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.
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.
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.
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.