Katherine Anne Porter Porter, Katherine Anne (Vol. 101) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Katherine Anne Porter 1890–1980

American short story writer, novelist, essayist, and nonfiction writer.

The following entry provides an overview of Porter's career through 1995. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 3, 7, 10, 13, 15, and 27.

Katherine Anne Porter is widely recognized as one of the foremost twentieth-century American writers of short fiction. Noted for her stylistic originality and technical mastery, Porter produced a small but formidable body of work that set new standards of achievement for American fiction. Superior sensitivity, irony, and uncompromising artistry characterize her best work, especially as displayed in Flowering Judas (1930), Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939), and The Leaning Tower and Other Stories (1944). Porter is distinguished for her penetrating psychological studies and unique feminine perspective, particularly regarding the complexities of love, relationships, and mortality. She won a large popular audience with the publication of her first and only novel, Ship of Fools (1962), and received crowning accolades with The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter (1964). Often associated with the leading figures of the Southern literary tradition, including William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, and Eudora Welty, Porter's meticulously crafted short stories influenced a generation of writers and remain consummate examples of that genre.

Biographical Information

Born Callie Russell Porter in Indian Creek, a small town in Texas, Porter was the fourth of five children. Her mother died when she was two, upon which the family moved to Hays County to stay with their grandmother until her death in 1901, then resettled in San Antonio where Porter received her education at Thomas boarding school. Her humble origins in the South, frequent dislocations, and the emotional insecurity caused by an inattentive father and the deaths of her mother and grandmother would later find expression in her writing. In 1906 Porter left school and married John Henry Koontz, a railway clerk whose Roman Catholic faith she adopted as her own. This was the first of four marriages that all ended in divorce. Seeking an outlet for her creative aspirations, Porter left Koontz in 1916 and travelled to Chicago to pursue an acting career as Katherine Anne. Shortly thereafter Porter found work on the staff of newspapers in Fort Worth and Denver until suffering a near-fatal bout with in-fluenza in 1918. This illness, and an earlier episode of tuberculosis, inspired her subsequent fascination with themes of death and rebirth. After a brief residence in New York City and ghostwriting My Chinese Marriage (1921), Porter left for Mexico in 1920 where she accumulated valuable new experiences, participated in revolutionary politics, and would remain for extended periods until 1930. She published "Maria Concepción," her first story, in Century magazine in 1922, later collected in Flowering Judas which, along with Hacienda (1934), reflect the lasting influence of her years in Mexico. In 1931 Porter visited Europe with the first of two Guggenheim fellowships where she witnessed Nazi Germany, remarried, and settled in Paris. Upon returning to the United States in 1936, Porter ended this marriage and retreated to Pennsylvania to finish Noon Wine (1937). With the publication of Pale Horse, Pale Rider and The Leaning Tower and Other Stories, Porter received widespread critical recognition. Beset by the constant distraction of university teaching, lectures, and romantic interludes, however, Porter struggled to produce new material. After twenty years of intermittent effort, she published Ship of Fools at age seventy-two, the long anticipated novel that became an instant best-seller and was made into a popular film. Four years later she won both a National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize for The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter. Porter finished The Never-Ending Wrong (1977), an account of the Sacco-Vanzetti affair, three years before her death in Silver Springs, Maryland.

