Katherine Anne Porter: The Life of an Artist


From the moment Katherine Anne Porter arrived on the American literary scene in 1922, the public was intrigued with her life. Yet she herself revealed only scant facts of her background and often gave conflicting accounts. She maintained, though, that a germ of her own experience lay at the core of everything she wrote.

In Katherine Anne Porter: The Life of an Artist, Darlene Harbour Unrue finds that Porter's deceptions were a screen for deep personal turmoil. With unprecedented...

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From the moment Katherine Anne Porter arrived on the American literary scene in 1922, the public was intrigued with her life. Yet she herself revealed only scant facts of her background and often gave conflicting accounts. She maintained, though, that a germ of her own experience lay at the core of everything she wrote.

In Katherine Anne Porter: The Life of an Artist, Darlene Harbour Unrue finds that Porter's deceptions were a screen for deep personal turmoil. With unprecedented access to archival and personal papers, Unrue brings much new information to light. Porter's maternal grandmother was institutionalized; Porter had more marriages than she acknowledged; she lost babies to miscarriage, abortion, and stillbirth, and she grieved over her failed motherhood. Ever present were her fears of exile and insanity.

Despite these constant fears, Porter (1890-1980) lived an extraordinary life that vaulted her from poverty and obscurity to wealth and the fame of being a best-selling author. She experienced or observed many of the major events of the twentieth century. So often on the move, she lived in Greenwich Village during its heyday as a hotbed of radical politics and experimental art, in Mexico during the cultural revolution of the 1920s, in Europe during the rise of Nazism, and in America during the Cold War. Thirteen years old when she first rode in an automobile and saw an airplane, she was invited in her last decade to observe and write about the launching of the final Apollo space ship. Asked to summarize her own life, Porter was fond of quoting Madame Du Barry: "My life has been incredible. I don't believe a word of it!"

Darlene Harbour Unrue is a professor of English at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. She has written several books on Katherine Anne Porter, including Understanding Katherine Anne Porter and Truth and Vision in Katherine Anne Porter's Fiction.

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Katherine Anne Porter


University Press of Mississippi

Copyright © 2005 Darlene Harbour Unrue
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-57806-777-4

Chapter One

Indian Creek


The sound of ... mourning doves in the leafless trees ... always makes me frightfully homesick for something I never knew and cannot describe, or a place very far off or that maybe does not exist at all.

"I was born on the other side of airplanes"-so Katherine Anne Porter loosely observed in one of her aborted attempts at autobiography. She was, in fact, born on the other side also of automobiles and radios, when American women were thirty years away from suffrage and Native American resistance to white settlement was still a fact in some parts of the United States. Her birth year-1890-was notable also, however, as an emblem of advancement and change. If it was a year of oil lamps and horse-drawn wagons, it was also a year of electricity, railroads, a new advertising industry, and the manufacturing of everything from steel to pancake flour.

Katherine Anne Porter eventually saw her very life a reflection of the Janus faces of 1890: "I was bred to nineteenth century standards and belong by nature to a generation still later than my own," she wrote. She meant that her manners and some of her tastes conformed to those of the mid-nineteenth century but that her artistic vision and philosophy belonged to the twentieth. She was pointing out also that she was modern in her distaste for conventions that restricted women and as young (in attitude, at least) as some of her lovers and husbands. She had limned her lifelong conflict between Victorian values and modernist revolt.

In 1890 Benjamin Harrison was president of the United States. Presbyterian deacon and former Union general, he nurtured the genteel in manners and art and a post-Civil War spirit of commerce in the urban centers of the manufacturing Northeast. He and his Republican Congress, however, seemed unable to do much to alleviate the poverty in the region south of the Ohio-Potomac line and west of the Mississippi River where many farmers and ranchers had fallen back on tenant farming and sharecropping to make a bare living. It was into the impoverished farm area of central Texas and among such economically reduced people that Katherine Anne Porter was born at Indian Creek, in Brown County, 15 May 1890, the fourth child of Harrison Boone Porter and Mary Alice Jones Porter.

