Katherine Anne Porter is a case of a writer whose last fiction seemed oddly ill-matched with the work that preceded it. Readers of a certain age may remember the literary hoopla surrounding the publication of her only novel, Ship of Fools, in 1962. A work of twenty years’ labor, the book was reviewed everywhere, called “a great work of art” by Mark Schorer, went onto the best-seller list, and was sold to the movies for $400,000. The author’s shrewd, imperious visage appeared in the pages of the Saturday Review and other publications. But readers who actually bothered to start this 497-page novel did not often finish it. Finally a critic told the truth about the book: Theodore Solotaroff, in a long essay-review in Commentary, did an inventory of its faults that still seems, from a distance of over four decades, definitive and irrefutable.
But at the time of its publication, Ship of Fools appeared to have almost everything: a large cast of pan-European blowhards, a historical moment of considerable importance (1931), and great themes having to do with prejudice and international relations. Indeed, Ship of Fools had almost everything except the one element it needed, the breath of life. After a few years, the novel fell off the shelf into oblivion.
None of this would have mattered very much if Katherine Anne Porter’s short stories hadn’t been among the best ever written by an American. But they were so remarkably good, so touched with genius, that the spectacle that followed their publication is more than a bit disheartening. A writer whose work could justly be compared to Tolstoy’s spent over twenty years of her life working on a bloated and sententious novel. With the publication of the Library of America’s edition of the Collected Stories and Other Writings, some questions naturally arise, although most of them are unanswerable. Where did the stories come from? And then what happened?
Katherine Anne Porter made a habit of misrepresenting the year of her birth, 1890, claiming that she had been born in 1894 (two years after her mother died). She also maintained that she had grown up as a descendant of four generations of Southern aristocracy—though in fact she was born in a two-room log house in Indian Creek, Texas. Other misrepresentations followed. Like many other American writers of her generation, she regarded her autobiography as unnecessarily factual and in need of revision.
“I was fed from birth on myth and legend,” she noted, “and a conviction of natural superiority bestowed by birth and tradition.” For her, snobbery and fantasy tended to stimulate each other. But the conditions of her early life were so difficult that one is surprised that she survived it with her faculties intact. After her mother’s death, her father moved her and her siblings to Kyle, Texas, where she was educated by her grandmother until she was ten. Following the death of her grandmother, her father took the children to various relatives, or dropped them in one boarding school or another, and generally left them to fend for themselves. By the age of sixteen, her formal schooling having ended, she was married to her first husband, John Henry Koontz, who habitually beat her. She lived with his alcoholism and physical abuse for eight years. She survived a bout of influenza in 1918. The illness turned her hair permanently white.
There has been a tendency among quite a few of Porter’s critics to criticize her life instead of her work and to give it low marks. According to these commentators, she should have lived some other kind of life than the one she actually had. What kind is not specified—perhaps one with fewer deceptions would have been better. Joan Givner’s biography does not present a particularly attractive picture of Porter, who was much married and given to more than a few of the usual human vanities.1 She seems to have engaged, rather frequently, in betrayal of people close to her. Still, compared to the alcoholic stupidities of other American writers of her time, her misdeeds seem rather amateurish.
In any case, a reading of the stories, essays, and reviews collected in the new edition presents us with an author who is (for the most part) generous, lucid, witty, and intelligent. In print at least, she hated mystification and cant. She was well traveled, at home in several languages and cultures, and particularly attuned to the condition of outcasts and the people who prey on them. In an autobiographical statement, she wrote that “my bent is to the left,” and says of her own life that it
has been the jumbled and apparently irrelevant mass of experiences which can only happen, I think, to a woman who goes with her mind permanently absent from the place where she is.
Porter’s stories were collected in three books, Flowering Judas (1930), Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939), and The Leaning Tower and Other Stories (1944), the later stories showing a slight falling-off. When The Collected Stories was published in 1965 and won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, it contained four previously uncollected stories, which brought the total number, depending on how you count, to about twenty stories on which her reputation rests. In my judgment, twelve of these can be considered classics of American literature, and five of them (“Rope,” “Flowering Judas,” “Old Mortality,” “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” and “Noon Wine”) unsurpassed in American literature in their genre.
