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South by Southwest: Katherine Anne Porter and the Burden of Texas History

South by Southwest: Katherine Anne Porter and the Burden of Texas History

by Janis P. Stout

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An interdisciplinary study of Katherine Anne Porter’s troubled relationship to her Texas origins and southern roots, South by Southwest offers a fresh look at this ever-relevant author.

Today, more than thirty years after her death, Katherine Anne Porter remains a fascinating figure. Critics and biographers have portrayed her as a strikingly


An interdisciplinary study of Katherine Anne Porter’s troubled relationship to her Texas origins and southern roots, South by Southwest offers a fresh look at this ever-relevant author.

Today, more than thirty years after her death, Katherine Anne Porter remains a fascinating figure. Critics and biographers have portrayed her as a strikingly glamorous woman whose photographs appeared in society magazines. They have emphasized, of course, her writing— particularly the novel Ship of Fools, which was made into an award-winning film, and her collection Pale Horse, Pale Rider, which cemented her role as a significant and original literary modernist. They have highlighted her dramatic, sad, and fragmented personal life. Few, however, have addressed her uneasy relationship to her childhood in rural Texas.

Janis P. Stout argues that throughout Porter’s life she remained preoccupied with the twin conundrums of how she felt about being a woman and how she felt about her Texas origins. Her construction of herself as a beautiful but unhappy southerner sprung from a plantation aristocracy of reduced fortunes meant she construed Texas as the Old South. The Texas Porter knew and re-created in her fiction had been settled by southerners like her grandparents, who brought slaves with them. As she wrote of this Texas, she also enhanced and mythologized it, exaggerating its beauty, fertility, and gracious ways as much as the disaffection that drove her to leave. Her feelings toward Texas ran to both extremes, and she was never able to reconcile them.

Stout examines the author and her works within the historical and cultural context from which she emerged. In particular, Stout emphasizes four main themes in the history of Texas that she believes are of the greatest importance in understanding Porter: its geography and border location (expressed in Porter’s lifelong fascination with marginality, indeterminacy, and escape); its violence (the brutality of her first marriage as well as the lawlessness that pervaded her hometown); its racism (lynchings were prevalent throughout her upbringing); and its marginalization of women (Stout draws a connection between Porter’s references to the burning sun and oppressive heat of Texas and her life with her first husband).

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Stout combines depth of knowledge about Porter and interdisciplinary thinking about Texas that I daresay is unique.”—Christine Hait, professor of English at Columbia College (SC), serves on the executive committee of the Katherine Anne Porter Society

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University of Alabama Press
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South by Southwest

Katherine Anne Porter and the Burden of Texas History



Copyright © 2013The university of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-1782-9



Callie Russell Porter's Texas

History, Geoculture, and the Need to Escape

The Southerner, and even more the Texan, was always gun-ready.

—William Humphrey, Farther Off from Heaven

... my America has been a borderland ...

—Katherine Anne Porter, "Why I Write about Mexico"

Katherine Anne Porter liked to call herself "the first and only serious writer that Texas has produced." By "serious writer," she would have meant a writer of literary fiction or a polished stylist, discounting historical or naturalist writing. In those terms her claim to being the first was well founded, though not, as she very well knew, her claim to being the "only." William Humphrey and William Goyen, for example, were active by the time she asserted it, in 1958, and she was well acquainted with both. Certainly she was a "serious" writer, though, and one "produced" by Texas in more ways than the mere fact of having been born there. She lived in various places around the state until she made a first, short-lived escape at the age of twenty-four, then an escape founded on better prospects four years later, in 1918. She stayed away for most of the rest of her ninety years.

To understand why it matters that one of America's greatest modernist writers was from Texas and did not want to stay there—how her Texas origins did or did not shape her and how she did or did not reconcile the dissonances between her sense of herself and her sense of Texas—we must first establish the outlines of her early life within the cultural context produced by Texas's geography and history.

Biographers often write of Porter in terms of place—where she lived, where she traveled. After she made her break with Texas in 1918 she lived in Denver and then New York, then in 1920 went to Mexico. She was back and forth between Mexico and New York four separate times by 1930, with periods in between spent in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Bermuda. In 1931 she sailed for Europe and lived variously in Berlin, Paris, and Basel before returning to the United States in 1936. Much later, she made long visits to Belgium and Italy. Yet she was quite clear (as she wrote a novelist friend in 1932) that it was Texas that had made her who she was. Was she seeking to escape herself, then, when she escaped Texas, or was she seeking to locate and define a different self that could not emerge there? There is no easy answer. She would certainly have said the latter.