Harrison and Alice Porter were themselves children of prosperous, literate pioneers who had moved from the Upper South before the Civil War and had brought to the rough frontier of the Texas prairies a refined Puritanism and Old South culture. Katherine Anne described her parents as members of the "somehow gay and spirited and lively and attractive generation" who still had "tradition" and "land." There was some truth in her generalization.

Harrison Porter was handsome-dark haired and fair skinned-and debonair. Described by a cousin as the Beau Brummel of the community, he was known for the spirited horses he rode. He was also well read, especially in history and philosophy, having been educated at the Texas Military Institute, at College Station. In 1874 he had joined the Travis Rifles, a home guard company organized for the purpose of helping rid the region of carpetbaggers believed to be corrupting the state government. When his father died in 1879, he returned to the family farm in Hays County to help his mother. Soon he began courting Alice Jones, whom he met shortly before the wedding of his sister Louellah and Alice's brother George.

Everyone who knew Alice said she was pretty and charming, describing her as tall and slender with perfect teeth, copper-colored hair, and smooth white skin. She was also musically talented, sincerely religious, and well educated for her time and place. She had graduated as valedictorian from the Coronal Institute, a coeducational boarding and day school in San Marcos. The school's association with the Methodist Church and its general doctrinal base ensured a religious emphasis compatible with Alice's values, as they were reflected in her valedictory address, "Does the Bible Teach the Doctrine of an Everlasting Life?" Alice concluded that it unquestionably does.

Alice and Harrison's courtship and engagement lasted three years, during which they were frequently apart while Alice taught school in Mountain City and Harrison lived away from Hays County working on the railroad. In their letters they discreetly addressed each other as "Friend" and were careful to avoid any language that could be construed as intimate. Alice was inclined to moralizing and poetic excess, and Harrison's own florid letters reveal a streak of melancholy and fretful self-pity that beset him even as a young man. Although Katherine Anne satirized the kind of overblown and didactic sentimentality found in their correspondence, she never expressly associated it with her parents and even told her father that she inherited her "literary bent" from him.

Alice broke their engagement near the end of 1882 when she became convinced Harrison was overly fond of hard liquor. "Almost everyone approves indulging in 'egg-nog' at Christmas," she wrote. "I do not. I think the day is only celebrated as it should be." Katherine Anne preferred to believe that her mother was not one of the prim and stern-faced Calvinists she derided in such stories as "He" and "That Tree" and her short novel Noon Wine. She told an interviewer that family members had reported Alice's talent for mimicry, an "impish quality" that delighted those who heard her tell stories, while others mentioned her kindliness and romantic sensibility. In fact, Alice did seem to have a streak of idealistic impracticality. In the "egg-nog" letter she described herself as a wanderer who would not be content until she found an "El Dorado."

In the spring of 1883, Alice and Harrison reconciled and planned a wedding for the summer. The timing was prompted not by Alice's discovery of an ideal place but by her new and unpleasant feeling of homelessness. Her father, John Newton Jones, had sold the family farm in Seguin, in Guadalupe County, where Alice had grown up, and he and her two brothers were moving 127 miles northwest to Indian Creek, where he had bought 640 acres of farmland. The uprooting was made even more painful for her because her mother, Caroline Lee Frost Jones, recently had been declared insane, and Alice's father was placing her in a private home for the mentally ill near Seguin.

Not much is known about Caroline Jones. Harrison told Katherine Anne that he believed she had grown up with foster parents in Tennessee. Others mentioned her beauty and air of good breeding. Neither is much known about her mental illness. Katherine Anne speculatively called it "melancholia," but at the age of forty-eight, Caroline might have been suffering nervous symptoms associated with menopause, "uterine problems" being one of the recognized causes of "lunacy" at the time.

