Katherine Anne Porter Porter, Katherine Anne (Vol. 27) - Essay


(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 charged with dramatic energy; everything is brought forth into movement, dialogue; the title itself is Mr. Helton's tune on the harmonica. "Noon Wine" is the most beautifully objective work she has done. And nothing has been sacrificed to its being so (or she wouldn't have done it); to the contrary. I find Mr. Hatch the scariest character she ever made, and he's just set down there in Texas, like a chair. There he stands, part of the everyday furniture of living. He's opaque, and he's the devil. Walking in at Mr. Thompson's gate—the same gate by which his tracked-down victim walked in first—he is that much more horrifying, almost too solid to the eyes to be countenanced. (So much for the visual mind.)

Katherine Anne Porter has not in general chosen to cast her stories in scenes. Her sense of human encounter is profound, is fundamental to her work, I believe, but she has not often allowed it the dramatic character it takes in "Noon Wine." We may not see the significant moment happen within the story's present; we may not watch it occur between the two characters it joins. Instead, a silent blow falls while one character is alone—the most alone in his life, perhaps…. Often the revelation that pierces a character's mind and heart and shows him his life or his death comes in a dream, in retrospect, in illness or in utter defeat, the moment of vanishing hope, the moment of dying. What Miss Porter makes us see are those subjective worlds of hallucination, obsession, fever, guilt. The presence of death hovering about Granny Weatherall she makes as real and brings as near as Granny's own familiar room that stands about her bed—realer, nearer, for we recognize not only death's presence but the character death has come in for Granny Weatherall.

The flash of revelation is revelation but is unshared. But how unsuspecting we are to imagine so for a moment—it is shared, and by ourselves, her readers, who must share it feeling the doubled anguish of knowing this fact, doubled still again when it is borne in upon us how close to life this is, to our lives. (pp. 30-2)

Katherine Anne Porter shows us that we do not have to see a story happen to know what is taking place. For all we are to know, she is not looking at it happen herself when she writes it; for her eyes are always looking through the gauze of the passing scene, not distracted by the immediate and transitory; her vision is reflective.

Her imagery is as likely as not to belong to a time other than the story's present, and beyond that it always differs from it in nature; it is memory imagery, coming into the story from memory's remove. It is a distilled, a re-formed imagery, for it is part of a language made to speak directly of premonition, warning, surmise, anger, despair. (p. 32)

Katherine Anne Porter's moral convictions have given her readers another way to see. Surely these convictions represent the fixed points about which her work has turned, and not only that but they govern her stories down to the smallest detail. Her work has formed a constellation, with its own North Star. (pp. 32-3)

In Katherine Anne Porter's stories the effect has surely been never to diminish life but always to intensify life in the part significant to her story. It is a darkening of the house as the curtain goes up on this stage of her own….

Since her subject is what lies beneath the surface, her way—quite direct—is to penetrate, brush the stuff away. It is the writer like Chekhov whose way of working is indirect. He moved indeed toward the same heart and core but by building up some corresponding illusion of life. Writers of Chekhov's side of the family are themselves illusionists and have necessarily a certain fondness for, lenience toward, the whole shimmering fabric as such. Here we have the professional scientist, the good doctor, working with illusion and the born romantic artist—is she not?—working without it. Perhaps it is always the lyrical spirit that takes on instantaneous color, shape, pattern of motion in work, while the meditative spirit must fly as quickly as possible out of the shell.

All the stories she has written are moral stories about love and the hate that is love's twin, love's impostor and enemy and death. Rejection, betrayal, desertion, theft roam the pages of her stories as they roam the world. (p. 33)

We hear in how many more stories than the one the litany of the little boy at the end of "The Downward Path to Wisdom," his "comfortable, sleepy song": "I hate Papa, I hate Mama, I hate Grandma, I hate Uncle David, I hate Old Janet, I hate Marjory, I hate Papa, I hate Mama…." It is like the long list of remembered losses in the story "Theft" made vocal, and we remember how that loser's decision to go on and let herself be robbed coincides with the rising "in her blood" of "a deep almost murderous anger." (p. 34)

I think it is the faces—the inner, secret faces—of her characters, in their self-delusion, their venom and pain, that their author herself is contemplating….

