Katherine Anne Porter

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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...

(The entire section is 2,139 words.)