John Jones, widely respected and admired (Harrison called him "the best man I ever knew"), made no effort to hide Caroline or her illness from his new community. Her name is listed among the founding members of Indian Creek's Oswalt Methodist Episcopal Church, and, apparently, when her nervous strength permitted, she visited with the family. She was probably not present, however, at Alice and Harrison's wedding that summer in the Jones home, where the ceremony was conducted by the Reverend Noah Byars, a Baptist circuit preacher well known throughout Brown County.

The first two years of their marriage Alice and Harrison lived in Hays County on Harrison's mother's farm, where their first child, a daughter, was born. They named her Anna Gay for Harrison's favorite sister and called her Gay. Although Harrison was earning their meager living by farming his mother's land, he hoped to resume his work for the railroad. He resigned himself to be a farmer, however, when John Jones offered him and Alice a free tenancy on his Indian Creek farm. Late in 1885 they moved to Indian Creek, joining Alice's father, her older brother, T. A. (Lon), and his wife, Sallie, and Alice's younger brother, George, and his wife, Louellah, Harrison's sister.

Indian Creek was a primitive frontier community lying at the southern edge of Brown County. Inhabited by several dozen farm families who lived in sod or log houses, the area was flat, with native grasses growing in profusion and mesquite and cottonwood trees edging the banks of the east-and-west-running creek. Within the unincorporated town were a general store and post office, a blacksmith shop, a cotton gin, a school in one farmer's pasture, and several churches.

Near the carriage road on the north bank of the creek Harrison and Alice built an L-shaped, two-room log house and fenced it in the Kentucky paddock style. They purchased a "modern" stove and filled their house with some fine pieces of furniture, such as a rolltop desk and spindle beds, that Harrison's parents had carried from Kentucky thirty years earlier. Within this small house Alice and Harrison began to increase their family, and by 1887 two-year-old Gay had a brother, whom they named Harry Ray.

Because Gay was the only one of Alice and Harrison's children to remember details of the family's years at Indian Creek, Katherine Anne would rely on her to give life to her fantasies about her own beginnings. Gay told her about the vineyards, roses, and chinaberry trees, Alice's baking corn cakes, and Harrison's playing the violin. She also remembered attending the Oswalt Methodist Episcopal Church, where Harrison, no doubt in deference to Alice, was superintendent of the Sunday school and where Alice sat in the church, wearing a black lace hat and a blue-and-white dress of gingham, and sang "Jesus Is a Rock in a Weary Land."

Alice and Harrison's years at Indian Creek were indeed spent in a weary land. For three disastrous years of severe drought Harrison had to struggle to save their livestock and crops and provide food for the family. Alice grew so frail that Harrison referred to her as his "invalid wife." Childbearing depleted her strength, as did an increasing burden of grief in an accumulation of family deaths. In March of 1885 Louellah and George Jones lost an infant son. In March Harrison's sister Anna Gay died, and in September Louellah died of typhus. Fifteen days later her two-and-a-half-year-old son also died. But still more tragedy was to come. In 1888 Alice's father, John Jones, died unexpectedly at the age of fifty-five. A year later Alice gave birth to a son she and Harrison named Johnnie in memory of her father, but Johnnie died, probably of influenza, soon after his first birthday. Gay described their mother as dry-eyed with grief, sitting at the head of Johnnie's grave, already pregnant with her fourth child, Katherine Anne.

Katherine Anne Porter was born on a sunny Thursday that in later life she imagined as festooned with flowers. When Gay and three-year-old Harry Ray were taken into their mother's room, Alice smiled, turned back a cover, and said, "Do you want to see my little Tad?" "And there you were," Gay told Katherine Anne, "like a new born little black puppy, your little black curls stuck to your head in damp waves." Alice named the baby Callie Russell Porter in honor of the twelve-year-old daughter of the Porters' Indian Creek neighbors William and Marinda Russell.