Major Works

Porter's short fiction is highly regarded for its remarkable form and style, each work marked by the author's insightful and largely unsentimental renderings of people and places, particularly when set in the American South and Mexico. Porter's interest in family dynamics and the role of women in patriarchal society is recognizable in her earliest writings. Flowering Judas contains several stories that feature strong female characters who confront weak or selfish men, as in "Maria Concepción" and "Rope." The title story describes a young woman's threatening involvement with a corrupt Mexican revolutionary who attempts to seduce her with his songs. Here Porter draws on the symbolism of betrayal and evokes an atmosphere of pervasive hostility in which the two main characters indifferently move toward self-destruction, ending in a dream sequence that reveals the woman's deep guilt and fear of death. "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall," another notable story from Porter's first collection, describes a dying woman's unrelenting resentment for the man who left her at the altar much earlier in her life. As in many of her stories, Porter examines marital strife and the female struggle for identity and autonomy, revealing an underlying distrust of love and relationships. In Hacienda, Porter creates an ironic and perhaps autobiographical story involving the production of a documentary on Mexican life headed by a Russian communist filmmaker and an American. Reflecting Porter's disillusionment with revolutionary activity in Mexico, an unnamed female narrator describes the awkward and often satirical interaction between natives and Westerners as they attempt to realize the humanitarian and artistic objectives of the project. Pale Horse, Pale Rider contains several examples of Porter's best writing, including the title story, "Old Mortality," and "Noon Wine," published separately two years earlier. "Pale Horse, Pale Rider" features Miranda, a familiar character who appears in other stories and is recognized as the author's alter ego. Here Miranda survives a near-fatal illness and experiences haunting dreams that signify her struggle with her own mortality and the death of her boyfriend, Adam, who is prepared to serve in the First World War. Though she recovers, Adam succumbs to the illness, which he himself contracts while nursing her. The story is both highly autobiographic and symbolic, referring to Porter's own severe illness while working as a journalist and the fate of prelapsarian Eden. As in "Flowering Judas," Porter employs dream sequences to enhance the psychological complexity of her characters and to add layers of symbolism. The Leaning Tower and Other Stories, inspired by her visit to Europe, contains the balance of Porter's most significant short stories, including "The Old Order," "The Downward Path to Wisdom," and the title story. Almost twenty years passed before she produced her next substantial work of fiction, Ship of Fools, a novel based on a fifteenth-century Christian allegory of the same title. Drawing directly from the experiences of her European travels and foreshadowing the atrocities of the Second World War, Porter describes a fictitious voyage to Germany in 1931. The large international cast of characters includes German, American, Mexican, Cuban, and Spanish passengers, presenting a microcosm of world affairs on the eve of Hitler's ascent and the national and religious stereotypes that paved the way. As in much of her fiction, Porter invokes complex symbolism to convey profound irony and psychological profiles of the characters as they continue on their tragic course.

Critical Reception

Porter enjoyed generous critical attention and wide popular appeal during her life. Her short stories continue to serve as prime examples of the form she mastered. "Flowering Judas" and "Pale Horse, Pale Rider" are the subject of frequent praise, though agreement as to which of her stories stands in highest regard is inconsistent. Among the various collections and recollections of her fiction, Flowering Judas, Pale Horse, Pale Rider, and The Leaning Tower and Other Stories contain Porter's most successful and best-known work, gathered together in the award-winning publication The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter. Ship of Fools, Porter's most ambitious creative endeavor, was initially hailed as her magnum opus. Upon further consideration, however, the didactic novel became the subject of criticism, particularly directed at Porter's caricatures of Germans and Jews and shallow understanding of the historical and political causes of the Second World War. Despite the shortcomings of her long fiction and relatively small lifetime literary production, Porter's best short fiction has been favorably compared to that of James Joyce and Anton Chekhov. Her acclaimed technical superiority and highly perceptive treatment of women and relationships distinguish her literary reputation and sustain critical interest in her life and work.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

My Chinese Marriage [as M.T.F.] (nonfiction) 1921
Outline of Mexican Popular Arts and Crafts (nonfiction) 1922
Flowering Judas (short stories) 1930; revised edition published as Flowering Judas and Other Stories, 1935
Hacienda (novella) 1934
Noon Wine (novella) 1937
Pale Horse, Pale Rider: Three Short Novels (novellas) 1939
The Leaning Tower and Other Stories (short stories) 1944
The Days Before: Collected Essays and Occasional Writings (essays) 1952; revised edition, 1970
A Defense of Circe (nonfiction) 1955
The Old Order: Stories of the South (short stories) 1955
Ship of Fools (novel) 1962
The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter (short stories) 1965; revised edition, 1967
The Never-Ending Wrong (nonfiction) 1977
Letters of Katherine Anne Porter (letters) 1990

The New York Times Book Review (review date 28 September 1930)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Flowering Judas, in The New York Times Book Review, September 28, 1930, p. 6.

[In the following review, the critic notes the strength of Porter's technical skill and offers brief assessments of each of the short stories in Flowering Judas.]

Katherine Anne Porter is of that youngest generation of American artists from which one dares hope much. The generation—called "our own generation" by Malcolm Cowley, who is 33 years of age—includes Elizabeth Madox Roberts, Glenway Wescott, Yvor Winters and Kenneth Burke. What distinguishes this group from older groups in American letters—the groups that included Dreiser, Anderson and others—is its...

(The entire section is 691 words.)

Louise Bogan (review date 22 October 1930)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Flowering Judas," in The New Republic, Vol. LXIV, No. 829, October 22, 1930, p. 277-8.

[In the following review, Bogan praises Flowering Judas.]