Her tales tend to take place on a small dramatic stage with characters who find themselves claustrophobically entrapped. These protagonists typically discover themselves to be at a logical or emotional stalemate at the very moment when they must make a decision; if they don’t make such a decision, it will be made for them. Refusing to do what the moment demands, they enact a buried impulse, often violent, or they go into a kind of impersonal delirium quickly followed by remorse. The reliance of her characters on impulse puts them rather neatly within the short-story genre, which as a form tends to downplay history in favor of sequences in the present tense. Dramatized impulsive behavior requires very little background material to be plausible, and short stories thrive on it.
Porter is as sympathetic to the men who find themselves in boxed-in conditions as she is to the women, and she has a great understanding of male insecurity disguised as bluster. Self- inflation evidently fascinated her, and both male and female preening appear frequently in her fiction, as does the spectacle of entrapment.
Unable to make a move in any direction out of fear of breaking a spell (a dramatic locution that seems quite characteristic of Southern writing generally), her men and women fall into a kind of hysteria in which the rapt sufferer is encased in a cloud of possibilities, most of them unpleasant. The claustrophobia effect pushes the stories to great heights of eloquence. The resulting endings of her stories can startle the reader in part because they remain so disarmingly lucid even when their thematic elements are absolutely contradictory. The narrative model I have just described begins (in Flowering Judas and Other Stories ) with narratives set in Mexico, but the voice is equally at home in Texas or Germany. She rarely writes about North American urban life and never about the East or West Coasts—her characters are resolutely landlocked wherever they are.
Her typical dramatic structures appear in situations having to do with courtship (“Pale Horse, Pale Rider”), politics (“The Leaning Tower”), and stale traditions (“Old Mortality”). In almost all these cases the narratives hinge on moments of betrayal. Betrayal is Katherine Anne Porter’s great subject—it gives off a very particular hum in her work—and seemingly constitutes the basis of most encounters between her characters. She seems to have known everything about how betrayal works and how it succeeds. As a theme, it provides the author with a handy epistemological acid, since under the sign of betrayal a person can trust no one and finally can know almost nothing for certain. The ground of all knowledge dissolves, and at that moment the character is forced to make a move. This is a surefire dramatic setup. For sheer narrative efficiency, it is hard to beat.
“María Concepcíon,” the first of her stories to be published and to gain some attention, presents the reader with an almost schematic outline of what was to follow. Although frequently anthologized, the story is not one of her best. In its efforts to evoke the texture of the protagonist’s consciousness, the tone is uncertain and occasionally stilted, sounding like a pastiche translation from Spanish.
But the sequence of events in the story is clear enough: love, marriage, infidelity, a murder (of the husband’s girlfriend, who has also given birth to his son), followed by reconciliation of the betrayed wife and her husband, with the collaboration of the community. The story is formal and orderly, and the murder and María Concepcíon’s subsequent abject confession of the killing to her husband have the quality of ritual. It is only after María Concepcíon has committed mayhem that her husband truly values her, though he does not know why. He is dismayed, of course, by his own inability to understand anything:
He could not fathom her, nor himself, nor the mysterious fortunes of life grown so instantly confused where all had seemed so gay and simple. He felt too that she had become invaluable, a woman without equal among a million women, and he could not tell why. He drew an enormous sigh that rattled in his chest.
This is the note one hears repeatedly in Katherine Ann Porter’s fiction. All action has meaning and consequence. But most actions can’t be explained retroactively, and thinking, especially planning, typically gets you nowhere in a world ruled by betrayals. Thinking cannot prepare you for action; what matters are intuitions that incite action, and these intuitions usually remain obscure even to the person who has them.
