tennessee, the Carolinas, and Kentucky; and the values by which she judges the world derive from her family experiences in what she has called the Old Order. It must be understood, however, that the derivation is exceedingly subtle. (As well as selective: There are, for example, few traces in her art of her Catholic upbringing.) She has too much critical moral intelligence to become a genteel celebrant of the Southern heritage. There is even less of that in her than in Faulkner. She is, after all, a Southerner in exile. Still, the Texas stories—or rather the family experiences they are distilled from—seem to be the ultimate source of her sense of things in their right proportions….

From the spark of essential spirit that gleams through these stories from time to time, Katherine Anne Porter takes her stand. Morality and art are not the same for her—she is not that old-fashioned—but they meet in the question of order. The art that made these masterpieces is not primarily educative, though the stories are wise; it is not primarily enjoyable, though they give much pleasure. The special function of this art is to give shape to our existence: to achieve order and form and statement in a world "heaving with the sickness of millennial change." Even when her stories tremble on the edge of disintegration, even when they reveal the most unpleasant truths about ourselves and our age, they are replicas of life, complete and compelling. She has a triumphant ability to see a life and its surroundings as it is and as it might be: a knowledge of proper proportions. This is the sense of a great comic writer, of course, but the effect of most of these stories is relentlessly ironic, perhaps because proper proportions are so scarce in this world.

Joseph Featherstone, "Katherine Anne Porter's Stories" (originally titled "Katherine Anne Porter's Harvest"; copyright © 1965 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.; reprinted by permission), in The Critic as Artist: Essays on Books 1920–1970, edited by Gilbert A. Harrison, Liveright, 1972, pp. 111-19.

Miss Porter occupies today a most peculiar position. She is widely recognized as a creative artist of almost awesome fastidiousness, whose very paucity of production has come to be regarded as the mark of a talent so fine that it can scarcely bring itself to function. Her stories are considered to be distinguished examples of their type and have undoubtedly had enormous influence on the contemporary development of the form. Yet the precise nature of her artistic qualities continues to be one of the great unsolved mysteries of modern literature. She remains the symbol and custodian of an excellence that is almost everywhere appreciated but almost nowhere clearly understood….

The scope of the volume [Collected Stories] enables one to recognize and appreciate the variety of Miss Porter's imaginative interests and the range of her technical skills, but it also throws into rather harsh perspective certain qualities of hers that were less noticeable in the various earlier volumes when one read them separately. The effect, for example, of a good deal of her writing does indeed seem pale. At times it seems downright colorless. And the explanation is scarcely that she writes such a pure English, but rather that all contradictions and discords appear to have been sacrificed to the purity of the English…. She has been most careful to take no imaginative risks that she could not easily and gracefully put into words. As a result, the purity of her English—and there can be no doubt that it is pure—is at once a tribute to her verbal fastidiousness and testimony to the existence within her of psychic and artistic limitations that have prevented her from producing work of the first magnitude….

I think … that she is frequently uncertain of her meanings, and that at times she is even downright baffled by the direction in which her work is taking her. It simply does not seem to me true that one is justified in withholding criticism of her lapses from intensity on the ground that the meaning of the stories in which they occur will very probably hit one some minutes after closing the book. This, to be sure, can happen, and when it does, the sensation is most agreeable. But one would be foolish to live in hope of this kind of tardy revelation, for too often one is not hit at all, after no matter how long a wait….

[Although] Miss Porter is known chiefly for her stories of delicate and oftentimes overly subtle psychological complication, in which everything is tightly packed in the manner of a symbolist poem, her best work has not been done in this form at all, but in the form of the loosely organized, leisurely developed, semifictional reminiscence, in which people and places are more meditated upon than evoked, the meaning is simple and plain, and there is no overt attempt to create an effect of art.

This is to say that Miss Porter's important achievement appears to be represented not by such a story as her famous "Flowering Judas" or any of her other stories about Mexico that have attracted and merited so much attention, but by her longer stories and short novels about childhood, wartime romance, and family life such as "Old Mortality," "Pale Horse, Pale Rider," and "The Old Order." In comparison with these works, "Flowering Judas," though beautifully formed, seems self-conscious and coldly, effort-fully inward, full of straining for symbolic effect, while they have about them an air of relaxation and warmth, as well as a seemingly natural richness of texture, which gives them such a very different quality one might almost suppose them to have been written by another person altogether.

