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Porter, Katherine Anne 1890–

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An American short story writer, essayist, and novelist, Porter is considered a technical master of the short story. The recipient of a Pulitzer Prize, Porter instills her work with profound irony, and her thematic considerations revolve around the workings of the heart and emotions, the difference between appearance and reality, and the consequences of self-deception. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

M. Wynn Thomas

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[Katherine Anne Porter's] sense of what makes for an ending is similar to that found in Aristotle's definition of Greek tragedy; and that was an analogy that she was proudly conscious of, as she remarked. "Any true work of art has got to give you the feeling of reconciliation—what the Greeks would call catharsis, the purification of your mind and imagination—through an ending that is endurable because it is right and true. Oh, not in any pawky individual idea of morality or some parochial idea of right and wrong. Sometimes the end is very tragic, because it needs to be."

In terms of the act of writing, this can be put differently and very simply: the story must tell you, "I know where I'm going." And that is where Mr. Helton comes in. "He just clumped down his big square dusty shoes one after the other steadily, like a man following a plow, as if he knew the place well and knew where he was going and what he would find there." That's how Mr. Helton walks into the story "Noon Wine," and into Mr. Thompson's life. The story ends with Mr. Thompson walking out of his own life. As he says at the end of the story, "I still think I done the only thing there was to do" …; and there is no doubt that unless this statement of his made some kind of sense to us Miss Porter would feel that the story had failed. (pp. 230-31)

"Noon Wine," then, is a story which shows us where a man is going and what he finds when he gets there. But this sense of a direction is not something that can be grasped simply: what the story shows is the complex nature of "direction" in human life. To reverse Miss Porter's dictum, if the story creates a sense of order it does so successfully only insofar as it recognizes and respects life's confusion. The direction of a man's life is not the same as the direction a man takes when following a plow, and any writer who mistakes the one direction for the other is liable to clump down his big square dusty shoes one after the other all over his "story." When, after reading the story, we re-read that opening passage which describes the arrival of Mr. Helton, we must not only be struck by the implications of this description, now revealed by our sense of the ending, but must also believe anew in the particularity and incidental quality of the metaphor. The "as if" must genuinely lead us to the way the man walks as well as to the strange sympathies and antipathies in the story that follows.

This palpable sense of a world is vitally important to the story's meaning. What happens is intelligible only in terms of the place where it happens. It is a matter not only of direction (which is one metaphor) but also of texture (a different metaphor). The murder Mr. Thompson commits is as much a matter of the heat as anything else. "Meantime the August heat was almost unbearable, the air so thick you could poke a hole in it. The dust was inches thick on everything."… The word "thick" is just right: it comes to mean more and more from then on in the story. It is the word that describes Mr. Thompson's voice after he has struck Mr. Hatch down…. "Thick" becomes resonant, a word that explores all the bafflement and inarticulateness of the man, his dim sense of a world growing thick around him, until it becomes unbearable…. And yet that is the world which he had always felt as solidly familiar. (pp. 231-32)


(The entire section contains 6872 words.)

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Porter, Katherine Anne (Vol. 1)


Porter, Katherine Anne (Vol. 101)