Be that as it may, the short story moved from Accent into the wide world of anthologies and led directly to my parents' meeting and marrying, and, in the fullness of time, to me, their first child, whom they named after Porter, which she called "charming news." It unsettles me to think that had her beneficence been acknowledged earlier as a dedication, my name would have been, I'm sure, something quite different, something entirely unsuitable.
My father and Porter met only once, but they corresponded with each other, she trying to push him on, encouraging him and offering to use her influence to secure him grants and positions, almost all of which he turned down because that's the sort of person he was. Still, what really strikes me when I read this correspondence is the spectacle of two world-class procrastinators sharing the tricks of the trade. How not to finish a novel might be called the objective, and moving from house to house and country to country, the maneuver favored by both. As luck would have it, and despite all their devices, they both finally finished their long-awaited first novels the same year, 1962, Ship of Fools for Porter and Morte D'Urban for my father. This strange feat immediately put them in competition, most importantly for the National Book Award. My father won it, and the fact that he had and Porter hadn't troubled him, but only a little, as her novel was outselling his by a huge margin -- in part because her publisher, unlike his, actually kept the book in stock.
Katherine Anne Porter was born Callie Russell Porter in Texas in 1890. While she is best known today for Ship of Fools -- her sole novel -- it is really her short stories and novellas that make her one of America's great, essential writers. (Published as a collection, they won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 1966.) These works make up half of the Library of America's just-published volume, the other half consisting of essays, critical pieces, reminiscences, and meditations. They have been selected by Porter's most recent biographer, Darlene Harbour Unrue, who has also provided notes to the text and a detailed timeline, a précis of a life propelled and sustained by hectic willpower.
Porter's fiction stands on its own, regardless of her doings and character and beliefs; but the presence in this volume of so much nonfiction, so much recollection, opinion, and critical analysis -- to say nothing of that extraordinary timeline -- allows us to see her life and work as a whole. The stories are set in the far-flung places of her peripatetic existence, among them Denver, New York, New England, Germany, and the Texas and Louisiana of her childhood. The great stories, "He" and "Noon Wine" deal with poor, hard southern lives such as she merely observed, though with an unfazed, unillusioned eye. On the other hand, "Old Mortality" and "The Old Order" owe a great deal to the memory of her childhood and are steeped in well-bred southern family lore, humming with its tensions.
In the last-named stories, there is a fictional manifestation of the great figure in Porter's life, her paternal grandmother. This is the woman whose name she adopted at age 25 and who brought her and her siblings up "on the tallest possible standards of morals, manners, and ideals of learning." She is a mighty force in "The Old Order."
Here is a woman who put things straight through will and according to time-honored usages -- and without a doubt inspired in Porter the spirit of correction that touches practically all her nonfiction pieces. But in this story we also find a scene emblematic of Porter's approach to art, an approach in direct conflict with nice manners and genteel sensibilities: to gaze upon what really exists and to portray it without squeamishness or sentimentality. In the story, the old woman has been dead for a while, the "old order" has loosened, and Miranda has run wild in dress and deportment. Her brother shoots a rabbit and cuts it open, revealing unborn baby rabbits within. "Miranda said, 'Oh, I want to see,' under her breath. She looked and looked -- excited but not frightened…filled with pity and astonishment and a kind of shocked delight in the wonderful little creatures for their own sakes…and began to tremble without knowing why. Yet she wanted most deeply to see and to know."
Porter admired her grandmother, her determination, and her desire to preserve the dignity, manners, and amenities of a vanished way of life; but she was also fascinated by the evasiveness and delusion that were more frequently the fruits of such longings. Behind them and their ills is a degree of humiliation, even shame. This is, or at least was, a southern preoccupation, but Porter brought her understanding of it to bear most powerfully in "The Leaning Tower," not a southern story at all but a brilliant and grim novella set in Weimar-era Berlin. It is about a young American attempting to become an artist among people crushed and aggrieved by military defeat, reduced to mortifying expedients by inflation and scarcity. Fraudulence is everywhere, most grotesquely in young men subjecting themselves to experts in mutilation to gain ersatz dueling scars, bogus stigmata of departed honor. The story is suffused with a miasma of crumminess but also of menace: "The long nights oppressed him with unreasonable premonitions of danger. The darkness closed over the strange city like the great fist of an enemy who had survived in full strength, a voiceless monster from a prehuman, older and colder and grimmer time of the world."
In Porter's stories, innocence -- unforgivable innocence as it really is -- tends to collude with evil and this is somewhat the case in "Leaning Tower." It is more palpably present in "Flowering Judas," the story of a virginal do-gooder drawn into dangerous proximity and actual connivance with a unsavory Mexican revolutionary leader, a man "with the malice, the cleverness, the wickedness, the sharpness of wit, the hardness of heart, stipulated for loving the world profitably."
Porter explains in a little piece included here that the inspiration for this story came in a scene glimpsed in a lighted window. Other stories draw on re-remembered and re-imagined events, among them her own multitudinous romantic and other disasters. The series of cataclysms that made up her life -- five marriages, countless affairs with men of various grades of unsuitability, abortion, miscarriage, stillbirth, deathly illness, acrimoniously severed friendship, acts of terrific vanity, constant moving, penury, squandered riches -- was redeemed in her own mind by taking responsibility for it all. Unlike the person she describes as the model for Mrs. Thompson in "Noon Wine," a woman "not meant for large emergencies," Porter was; she brought them on and served as her own destroyer. Her appreciation for the evil that lies within each human being, including herself, and her pride and vanity and fundamental perversity were such that she would not tolerate the humiliation of being victimized by anyone but herself -- though there was humiliation aplenty nonetheless. The woman at the center of the story "Theft" sums it up: "I was right not to be afraid of any thief but myself, who will end up by leaving me nothing."
For all that unchained emotion, she had a huge and bristling intelligence about writing and literature and a point of view that was sui generis. She was the least theoretical of critics and observers, perhaps because her formal education had been spotty; but this she chose to see as a strength, as no doubt it was. Her essay, "On a Criticism of Thomas Hardy" includes an acerbic tribute to the "untrained mind" as deplored by T. S. Eliot (whom she gives a good dressing down). Hardy, she says, "knew there was an element in human nature not subject to mathematical equation or the water-tight theories of dogma, and this intransigent, measureless force, divided against itself, in conflict alike with its own system of laws and the unknown laws of the universe, was the real theme of Hardy's novels, a genuinely tragic theme in the grand manner, of sufficient weight and shapelessness to try the powers of any artist." What Porter says about Hardy's views is actually truer about her own and might be seen as a summary of exactly the predicament her art attempts to express. --Katherine A. Powers
Katherine A. Powers writes the literary column "A Reading Life" for the Boston Sunday Globe and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.