Katherine Anne Porter

Start Your Free Trial

Download Katherine Anne Porter Study Guide

Subscribe Now


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Katherine Anne Porter 1890–1980

American short story writer, novelist, and critic.

Porter is widely acknowledged to be one of midcentury America's finest writers of short fiction. An excellent stylist, Porter endowed her work with precision of image and detail. Her perceptive psychological studies depend on a moment of illumination rather than action to express the truth of an experience. The novellas "Noon Wine" (1937) and "Pale Horse, Pale Rider" (1939) are usually lauded as her best work and considered almost perfect examples of the genre. However, it was her long-awaited novel, Ship of Fools (1962), which brought Porter wide readership and financial success.

The publication of Ship of Fools was a significant literary event since Porter's reputation had already been established as an expert in short fiction. Written over a twenty-year period when Porter was busy lecturing, traveling, and doing other writing, the novel describes an ill-assorted group of tourists traveling by ship from Vera Cruz to Bremerhaven in 1931. The novel has been seen as an allegory showing the moral malaise of the world drifting into World War II. While the initial reaction was enthusiastic for the most part, subsequent revaluations focussed on the shallowness of its stereotyped characterizations, the lack of plot development, and the falsity of its prophetic tone. Most commentators concluded that Porter's excellence in short fiction could not be sustained in a longer work.

Many of Porter's fictional themes and subjects are drawn from her life. Born into a poor Southern family and losing her mother and grandmother as a child, Porter determined to make something of herself and left the South for extensive sojourns in Mexico, Europe, and other parts of the United States. From her Mexican experience came such renowned stories as "María Conception" (1922), and "Hacienda" (1934). From her trips to Europe came an early short story about an American in Nazi Germany, "The Leaning Tower" (1944), and Ship of Fools. Her best work centers on her fictional counterpart, Miranda, a young girl growing up in the South. Miranda is the protagonist of "Pale Horse, Pale Rider," a sensitive love story touched by the tragedy of war. Other Miranda stories deal with the social and human initiation of a young girl growing up in a South coming to terms with its past. "Noon Wine" is also set in the South and perhaps best illustrates the overriding theme in Porter's work: that the basic humanity of people is often corrupted by outside forces. Many commentators feel that these stories reflect Porter's reconciliation with early memories and her unbreakable ties with the South.

(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 7, 10, 13, 15; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed., Vol. 101 [obituary]; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 1; Something about the Author, Vol. 23; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 4, 9; and Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1980.)

Eudora Welty

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Most good stories are about the interior of our lives, but Katherine Anne Porter's stories take place there; they show surface only at her choosing. Her use of the physical world is enough to meet her needs and no more; she is not wasteful with anything. This artist, writing her stories with a power that stamps them to their last detail on the memory, does so to an extraordinary degree without sensory imagery.

I have the most common type of mind, the visual, and when first I began to read her stories it stood in the way of my trust in my own certainty of what was there that, for all my being bowled over by them, I couldn't see them happening. This was a very good thing for me. As her work has done in many other respects, it has shown me a thing or two about the eye of fiction, about fiction's visibility and invisibility, about its clarity, its radiance.

Heaven knows she can see…. There is, above all, "Noon Wine" to establish it forever that when she wants a story to be visible, it is. "Noon Wine" is visible all the way through, full of scenes...

(The entire section is 5,513 words.)