Porter’s stories efficiently illustrate an inability to think rationally under stress, which in turn becomes a feature of certain American personality types —quite a few of them, as it turns out, and still nationally visible. “Mavericks,” let’s call them, these people who rely on their gut feelings in situations of crisis. Her characters are not so much actors as reactors, prone to violence because they’re unprepared for what’s happening to them.
What she knew about betrayal is expressed in multifarious ways. It may, for example, have an unexpectedly ecstatic component. In “Flowering Judas” (1930), a story again set in Mexico, the protagonist, Laura, a lapsed Roman Catholic, is a sentimentalist of the revolution, a recurring type, as Porter knew, during the twentieth century. Laura, an American drawn to Mexico, tries to believe in the revolution and in her Catholicism, but her faith fails in both directions, and she is a secret snob who loves handmade lace. What the revolution actually offers up to her is a suitor, a leader of men, Braggioni—fat, murderous, and vain:
The gluttonous bulk of Braggioni has become a symbol of her many disillusions, for a revolutionist should be lean, animated by heroic faith, a vessel of abstract virtues. This is nonsense, she knows it now and is ashamed of it.
Laura’s shame, however, is trumped by her vanity. She likes being courted, even by a singing monster. Being a tourist of the revolution is hard to give up, especially if you are being wooed by a man who warbles “passionately off key, taking the high notes in a prolonged painful squeal” and who is simultaneously “dangerous to offend.” So Laura does not move and is serenaded night after night, a victim of her expedient logic. She has given in to her suitor’s hypocrisies, and in a second form of duplicity, she visits revolutionaries in prison, where she gives morphine tablets to a man named Eugenio, who dies of an overdose. She desires to be among revolutionaries, but the comforts she offers them are lethal. Laura carries with her a kind of fatal charity born from sentimentality and amour propre, and she is an enigma to everybody:
Nobody touches her, but all praise her gray eyes, and the soft, round under lip which promises gayety, yet is always grave, nearly always firmly closed: and they cannot understand why she is in Mexico.
Braggioni eventually returns to his wife, who dutifully washes his feet, and Laura goes off to dream of Eugenio. The story ends with an ecstatic nightmare in which terror and the erotic are mixed so carefully that the reader might think of the end of Kafka’s “The Country Doctor”:
Where are you taking me, she asked in wonder but without fear. To death, and it is a long way off, and we must hurry, said Eugenio. No, said Laura, not unless you take my hand. Then eat these flowers, poor prisoner, said Eugenio in a voice of pity, take and eat: and from the Judas tree he stripped the warm bleeding flowers, and held them to her lips.
The betrayal here is one produced by vanity—that of being admired, and handing out gifts, but giving nothing of oneself away. Porter knows perfectly well that when the betrayer kisses the one betrayed, the kiss is a turn-on. It is electric. One might say that the kiss is the whole point.
There is a stylistic oddity to “Flowering Judas”: Porter wrote the story in the present tense, a device that has become ubiquitous in contemporary fiction but was exceedingly rare in American literature seventy-nine years ago. But in this story, the use of the present tense has the effect not of immediacy but claustrophobia; it evokes Laura’s mental world in which no usable past exists, and the future, to quote Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil, is all used up. And like most of Porter’s other stories of this period, the prose has not dated in the least. Her best stories sound as if they were written last week, mostly because the style is free of all Modernist mannerisms, shunning baroque Southern opacities on the one hand and Bauhaus simplicities on the other. The sentences are metaphorically concentrated but perfectly weighted, especially when malevolence is part of the mix, as it usually is:
The stranger swung into his saddle beside her, leaned far towards her and regarded her without meaning, the blank still stare of mindless malice that makes no threats and can bide its time.
(“Pale Horse, Pale Rider”)
One can see how much Flannery O’Connor learned from this style.
