Katherine Anne Porter Porter, Katherine Anne (Vol. 13) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Christopher Isherwood

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Lodwick Hartley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 anything like neoclassical ideals in literature. Yet it leads her neither into a form of nineteenth-century Romanticism nor into sympathy with any of the various "revolutionary" schools of literature that have flourished so profusely in the twentieth century. The plain fact is that she wishes to be a classicist in the Greek tradition both in her practice and in her theory….

For the floodtide of experimentalism that came in the twenties, Miss Porter has patent contempt. "Every day in the arts," she writes, "as...

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Robert Penn Warren

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Many of [Katherine Anne Porter's] stories are unsurpassed in modern fiction, and some are not often equaled. She belongs to the relatively small group of writers—extraordinarily small, when one considers the vast number of stories published every year in English and American magazines—who have done serious, consistent, original, and vital work in the form of short fiction—the group which would include James Joyce, Katherine Mansfield, Sherwood Anderson, and Ernest Hemingway. (p. 51)

In many instances, a story or novelette has not been composed straight off. Instead, a section here and a section there have been written—little germinal scenes explored and developed. Or scenes or sketches of character which were never intended to be incorporated in the finished work have been developed in the process of trying to understand the full potentiality of the material. One might guess at an approach something like this: a special, local excitement provoked by the material—character or incident; an attempt to define the nature of that local excitement, as local—to squeeze it and not lose a drop; an attempt to understand the relationships of the local excitements and to define the implications—to arrive at theme; the struggle to reduce theme to pattern. That would seem to be the natural history of the characteristic story. Certainly, it is a method. which requires time, scrupulosity, and contemplation.

The method itself is an index to the characteristics of Miss Porter's fiction—the rich surface detail scattered with apparently casual profuseness and the close structure which makes such detail meaningful; the great compression and economy which one discovers upon analysis; the precision of psychology and observation, the texture of the style.

Most reviewers, commenting upon Miss Porter's distinction, refer to her "style"—struck, no doubt, by an exceptional felicity of phrase, a precision in the use of metaphor, and a subtlety of rhythm. It is not only the appreciation of the obviously poetical strain in Miss Porter's work that has tended to give her reputation some flavor of the special and exquisite, but also the appreciation of the exceptional precision of her language. (pp. 52-3)

It is, of course, just and proper for us to praise Miss Porter for her English and her artistry, but we should remind ourselves that we prize those things because she uses them to create vivid and significant images of life…. [We] remind ourselves of the vividness and significance in which Miss Porter's English and artistry eventuate, only because we would balance praise for the special with praise for the general, praise for subtlety with praise for strength, praise for sensibility with praise for intellect. (p. 54)

With all the enchanting glitter of style and all the purity of language and all the flow and flicker of feeling, Miss Porter's imagination … is best appreciated if we appreciate its essential austerity, its devotion to the fact drenched in God's direct daylight, its concern with the inwardness of character, and its delight in the rigorous and discriminating deployment of a theme. (pp. 56-7)

Miss Porter has the power of isolating common things, the power that Chekhov or Frost or Ibsen or, sometimes, Pound has, the power to make the common thing glow with an Eden-innocence by the mere fact of the isolation. It is a kind of indicative poetry.

Miss Porter's eye and ear, however, do not seize with merely random and innocent delight on the objects of the world, even though we may take that kind of delight in the objects she so lovingly places before us, transmuted in their ordinariness. If the fact drenched in daylight commands her unfaltering devotion, it is because such facts are in themselves a deep language, or can be made to utter a language of the deepest burden. (p. 57)

Is Mr. Thompson [protagonist of Noon Wine] innocent or guilty? He doesn't really know. Caught in the mysteriousness of himself, caught in all the impulses which he had never been able to face, caught in all the little lies which had really meant no harm, he can't know the truth about anything. He can't stand the moral uncertainty of this situation, but he does not know what it is that most deeply he can't stand. He can't stand not knowing what he himself really is. His pride can't stand that kind of nothingness. Not knowing what it is he can't stand, he is under the compulsion to go, day after day, around the countryside, explaining himself, explaining how he had not meant to do it, how it was defense of the Swede, how it was self-defense, all the while plunging deeper and deeper into the morass of his fate. Then he finds that his own family have, all along, thought him guilty. So the proud man has to kill himself to prove, in his last pride, that he is really innocent.

That, however, is the one thing that can never be proved, for the story is about the difficult definition of guilt and innocence. Mr. Thompson, not able to trust his own innocence, or understand the nature of whatever guilt is his, has taken refuge in the lie, and the lie, in the end, kills him. The issue here, as in "Flowering Judas," is not to be decided simply. It is, in a sense, left suspended, the terms defined, but the argument left only at a provisional resolution. Poor Mr. Thompson—innocent and yet guilty, and in his pride unable to live by the provisional. (p. 60)

Old Mortality is relatively short, some twenty thousand...

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Thomas F. Walsh

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Katherine Anne Porter once wrote, "I have never known an uninteresting human being, and I have never known two alike; there are broad classifications and deep similarities, but I am interested in the thumbprint." No work could better illustrate her interest than "Noon Wine," whose four main characters, Mr. and Mrs. Thompson, Mr. Helton, and Mr. Hatch, are so clearly individuated through their actions, speech, and physical appearance that it is difficult to imagine how they could be more unlike each other. And yet their "broad classifications and deep similarities," attributable to their common parentage in the unifying and controlling imagination of their author, tell us more about the world which entraps them than...

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Joan Givner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Because Katherine Anne Porter's fictional descriptions of the South of her childhood correspond so exactly to those in her factual accounts, her Miranda stories have been read as closely autobiographical. Although she has warned against such literal-mindedness, the author's own image as an aristocratic daughter of the Old South tends to confirm the authenticity of the background. The settings of "Old Mortality" and "The Old Order" seem entirely appropriate to Katherine Anne Porter. (p. 339)

In "Noon Wine: The Sources" she writes of the large house, presided over by the grandmother, in which she grew up…. The description coincides with that of Miranda Gay's childhood home, which is given most fully...

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