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.