Many of Porter's direct statements indicate that what getting away from Texas meant to her was personal and professional freedom. After 1918 she never again lived in Texas for more than an extended visit. Yet she never stopped yearning for the idealized version of her childhood home that she had constructed in her mind. At the same time, she repeatedly complained about the disadvantages and discomforts she remembered there. Unable simply to set aside the conflicts her bad memories caused her and leave the question alone, she kicked against those pricks as painfully as if they were Texas cactus. After she left, this "little girl from Texas in New York," as she once described herself, never again had a real home (Conv. 30). She felt her homelessness all her life. Nearly everywhere she went she entertained fantasies of staying, buying a house, and making a home. She did so one time, in one of those places—then lived in it less than a year.

* * *

Katherine Anne Porter liked to say that she was born "right smack dab in the middle of May in Texas" (Conv. 34, 32). To be exact, she was born on May 15, 1890, in a log cabin in the central Texas community of Indian Creek, about twelve miles south of Brownwood, the county seat of Brown County. The name given her at birth, which she would report in various versions over the years, was Callie Russell—Callie Russell Porter. At the time she was born, Brown County had been a legal entity for thirty-four years (since 1856), but it had retained its frontier air for quite some time after its legal establishment. The last known Indian attack in the county was in 1863, twenty-two years before Harrison Boone Porter and Mary Alice Jones Porter moved there to live as subsistence farmers in 1885. In the county just to the northeast, Eastland, a settler had been killed by Indians as recently as October 1870, only fifteen years before the Porters moved to Indian Creek, and in Parker County, to the east toward Fort Worth, Indian raids persisted until 1873. Frontier violence, then, was a thing of fairly recent memory, and Harrison Porter may have heard about Indian raids and armed pursuit by settlers from neighbors who arrived earlier. In later years he enjoyed telling his grandsons about such perils and adventures, probably none of which he ever experienced himself.

Brown County, Texas, had also seen other kinds of violence in its brief existence. The notorious John Wesley Hardin gang perpetrated numerous crimes in the area in the 1870s. County citizens hanged a suspected gang member in 1874. The peace was sometimes disturbed, too, by fights and brawls partly attributable to free-flowing liquor, which was mainly but not solely available in Brownwood. Hank Lopez writes of the area, on the basis of what information other than Porter herself he does not say, "There was an ominous hint of violence in that flowery, sweet-smelling country" (13). The sentence appears almost verbatim in Porter's essay " 'Noon Wine': The Sources," written by invitation to explain how she came to write what is often considered her finest single work, "Noon Wine." It is perhaps the primary expression of her sense of an "underlying, perpetual ominous presence of violence; violence potential that broke through the smooth surface almost without warning" during her childhood (CE 472).

When Porter reminisced to the editor of the Texas Observer in 1958 that she was "just a little girl from Texas," then, she could have said a little girl from the rough-and-ready frontier. But that would not have suited her conception of herself. She wished to be regarded as a Southerner. It is not hard to understand why. As Don Graham points out in "A Southern Writer in Texas," the South held a "privileged status" in American literature during the decades when Porter reached her maturity as a writer. Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind was the great hit of the 1930s, and William Faulkner was at the top of almost everyone's list of literary greats. There were "distinct advantages," then, quite apart from her equally real feelings of identity, in positioning herself as a Texas Southerner rather than a Texan—or worst of all, a writer of westerns (58—59). She did not want to risk being labeled a regionalist by becoming "associated in any way" with Texas folklorist J. Frank Dobie, naturalist Roy Bedichek, and historian Walter Prescott Webb, often called the Texas Triumvirate (Wade 115). She understood that Texas was a Southwestern state, she told novelist George Sessions Perry in 1943, but her own roots were Southern.