Miss Porter's stories, here collected for the first time, have appeared during a period of some years in Transition, "The American Caravan" and in commercial magazines appreciative of distinguished writing. In each of the five stories in the present book [Flowering Judas], Miss Porter works with that dangerous stuff, unusual material. Two stories have a Mexican locale. Two contain passages which describe lapses into the subconscious and the dream. "Magic" briefly explores the survival of frayed but savage...

(The entire section is 649 words.)

Charles A. Allen (essay date Summer 1956)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Katherine Anne Porter: Psychology as Art," in Southwest Review, Vol. XLI, No. 3, Summer, 1956, pp. 223-30.

[In the following essay, Allen examines psychological devices and symbolism employed by Porter to illustrate hostility and frustration.]

Katherine Anne Porter has published, as her admirers announce apologetically, three slim volumes of stories and novellas. A half-dozen of her stories equal the best written by any twentieth-century American. Usually her theme is the betrayal of life through the hostility that develops if physical and social needs are repeatedly and consistently frustrated.

"The Downward Path to Wisdom," included in...

(The entire section is 4001 words.)

Stanley Kaufmann (review date 2 April 1962)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Katherine Anne Porter's Crowning Work," in The New Republic, Vol. 146, No. 2474, April 2, 1962, pp. 23-5.

[In the following review, Kaufmann cites shortcomings in Ship of Fools, particularly concerning theme and character development.]

Katherine Anne Porter has published her first novel at the age of 72, and since she spent 20 years on it, we must assume it will be her only novel. She forecast the book in 1940 in the preface to the Modern Library edition of Flowering Judas:

[These stories] are fragments of a much larger plan I am still engaged in carrying out…. All the conscious and recollected years of my...

(The entire section is 2528 words.)

M. M. Liberman (essay date Fall 1966)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Responsibility of the Novelist: The Critical Reception of Ship of Fools," in Criticism, Vol. VIII, No. 4, Fall, 1966, pp. 377-88.

[In the following essay, Liberman examines the critical reception of Ship of Fools and considers the essential characteristics of the novel as a literary form.]

The title of this essay is, I suppose, somewhat misleading, in the way that a title can be, when it seems to promise a discourse on an arguable concept. In this instance it suggests a certain premise: namely, that the question, "What does the author owe society?" is one which still lives and breathes. In fact, I think it does not. I suspect, rather, that...

(The entire section is 5176 words.)

Charles Thomas Samuels (review date 7 March 1970)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Placing Miss Porter," in The New Republic, Vol. 162, No. 10, March 7, 1970, pp. 25-6.

[In the following review, Samuels offers a mixed assessment of Porter's The Collected Essays and Occasional Writings, praising the author's technical skill while finding weakness in the substance of her writings.]

The Collected Essays and Occasional Writings contain all of Katherine Anne Porter's previous volume of nonfiction, The Days Before, as well as an equal amount of essays, reviews, letters, and journal entries not gathered in the earlier book. Of the new material, we should welcome "St. Augustine and the Bullfight," a masterly memoir with the...

(The entire section is 1654 words.)

M. M. Liberman (essay date 1971)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Symbolism, the Short Story, and 'Flowering Judas,'" in Katherine Anne Porter's Fiction, Wayne State University Press, 1971, pp. 70-9.

[In the following essay, Liberman explores the significance of symbolism in "Flowering Judas" and addresses previous critical readings of the story.]

If one opens Jean Stafford's Collected Stories to, say, "The Lippia Lawn," which begins, "Although its roots are clever, the trailing arbutus at Deer Lick had been wrenched out by the hogs," he is promised the work of a poet, and this promise the other stories generally keep. It is the "clever," employed for all its worth, including its root sense, that does it almost...

(The entire section is 3276 words.)

Thomas F. Walsh (essay date Fall 1979)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Dreams Self in 'Pale Horse, Pale Rider,'" in Wascana Review, Vol. 14, No. 2, Fall, 1979, pp. 61-79.

[In the following essay, Walsh explores the significance of Miranda's dreams in "Pale Horse, Pale Rider," noting allusions to fear of death and the author's own personal experiences.]

Deriving its title from an old spiritual, Katherine Anne Porter's "Pale Horse, Pale Rider" tells how Death carries off Adam, "a sacrificial lamb" who is "committed without any knowledge or act of his own to death," leaving Miranda the "one singer to mourn." Therefore some critics have read the story as a tragedy of circumstances in which war and disease doom its star-crossed...

(The entire section is 7059 words.)