If outrage is the emotion she has most strongly expressed, she is using outrage as her cool instrument. She uses it with precision to show what monstrosities of feeling come about not from the lack of the existence of love but from love's repudiation, betrayal….

The anger that speaks everywhere in the stories would trouble the heart for their author whom we love except that her anger is pure, the reason for it evident and...

(The entire section is 2721 words.)

Jane Flanders

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Katherine Anne Porter is seldom recognized as a feminist, and little known as a literary critic. She was both…. Porter exhibits in her work a well-trained critical intellect which frequently addressed itself, particularly during the early part of her career, to women's rights and women's concerns. Her book reviews from the 1920's provide ample evidence both of her critical abilities and of her commitment to the feminist cause….

These early book reviews illustrate Porter's forthrightness, her liberal spirit, and her witty mastery of English. They trace the formation of her critical tastes and knowledge of her craft…. They warrant attention not because of the works discussed (most of which have...

(The entire section is 640 words.)

Robert Penn Warren

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

No exploration of Katherine Anne Porter's "personality" … can explain the success of her art: the scrupulous and expressive intricacy of structure, the combination of a precision of language, the revealing shock of precise observation and organic metaphor, a vital rhythmic felicity of style, and a significant penetration of a governing idea into the remotest details of a work. If, as V. S. Pritchett has put it, the writer of short stories is concerned with "one thing that implies many"—or much—then we have here a most impressive artist.

How did Katherine Anne Porter transmute life finally into art? In her journal of 1936, she herself provided a most succinct, simple, and precise answer to the...

(The entire section is 732 words.)

Donald E. Stanford

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Katherine Anne Porter, who died last September …, was best known to the public for her one and only novel, Ship of Fools, which, when published in 1962, immediately became a best seller. (p. 1)

Ship of Fools is a brilliant book. Porter herself was fond of it, and she pointed out to carping critics that it developed a major theme present in most of her work—the theme of the life of illusion, of self-deception. But it is not a great novel. The structure is loosely episodic and the crowded cast of characters is far too large. Porter apparently did not have the ability to construct a satisfactory plot of novel length that would bring into a significant relationship a few fully developed characters. Ship of Fools cannot stand comparison with the great Victorian novels nor with the major work of Henry James (whom, incidentally, Porter greatly admired). Her true genre was the short story and the novella (or long short story), and her accomplishments in those forms can stand any comparison. Porter once said, "I don't believe in style: The style is you," and she didn't like being called a stylist. Nevertheless, she may be, in fact, the greatest stylist in prose fiction in English of this century. There is of course the aforementioned Henry James, but a comparison, for example, of the opening pages of her "Hacienda" with the opening pages of The Ambassadors would be instructive to a young writer learning his craft. Sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, Porter is better. Compared to her precise perceptions and carefully modulated rhythms, James's prose is somewhat slow-moving, ponderous, and diffuse. (pp. 1-2)

As time goes by, the accomplishments in American fiction, poetry, and criticism between the wars take on more and more significance. Katherine Anne Porter's stories, especially those written during this period, will be given an increasingly high position in our literary heritage. (p. 2)

Donald E. Stanford, "Katherine Anne Porter" (copyright, 1981, by Donald E. Stanford), in The Southern Review, Vol. 17, No. 1, January, 1981, pp. 1-2.

Jan Nordby Gretlund

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[It] is a fact that K. A. Porter was as emotionally involved with the South as William Faulkner and Eudora Welty. Her love for her South is reflected in her writing. (p. 441)

Some critical comments demonstrate how fatal it can be to overlook K. A. Porter's emotional involvement with her native area. She created a myth from her family history, but she did not mistake the myth for reality. And she did not idealize or sentimentalize the past, yet she made it clear that there is no escape from it. The characters in her fiction see the past for what it is, so they may organize their lives in terms of the actual. And the past provides the standard by which they finally judge, and by which they are judged...

(The entire section is 629 words.)