Katherine Anne Porter Porter, Katherine Anne (Vol. 15) - Essay

Robert B. Heilman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Stylist" is likely to call up unclear images of coloratura, acrobatics, elaborateness of gesture, a mingling of formalism probably euphuistic with conspicuous private variations, like fingerprints…. It is not so with Miss Porter. There is nothing of arresting facade in her style, nothing of showmanship…. In Ship of Fools the style is a window of things and people, not a symbolic aggression of ego upon them. It seems compelled by the objects in the fiction; it is their visible surface, the necessary verbal form that makes their identity perceivable. It seems never the construction of an artist imposing, from her own nature, an arbitrary identity upon inert materials, but rather an emanation of the materials themselves, finding through the artist as uninterfering medium the stylistic mold proper to their own nature. Miss Porter is ruling all, of course, but she seems not to be ruling at all: hence of her style we use such terms as "distance," "elegance," and of course the very word for what she seems to have ceded, "control." She is an absentee presence: in one sense her style is no-style. No-style is what it will seem if style means some notable habit of rhythm or vocabulary, some uninterchangeable (though not unborrowable) advice that firmly announces "Faulkner" or "Hemingway." Miss Porter has no "signal" or call letters that identify a single station of wave length. She does not introduce herself or present herself. Much less does she gesticulate. (pp. 197-98)

No-style means a general style, if we may risk such a term, a fusion of proved styles. She can do ordinary documentary whenever it is called for…. She relies without embarrassment on the plain, direct, ordinary, explicit. (p. 198)

On [her] sturdy foundations of style she can build in several ways. Without altering the everyday, matter-of-fact manner, she gets below the surface…. The easy lucidity never shirks depths or darks, which to some writers seem approachable only by the involute, the cryptic, or the tortuous.

Using the kind of elements that she does, she can organize them, elaborately if need be, with control and grace. The local papers "cannot praise too much the skill with which the members of good society maintain in their deportment the delicate balance between high courtesy and easy merriment, a secret of the Veracruz world bitterly envied and unsuccessfully imitated by the provincial inland society of the Capital." Under the gentle irony and the rhythm that serves it, lie in easy and well articulated orders a remarkable number of modifiers—such as Hardy would have fouled into knotty confusion, and James, pursuing precision, would have pried apart with preciosity in placement. She manages with equal skill the erection of ordinary terms, both concrete and analytical, into a periodic structure in which all elements converge unspectacularly on a climax of sudden insight…. A compact sketch of outer world and inner meaning, it is never crowded or awkward or rambling. (pp. 199-200)

Miss Porter can combine words unexpectedly without becoming ostentatious: for instance, an adjective denoting mood or value with a neutral noun—"serious, well-shaped head" …; or sex words with gastric facts—"They fell upon their splendid full-bodied German food with hot appetites." She pairs partly clashing words: "softened and dispirited" (of a woman affected by childbirth) …: and gets inner contradictions in sharp phrases: "this pugnacious assertion of high breeding."… She can surprise, and convince, with a preposition: a newly married couple's "first lessons in each other."

She has strong, accurate, but not conspicuous, metaphors: "soggy little waiter."… But metaphors are less numerous than similes…. Her images … come solidly out of life; they are not stylistic gestures, literary exercises, but unlabored responses to need, responses from experience against which the door of feeling and knowing have never been closed.

The difficulty of describing a style without mannerisms, crotchets, or even characteristic brilliances or unique excellences leads one constantly to use such terms as plain, direct, ordinary, unpretentious, lucid, candid. These are neither derogatory nor limiting words, nor words that one is altogether content with. The qualities that they name are not inimical to the subtle or the profound, to the penetrating glance or the inclusive sweep. Whether Miss Porter's basic words are a multitude of documentary nouns or adjectives, are literally descriptive or pointedly or amplifyingly imagistic, are terms that report or present or comment or analyze, she composes them, without evident struggle, in a great variety of ways—in combinations of revelatory unexpectedness; tersely or compactly or with unencumbered elaboration, either in a succession of ordered dependencies or in structured periods where...

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John Edward Hardy

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

When Cousin Eva, the spinster suffragette in "Old Mortality," bitterly condemns the family as a "hideous institution," one that is "the root of all human wrongs" and that ought to be "wiped from the face of the earth," she is somewhat consciously oversimplifying, and overstating, her own attitude. Certainly Eva's remarks alone do not adequately convey Katherine Anne Porter's complex views on the subject.