Being born in Indian Creek would not in itself support such a claim. Brown County lay to the west of the geographic division between East Texas (an extension of the South) and West Texas, running roughly along the 97th longitudinal parallel, or in today's practical terms Interstate 35. Texan Craig Clifford defines this geographic division as an "imaginary line that runs somewhere between Dallas and Fort Worth, along I-35 and the Balcones Fault" and concludes that "east of it is East Texas and west of it is West Texas and that East is South and West is West" (58—59). The fine though not prolific Texas novelist R. G. Vliet adds that this "probable dividing line" is not only a geographic but a linguistic one, marking "very nearly a clean division in idiom" between the "soft, drawling pronunciation general to the South" and a "brusque, consonantal harshness understood as 'western'" (19). All this is directly pertinent to an understanding of Porter. The town of Kyle, where she lived with her Porter grandmother from the age of two, is located directly at the break, in Hays County. In Vliet's words, "South and Southwest ran simultaneously through her childhood, right there in Kyle" (21).

That geographic line of meeting or separation means that Texas was, and to some extent still is, a border state twice over. "The border" or "down on the border" usually refers to the Rio Grande River, the Texas portion of the U.S. border with Mexico. We can be sure that, given its context, that is what Porter meant when she called "her" America a "borderland" (CE 256). Even so, the unofficial border at the Balcones Escarpment where South butts up against West is equally real. Thinking of Texas and the Southwest as sites of multiple borders and borderlands is not new. Tom Pilkington, in his 1973 book My Blood's Country, saw the uniqueness of the topography of the Southwest as its "rims and borders." Nowhere else in the United States, he proposed, are differences of landform "so numerous or so proximate." Pilkington's use of the border idiom here is literal and descriptive; he is speaking specifically of landforms and envisioning the more western stretches of Texas and on into New Mexico and Arizona. But the words "border" and "borderland" also lean toward more figurative meanings. Pilkington, for instance, in writing that the national border with Mexico is "never very far," shifts from a geographic to a legal sense of bordering. He shifts again to a genuinely figurative sense when he points out that the strip along the Balcones Escarpment can also be thought of as a borderland "where cultures clash, where the myth of the South meets the myth of the West" (3—4).

No one knew better than Porter how language could slide between literal and figurative, or symbolic, meanings. Today, accustomed as we are to a public discourse of diversity and cultural pluralism, "border" and "borderland" are useful metaphors referring to all sorts of abutments, breaks, overlappings, ambiguities, and sites of conflict. Such metaphors were not so common, however, when, a decade after Pilkington, cultural critic and poet Gloria Anzaldúa published Borderlands/La Frontera (1987). Herself a mestiza from the Texas-Mexico borderlands, Anzaldúa begins her mixed-genre book with the literal, legal border at the Rio Grande but extends the concept to widely encompassing dimensions. Invoking both personal experience and a literary theory of multiple languages or voices within a single space or text, she uses the bilingual borderland along the Rio Grande as a model for thinking about "places" where cultures, races, or classes come together, oppose one another, and overlap. Primarily, though, her concern is with gender—a subject of great importance as we think about Porter. Writers who speak from dual ethnicity or who are torn between old and new ways of gendering, Anzaldúa writes, will tend to see and speak doubly much in the way bilingual writers do.

Both of these critics, Pilkington and Anzaldúa, provide valuable ways of thinking about the importance of place in Porter's early life, conditioned as it was by the presence of not one but two geographic borders. Porter was not bilingual or of mixed ethnicity like more recent Texas writers Sandra Cisneros and Rolando Hinojosa, both of whom write in Spanish as well as English, nor does the act of crossing the Rio Grande into Mexico and back assume as central a position in her work as it does in the fictional world of adoptive Texan Cormac McCarthy. Yet she, too, was a border-crosser. Physically, she crossed the U.S.-Mexican border at least five times. The proximity of Mexico to Texas and the United States plays a major role in her art by providing her at once a congenial refuge and an alternative vision and perspective on her own culture. At the same time, and even more pervasively, her childhood in central Texas provided the awareness of the Old South and of contrasts between South and West that were central to her self-conception and to the work by which she has been best known, the Miranda stories. The ambivalent, or "bordered," quality of her imagination grew from dual roots in dual borderlands.

Growing up in Kyle, Porter was powerfully shaped by tensions and incongruities rooted in the unmarked but quite real border zone between South and West that bisected Hays County—such tensions and incongruities as tradition versus change, allegiance to the past versus an urge toward the future, ladylike demeanor versus free womanhood, dependence and passivity versus self-reliance. She often seemed more concerned with the Southern term in these pairs (tradition, past, being ladylike), but she also had a powerful drive toward values that she and most other Americans associated with the West (change, newness, freedom). The conflict would have major and lasting significance in her life.

