Porter, Katherine Anne 1890–
An American woman of letters, a master stylist, and the author of flawless, standard-setting short stories, Porter is known to younger Americans primarily as the author of Ship of Fools, a novel flawed but unremitting in its intensity. 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, 10, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
Miss Porter has no genius but much talent. Her average level is high, and she doesn't let you down. She is more fundamentally serious than Katherine Mansfield, less neurotic, closer to the earth. She is dry-eyed, even in tragedy: when she jokes, she does not smile. You feel you can trust her. (p. 312)
I liked "Noon Wine" best of [the stories in Pale Horse, Pale Rider]. It is an examination of "the nature of a crime," a subtle, psychological theme handled so directly, so concretely that one is reminded of de Maupassant…. Only an exceedingly skilled writer could have presented the … tragedy so vividly and with such absolute conviction. The characterization is beautifully done, and the farm really comes to life, with all its sounds and smells….
The work of so important an artist as Miss Porter must be judged by the lowest, as well as the highest standards—and, curiously enough, it is by the lowest standards that she fails. She is grave, she is delicate, she is just—but she lacks altogether, for me personally, the vulgar appeal. I cannot imagine that she would ever make me cry, or laugh aloud. No doubt, she would reply that she doesn't want to. But she should want to. I wish she would give herself a little more freely to the reader. I wish she would paint with bolder, broader strokes. I wish she wouldn't be quite so cautious. (p. 313)
Christopher Isherwood, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1939 The New Republic, Inc.), April 19, 1939.
Katherine Anne Porter remains chiefly a writer's writer. Such a circumstance is a pity, for in her short stories and novelle she has a great deal to say to all intelligent readers; and she says it with clarity and beauty. She is by no means difficult to read; and, though her overzealous critics have made a few of her short stories seem overwrought with symbolism, there is actually little of the occult in her work. She has always lacked patience with the literary faddists—those people who affect newness of manner when they are actually destitute of matter. She writes in the main stream of English prose style and of English fiction without being imitative: a great achievement in itself. Her difficulty is an ironic one, though it involves no irony peculiar to her own time. In brief, she is a perfectionist, and perfectionists have rarely enjoyed popular success in any age. (p. 386)
Throughout her critical essays [in The Days Before] Miss Porter writes with such precision, compactness, and fine fluency that no perceptive reader can fail to be charmed by what she has to say. Whether everyone will want to accept her rigidly pure concept of the art of writing is another matter. Certainly, it will be easy to conclude that art is the nearest thing to a be-all and end-all in her existence. The bases of her position she has clearly marked out—so clearly, in fact, that the whole position may seem to approach rationalization. In short, one may be led to feel that her own peculiar experience has developed in her such a profound distrust of institutional religion and of human relationships that she has felt compelled to seek certainties elsewhere and that, consequently, her theory of art, beautiful and praiseworthy though it is, arises out of a peculiar personal necessity rather than out of a completely universal one. (pp. 386-87)
Miss Porter's pervading dislike of dogma and authoritarianism effectually prevents her acceptance of...
(The entire section is 5,449 words.)