In her stories, the family is always supported in its evil work by other institutions—social, political, and religious. And in her treatment of evil in the family, just as in her treatment of corruption in politics and religion, she always holds an implicit vision of an ideal that has been vitiated, betrayed, or perverted.

But Miss Porter shares with Eva an almost obsessive preoccupation with family life, and with the struggle of the individual to maintain a personal identity—either within the family or, if need be, in anguished rebellion against it. The theme appears, more or less prominently, in almost every one of her stories, early and late. The consistency of her concern with it overrides all ethnic, regional, religious, and economic distinctions…. [All,] for good or ill, carry with them throughout their lives the burden of family consciousness.

For the most part, it is for ill rather than good. As Katherine Anne Porter represents it in her fiction, the lot of man is generally unhappy; her characters' moments of joy are extremely rare—although it ought to be added that the joy is totally convincing when it does occur, and the more to be appreciated for the very fact of its rarity. And, if the family itself is not the root of quite all the human wrongs she writes about, still it is seldom that anyone in her stories is helped by his family to cope with the evils that have their source elsewhere in nature and society. The family situation, either present or remembered, is at least a secondary source of the protagonist's unhappiness in almost all the stories. (pp. 14-15)

Black characters, all of them servants to white families, figure prominently in very few of Katherine Anne Porter's stories. Their personalities and behavior are of interest chiefly in the way that they reflect, and to some extent influence, the lives of the whites.

The portraits of the two ex-slaves, Nannie and her husband, Uncle Jimbilly, in "The Journey," "The Last Leaf," and "The Witness," and the characterization of the black girl, Dicey, who is little Miranda's reluctantly devoted nurse in "The Circus," are memorable both for their individuality and for their insight into the typical psychology of the Negro servant. Implicit in these stories is a trenchant criticism of Southern white paternalism, the conventional, hypocritical pretense of the masters that they regard the blacks as "real members of the family." The "hideous institution," even in comparatively enlightened households like that of Miranda's family, functions at its subtle worst in assigning the blacks to roles that deny them full human dignity. But, possibly just because she, like Miranda, was raised in a way that prevented her from knowing any Negroes during her formative years except on terms dictated by the system of social caste, Miss Porter never attempted a full-scale characterization of a black who is interesting primarily in his or her own right. (p. 40)

Katherine Anne Porter's childless couples are, if anything, even more miserable than the mothers and fathers in her fiction. In the descriptions of their stifling lives together, all the vices of the "hideous institution" are painted in intense miniature.

Typically one or the other is frigid, or impotent, or otherwise sexually deficient; sometimes, it is both. It is clear that some of these spouses sought in marriage a refuge from their families and only find themselves harnessed into a still more oppressive bondage to each other. (p. 46)

In "Rope," [as a typical example,] a young city couple summering in the country fall into a bitter quarrel over the husband's selfish absent-mindedness. On a shopping trip into town, he forgets to buy the coffee that his wife repeatedly reminded him to get. But, indulging an absurd whim, he buys a large coil of heavy rope, for which he has no definable use, and tires himself carrying it on the walk home. The rope, of course, symbolizes the invisible bond of their destructive but probably unbreakable union. They are "at the end of the rope" of their patience with each other; they have "enough rope," with which to hang themselves. But they cannot work free of each other. At the end of the story, exhausted by a long exchange of recriminations, they are temporarily reconciled. But it is plain that they are doomed to...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

About a decade ago, there arose a flurry of critical interest in Katherine Anne Porter's story "The Grave." This inquiry quickly subsided, apparently satisfied that "The Grave" had been adequately explained. In fact it had not, for an intense preoccupation with the predominating symbols of the short story had entailed a concomitant limiting of critical focus, so that the widest implications of the story were ignored…. Focusing upon the few most obtrusive symbols—the ring, the dove, the rabbits, and the grave—criticism has continued to neglect the story's paradigm of our most primal racial myth, that of the fall of man, which is itself the pattern of a primal experience in the life of each individual.


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Joan Givner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The main tenet of [Katherine Anne Porter's moral] philosophy is that the evildoers are not the most reprehensible people in the world, because they at least have the courage of their convictions. Nor are they the most dangerous people, since they can be easily recognized. The people who really need to be watched are the so-called innocents who stand by and allow others to perpetrate evil. Porter was to express repeatedly the opinion that the innocent bystanders allow the activity of evildoers, not merely because of fear and indifference, but because they gain vicarious pleasure from seeing others perform the wicked deeds which they themselves wish but fear to perform. She came eventually to see the passive virtuous...

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