In terms of landform and climate, there are enormous differences between the two major divisions of Texas marked by the Balcones Fault. To the east the land is heavily wooded and well watered. To the west, after the initial drop-off, it is higher, drier, and barer. East Texas was farming and lumbering country, "the farthest reach of the Cotton Kingdom"; West Texas was "the home turf of the Cattle Kingdom" (Clifford 60). The distinction has now been blurred by the advent of massive irrigation in the northern panhandle and western plains but was definitely applicable when Porter was growing up. Although Pilkington calls the influence of Spain and Mexico "the one force" that "provides a measure of cultural cohesion" in Texas as a whole (6), in a major part of the state the legacy of the American South was just as unifying. Craig Clifford is closer to the mark when he asserts that "Texas—and I mean all of it—is both Southern and Western" and "Texas, all of Texas, is also Mexican" (68)—a vision more of multilayering than of cohesion.

Texas was indeed from its beginnings as a political entity a space in which Anglo, black, Mexican, and native races overlapped and bumped up against each other. The dominant Anglo group itself became diversified by the mid-1800s with an influx of immigrants from Europe. Primarily these were Germans, who began settling in central Texas in the early 1830s and were joined by a second wave, the "48ers," who left Europe during the tumult of the 1848 revolutions. Several German families lived in and around Kyle, including the family of Porter's best friend, Erna Schlemmer, originally from Prussia. Czechs began arriving in the 1840s, Poles began immigrating around mid-century, and smaller numbers of French settlers established not only Jean Lafitte's "republic" on Galveston Island in 1827 but also a socialist community called La Reunion near Dallas in the 1850s. As Porter said, the America to which she was born—which is to say, late nineteenth-century Texas—was a "borderland of strange languages and commingled races" (CE 356).

The most obvious economic differences between East and West Texas were those between farming and ranching. In Hays County the two overlapped. The northeastern quarter or third of the county, where Grandmother Porter owned land, supported or had supported black-land farming; the western part was limestone hill country, better suited to ranching. A young Callie Porter could see both in the environs of Kyle but had a better opportunity to observe the contrast when she accompanied her grandmother to West Texas to visit uncles living in Marfa and El Paso. She then saw firsthand the very different western landscape, a ranching culture, and a far greater preponderance of Mexican workers.

Only a few decades later the entire state would take on something of the image of the West through the purposeful efforts of folklorist J. Frank Dobie. It is in the redoubtable figure of Dobie, who "devoted a lifetime to studying the ranching tradition" (Graham, Giant Country 175), that the issue of South versus West comes into focus. Dobie orchestrated a shift in the image of Texas through a reconstruction of its history and culture designed, according to James Lee, to "promote Texas as a far western state untainted by its Confederate background" (Adventures 81). That was quite the contrary of Porter's Texas. Dobie's numerous books, beginning with A Vaquero of the Brush Country in 1929, were devoted to tales of the ranching past and "men who carried side arms and herded cattle." But as Lee points out, when Dobie launched his campaign in the 1930s most Texans were in fact—and regarded themselves as—Southerners (Adventures 3, 77). According to the 1940 Federal Writers Project guide to Texas, 60 percent of Texans then lived in rural areas where cotton was king. But the "corn, cotton, and mules" Texas (Clifford 46) did not appeal either to Dobie or to Hollywood. Don Graham recalls that even though Collin County, where he grew up, was "entirely southern," the movie houses in nearby McKinney played "countless westerns." What he learned from these and from his reading of westerns was that his own Texas and his own people "did not really count" ("Nine Ball" 47— 49). Even Collin County would eventually become "thoroughly westernized" (Giant Country 7, 21).


Excerpted from South by Southwest by JANIS P. STOUT. Copyright © 2013 by The university of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Janis P. Stout is a professor emerita of English at Texas A&M University. She is the author or editor of numerous scholarly books, including Katherine Anne Porter: A Sense of the Times and Through the Window, Out the Door: Women's Narratives of Departure, from Austin and Cather to Tyler, Morrison, and Didion. She is also the author of three novels and, most recently, a memoir, This Last House: A Retirement Memoir.

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