William and Marinda-she was known by the more common name "Miranda" in Indian Creek and remembered there as Miranda afterward-were twenty years older than Harrison and Alice. They had been in Indian Creek since 1875 and were well regarded in the community. Alice must have looked to Marinda Russell for help and advice in the absence of her mother, just as Harrison depended on William, especially after John Jones's death. The youngest of the Russells' seven children, Callie Jo might have stayed with Alice to help with household chores and manage Gay and Harry Ray during the late months of Alice's last three pregnancies.

Katherine Anne eventually convinced herself that "Callie" was a shortened form of the more elegant "Callista," and she identified her namesake as a close friend of her mother's. It is hard to imagine that she had not asked Harrison explicitly about this "friend" and had not known that Callie Jo was twelve years old in 1890, especially since she regularly plied Harrison with questions about her mother: "Was she beautiful? Did she ever spank my sister? How did she meet [you]? And how did she wear her hair? I had to know everything," she said. She must have known the names of Callie's parents because even after Harrison left Indian Creek he kept in touch with William and Marinda. The role of the Russell family in Katherine Anne Porter's infancy and naming presents intriguing possibilities for the reasons she chose "Miranda" for the most autobiographical of her fictional characters.

After Katherine Anne's birth Alice was more noticeably unwell. She nevertheless became pregnant again in April of 1891. Katherine Anne later pointed out that "birth control (assuming they had known about it) would have been the last thing in the world they would have practiced. It would have been considered indecent to trifle with nature." On 24 January 1892, Alice gave birth to another daughter. But this time she was weakened beyond recovery. She died two months later.

Alice's death was devastating to Harrison. He refused to let anyone else touch her body, and he himself performed all the ministrations before he allowed it to be placed in a coffin and buried beside Johnnie's in the Lamar Churchyard at Indian Creek. He attached Alice's glass-encased photograph to her tombstone, on which he had a tribute engraved:

Dearest loved one We have laid thee In the Peaceful Grave's embrace But thy memory Will we cherish Till we see thy Heavenly face.

Within a few weeks Harrison named the infant "Mary Alice" to commemorate her mother, but she would always, even in adulthood, be called "Baby" by the family. Then Harrison began the mourning that would last his lifetime.

Katherine Anne in later years blamed her father for her mother's death, and she never quite forgave Baby for having been born. "Five children in eight years!" she exclaimed in rage directed at Harrison. "No wonder our mother died of pneumonia after the exposure of childbirth in January in that house!" she told Gay. Writing to Baby on her birthday in 1942, she began, "Dear Baby: It is half past three in the morning of your birthday, very nearly the hour you were born ... Our mother began her long dying on this day fifty years ago."

Harrison fought against feeling responsible for Alice's early death and shifted the blame to Alice and the children. "If your mother had listened to me," he told his children during their childhood, "none of you would have been born!" This statement made it easy for Katherine Anne to conclude that she and her sisters and brothers had been born because their mother had wanted them and loved them. "She lost her life on this point of faith," Katherine Anne said.

As soon as Alice died, Harrison's widowed mother, Catharine Ann Skaggs Porter, went to Indian Creek to help him with his motherless children and to convince him to move to Hays County to live with her. He felt that he had no choice since alone he could not manage the farm and his four small children. Neither did he have any heart, according to Indian Creek neighbors, for staying on in the house he had shared with Alice. Fifty years later one of his neighbors, who had been a child at the time, could still call up the scene of the family's departure: "There was an auction. They sold all their things. I was there, I remember. We bought the churn. Somebody bought the high chair. With the baby sitting in it ... Katherine Anne was a little girl. Pretty little girl, I remember, running around all over everywhere, with little black curls." Once they left, Harrison and his children returned to Indian Creek only twice during the remainder of their lives.


Excerpted from Katherine Anne Porter by DARLENE HARBOUR UNRUE Copyright © 2005 by Darlene Harbour Unrue. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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