Letters of Katherine Anne Porter

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Katherine Anne Porter loved to write letters, long letters, and out of the thousands she produced in a long lifetime (1890-1980), Isabel Bayley (Porter’s literary executor) provides a sampling of such high quality that it is possible to see how Porter created her life as she wrote her fiction--slowly, in fits and starts, and with the utmost care. It is perhaps true that all letter writers are, in some sense, narrating their lives, but Porter seems to have positively relished the letter form, taking the time to acquaint her friends not only about her activities but about the very texture of her life.

For those interested in the origins of Porter’s great novel, SHIP OF FOOLS, there is a long letter she wrote during an ocean voyage that became the basis of the work she labored on for more than twenty years, slowly absorbing the scenes of her experience and transforming them into the episodes of a definitive fiction. The letters comment on her short stories and on her unfinished biography of Cotton Mather. Frequently, Porter expresses her dedication to writing and to her search for a kind of life that will help make her art thrive.

The letters show Porter to have been a loving and devoted friend. She had high expectations and was most generous with young writers who had talent. She accepted her role as a “literary woman” most seriously without ever sounding pompous or condescending. She had her quirks--as she ruefully admits in several letters--and was unfortunate in her choice of husbands, but whatever her faults these letters redeem her imperfections by demonstrating the depth of her perceptions--the very thing she wanted most from her writing: to see clearly and to tell a story well.

Sources for Further Study

America. CLXIII, November 3, 1990, p.330.

Belles Lettres. V, Spring, 1990, p.30.

Booklist. LXXXVI, March 1, 1990, p.1257.

Chicago Tribune. April 29, 1990, p.3.

The Houston Post. July 15, 1990, p. C6.

Kirkus Reviews. LVIII, April 1, 1990, p.489.

Library Journal. CXV, April 15, 1990, p.93.

The New York Times Book Review. XCV, May 27, 1990, p.1.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVII, April 6, 1990, p.106.

The Washington Post Book World. XX, April 29, 1990, p.4.

Letters of Katherine Anne Porter

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

This is one of the most comprehensive and clearly ordered collections of a major American literary figure’s letters. Isabel Bayley is Katherine Anne Porter’s literary executor. She has obviously spent many years pondering the letters and deciding how best to present them. In her acknowledgments she thanks, among others, Leon Fdel, who advised her on the work, and it is apparent that she has profited greatly from the counsel she has sought.

One of the problems of large collections of letters is continuity. It is often difficult to sustain narrative momentum, to keep relationships between correspondents clear, and to shape a sense of the subject’s life. Bayley has solved these problems by including a detailed chronology, a “who’s who” section, and an incisive introduction that samples and introduces the themes of the letters. In addition, Bayley divides the book into sections, each corresponding to a phase in Porter’s life—a phase that is emphasized in paragraph-long introductions that set the scene and touch on key phrases in the letters.

This careful structure would be for naught if Porter did not exhibit the characteristics of a great letter writer. Fortunately, she is always lively and engaging, writing at length about both her writing and her personal life—indeed, intertwining the two in a way that makes her phrase about herself, “a literary woman,” a most apt characterization. Art and the life of the artist were never far from Porter’s concerns. She was a totally dedicated writer who sometimes sorrowed over how slowly her stories came to her but who insisted that she would not rush herself Her highly principled and loving nature comes through clearly in her letters. Certainly she had her quirks, and she was the first to regret her woeful selection of husbands, but the relish she took in sharing her life with others—such as fellow writers Glenway Wescott and Robert Penn Warren—and their devotion to her make reading the letters a stimulating and edifying experience.

Porter seems to have relied on her correspondence not merely to stay in touch with friends and family and to conduct business but also to construct a narrative, an ongoing account of her experience on which she expected friends to comment. Yet there is nothing self-conscious about the letters or anything pretentious. She has a fascinating passage in one of her letters about men being the heroes of their life stories and suggests that women “give themselves dead away.” She may have been exaggerating a bit, but there is a sense in which her letters bear her out, for she is constantly admitting how vulnerable she is and confessing that she is “full of misgivings and reconsiderations.” At nearly the same time, however, she recognizes that she is “fairly tough inside.” She seems to be able to cope with any degree of personal disappointment and not to be shaken by the many periods in which her work is interrupted, often because of pressing financial problems.

The range of Porter’s experience is impressive. She was in Berlin to see the ascension of the Nazis, in Mexico during revolutionary upheavals, a part of the Sacco-Vanzetti protest, and an inveterate traveler who lived in various parts of the United States and Furope. It is good to have her long letter about her ocean voyage to Furope, which became the basis of her novel Ship of Fools (1962). In the letter she delineates the atmosphere and character relationships on which she would work for more than twenty years before releasing the novel to great acclaim.

As devoted as she was to art, Porter believed that art was one thing, life another and that the two should not be confused, even though they often fed on each other. In one of her letters, she suggested that if Fzra Pound was indeed a traitor, then he should be hanged not saved because of his literary reputation. She took this position out of no animosity toward Pound. Quite the contrary, in other letters she acknowledged him as one of the greats of her period, but she saw the danger of privileging art when it came to the demands of citizenship. Pound, she believed, should be judged as any other man or woman is judged in such matters.

Although Porter cooperated with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) during what she called the “serio-comic so- called witch-hunts,” she held no brief for distasteful investigative methods and told one FBI agent as much. She was deeply offended when a university...

(The entire section is 1831 words.)