The difference makes two things clear about Miss Porter: first, that she is at her best in the short novel rather than in the short story, and, second, that although she is usually considered to be an international writer who is equally at home in Mexico, Germany, and the various other places that have provided settings for her fiction, she is actually a regionalist writer who is truly at home in only one place, the American Southwest of her childhood.

John W. Aldridge, "Art and Passion in Katherine Anne Porter," in his Time to Murder and Create, McKay, 1966.

The "perfect" or "almost perfect" short story as no-fault literature spurred, drove and tormented Katherine Anne Porter on for several decades to achieve a novel that would be as achieved as her short stories, but that would also display over a large canvas her sense of the age. Unlike so many perfect and near-perfect writers, Katherine Anne Porter was driven by an idea of history, a point of view almost too definable that would give her no rest. She had, as she said, no problems as a writer of short stories. A famous dependability made her turn out some of her best stories at a single sitting. This surely rested in theme, in sensibility, in the honest lucidity of her style, on the recurrent theme of her heroine's vulnerability in a bad bad world. Endurance was her only triumph, and came through a wholly personal style in life of discipline and survival. Miss Porter's stories were romantically tragic stories written around the fate of a mildly idealized heroine. They succeeded as cyclical descriptions of a woman's whole life, and expressed the necessary discord, as the author saw it, between a woman and the stoniness of nature in Mexico, between a woman and her ferocious society, between a woman and the senselessness of her hopes.

A whole generation of Americans in college formed their idea of fiction on these always "faultless" stories which in their balance-seeking prose, their laconic irony, express perfectly indeed the necessary contrast between the inner beauty of her heroines and their contracted destiny. In Miss Porter's stories the key figure of the heroine still stands for the eager life-force that the world does defeat—for the artist in life who, as in the Willa Cather she admired, sums up the moral elegance in the tragedy of conflict that must ensue between a woman and what Henry James called "life at its stupid work." The nineteenth-century novelist's attempt to raise at least his heroine above the materialist muck is perpetuated in Katherine Anne Porter's stories. Woman becomes a work of art in a world stupid with violence. She is the "perfection" within the perfectly constructed story—whose passionate aim is to establish the existential reality of a woman's life against the destructiveness practiced by nature, poverty, revolution. Life is a cheat. The world is senseless. But the heroine, the receiving center of sensibility in all these stories, remained the human center within the mechanical circle of "fate." The most eloquent symbol of this fate was the landscape of Mexico.

Ship of Fools was the mechanically extended performance of a writer whose sensitiveness to shock had naturally expressed itself in short forms and urbane irony….

In Ship of Fools the treacherousness of virtually all the characters reflects a total literary negation of actual life; an ingenuous attempt to fix the character of Our Time by consistently repulsive, undifferentiated racial types—the untrustworthy Spanish Gypsy, the low cunning Jew, the raceproud Teuton. Character after character is meant to represent a national type, but these indexes to History reflect a personal dislike, a total suspicion, that expresses itself in generalization….

Everything in Ship of Fools is premonitory after the fact, symbolic of a future that has already happened—and is essentially causeless, timeless, undifferentiated from other periods. Human nature is simply not to be trusted, and this certainly puts a burden on the untrustworthy souls, not actions, Miss Porter seeks to portray….

Rarely has a novel of such pretended scope, with so many characters, been at the mercy of so few ideas. The leaning tower, the collapse of tradition! These seem to take place not in the social world, as action and its consequences, but as protection against the disbelief in everything that has turned even the young lovers—the only characters in the book to whom life offers any hope—into continually quarrelsome, frustrated people.

Ship of Fools was designed as an epic, but is really a harsh personal statement.

Alfred Kazin, in his Bright Book of Life: American Novelists & Storytellers from Hemingway to Mailer (copyright © 1971, 1973 by Alfred Kazin; reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Co. in association with the Atlantic Monthly Press), Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1973, pp. 166-73.