Mary E. Titus (essay date Spring 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The 'Booby Trap' of Love: Artist and Sadist in Katherine Anne Porter's Mexico Fiction," in The Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 16, No. 4, Spring, 1990, pp. 617-34.

[In the following essay, Titus explores sexuality, gender politics, and the objectification of women in Porter's early published and unpublished writing.]

"Her eagerness to be beautiful in their eyes, to draw them to her, made her ache. Her nerve ends boiled and bubbled. But she kept her face calm as she watched them, serpent-feminine enough to know that her attitude of calm pleased them." Inscrutable without and turbulent within, Alma, the silent, erotic center of Katherine Anne Porter's...

(The entire section is 6746 words.)

Reynolds Price (review date 27 May 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Letters of Katherine Anne Porter, in New York Times Book Review, May 27, 1990, pp. 1, 23.

[In the following review, Price praises the publication of Porter's correspondence for offering new insight into the life and work of the author.]

Katherine Anne Porter wrote letters of an astonishing intellectual sinew and clarity with an ease that escaped when she turned to fiction. Despite the fact that the best of her stories, short novels and essays are as strong as any in American letters—"Noon Wine" alone can stand, calm, shoulder to shoulder, with anything in Tolstoy or Chekhov—her work has yet to win the wide and steady attention it earns...

(The entire section is 1602 words.)

Roseanne L. Hoefel (essay date Winter 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Jilting of (Hetero) Sexist Criticism: Porter's Ellen Weatherall and Hapsy," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 28, No. 1, Winter, 1991, pp. 9-20.

[In the following essay, Hoefel provides a feminist interpretation of "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall."]

A central issue in the criticism of "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall" is that of Hapsy's identity and her role in the life of Ellen Weatherall. The analyses dealing with this question are based on various assumptions, treated as facts, regarding who/what took precedence in Ellen's life. Among these assumptions are the following: (1) that Ellen is still grieving over the jilting at the altar by George sixty...

(The entire section is 4403 words.)

Robert E. Hosmer Jr. (review date 19 April 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "One Fixed Desire," in Commonweal, Vol. CXVIII, No. 8, April 19, 1991, pp. 266-7.

[In the following review, Hosmer praises the publication of Letters of Katherine Anne Porter.]

W. H. Auden was "an unusually stinking and opinionated sodomite"; Charlie Chaplin "an odious little beast"; T. S. Eliot "a dry damned soul who packs an awful wallop"; Edmund Wilson "a mere goon"; and as for Carson McCullers, well, her first book was the product of "a peculiarly corrupt mind, a small stunted talent incapable of growth, and her further work has borne this out in my mind." Whose mind? Katherine Anne Porter's. And so it goes in this six-hundred-page collection, a mere...

(The entire section is 1023 words.)

Ruth M. Vande Kieft (essay date 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Love Ethos of Porter, Welty, and McCullers," in The Female Tradition in Southern Literature, edited by Carol S. Manning, University of Illinois Press, 1993, pp. 235-43.

[In the following excerpt, Kieft explores Porter's attitudes toward love and romantic relationships as shaped by her personal experiences and reflected in her writing.]

Since love is a central theme in much fiction, especially that of women writers, it is not surprising to find the theme dominant in the fiction of Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, and Carson McCullers. What is surprising, given their time and place in the most conservative part of the country, the South (Texas,...

(The entire section is 3693 words.)

Mary Gordon (essay date 16 April 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Angel of Malignity: The Cold Beauty of Katherine Anne Porter," in The New York Times Book Review, April 16, 1995, pp. 17-9.

[In the following essay, Gordon draws attention to the literary accomplishments of Porter.]

A writer pressing the case of the neglected hero gone before has a difficult role: part night nurse, part hit man. Tenderly we protect the wounded one, aggressively we search for someone we can blame. We are, of course, thinking about ourselves. The neglected writer of the past is our own feared specter, our double, thrust into the darkness of the future, the ghost of what we tell ourselves will never happen but know is to come.


(The entire section is 3250 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Bixby, George. "Katherine Anne Porter: A Bibliographic Checklist." American Book Collector 1, No. 6 (November-December 1980): 19-33.

Provides a list of first editions of Porter's works.

Hendrick, George. "Selected Bibliography." In Katherine Anne Porter, pp. 161-71. New York: Twayne Publishers, N.D.

Provides a list of Porter's collected and uncollected works.

Machann, Clinton, and William Bedford Clark. "A Texas Bibliography of Katherine Anne Porter." In Katherine Anne Porter and Texas: An Uneasy Relationship, pp....

(The entire section is 902 words.)