Along with the ecstasy of betrayal goes its shame, and in Porter’s fiction this shame is of a very particular sort. It takes the form of an active disbelief that I have done what I have done, and the greater disbelief that I actually wanted to do what I did. This condition is not the same as hypocrisy, where the guilty party claims that he didn’t do what he is accused of but knows perfectly well that he is guilty. In Porter’s stories, the self is constantly being thunderstruck by its own misbehavior. I can’t believe I’m doing this is one subtext; I can’t believe I did that—I’m not the sort of person who performs such actions is another. Under stress, my own actions become implausible even to me. Highly educated and sophisticated people, it goes without saying, can find themselves in this moral logjam. Such self-misunderstanding is not a function of naiveté but of moralistic idealism, and in America is a characteristic byproduct of puritanical self-righteousness.
The problem with impulsive behavior, her characters discover, is that it reveals another distasteful and incompatible self unknown in daily life, whose desires are—for one reason or another—unpresentable. The question then quickly becomes whether anyone can live, can coexist, with that (unfortunately genuine) self once it has been revealed. The answer is usually “No.” Porter’s understanding of this throttled condition is of a very high order, and it is here, I think, that she can be compared to the greatest of short-story writers, particularly in what may be her finest story, “Noon Wine.”
The story is set in south Texas at the end of the nineteenth century, and its locale is a dairy farm run by Mr. Thompson, a “noisy proud” man who doesn’t want to have a dairy farm (he considers dairy farming unmanly) but has one because his wife, who is sickly, wants it. Pride makes Mr. Thompson lazy, and the farm is failing as a result. Against the odds, Mr. Thompson loves his wife despite or because of her poor health—the story insists on this—and he does what he can for her and their two boys.
The story is occasioned by the arrival of two strangers on the farm: first, Mr. Helton, an eerie, hardworking character who appears seemingly out of nowhere to become the hired man and to rescue the farm. The second stranger, who arrives years later, and midway in the story, is Homer T. Hatch, a bounty hunter who has come to get Mr. Helton, who years earlier murdered his own brother in a mindless rage.
The scene in which Mr. Thompson and Homer T. Hatch confront each other has almost no parallel in American literature of its period. Hatch obliquely and menacingly reveals the ugliness in Helton’s past, and Thompson gradually becomes enraged as it dawns on him that Hatch intends to take his valued employee by force. I cannot think of another passage where the understanding of male one-upmanship is greater, where the observation of gesture and speech is more clinically precise, and where the characterization remains so sympathetic to a male protagonist confounded by another man’s duplicity. Nor is the duplicity given the particular ghastly glamour that male writers tend to give to their tricky confidence men. Porter has none of the pragmatist’s respect for anything that works.
The longer Mr. Thompson looks at Homer T. Hatch, the less he understands what he sees:
What was this fellow driving at? What was he trying to say? It wasn’t so much his words, but his looks and his way of talking: that droopy look in the eye, that tone of voice, as if he was trying to mortify Mr. Thompson about something. Mr. Thompson didn’t like it, but he couldn’t hold of it either. He wanted to turn around and shove the fellow off the stump, but it wouldn’t look reasonable. Suppose something happened to the fellow when he fell off the stump, just for instance, if he fell on the ax and cut himself, and then someone should ask Mr. Thompson why he shoved him, and what could a man say?
No, it wouldn’t look reasonable, and when Mr. Thompson, several pages later, finally brings “the ax down on Mr. Hatch’s head as if he were stunning a beef,” Mr. Thompson can’t believe that he’s done so because it’s not reasonable. The last pages of this story, in which Mr. Thompson futilely tries to justify his actions to his neighbors and drags his wife into the effort by encouraging her to lie, have a kind of tragic grandeur. By enlisting his wife in his misrepresentations, Mr. Thompson has betrayed the woman he loves, and he cannot go back on it:
So many blows had been struck at Mr. Thompson and from so many directions he couldn’t stop any more to find out where he was hit.
The final scene of the story, where, unable to live with himself and with public opinion, Mr. Thompson ends his life, is written with bleak straightforwardness, all the more haunting for its plainness:
He set the butt of the shotgun along the ground with the twin barrels pointed towards his head. It was very awkward. He thought about this a little, leaning his head against the gun mouth.
All three of the stories in Pale Horse, Pale Rider are written with steely brilliance and a uniform sympathy for the characters who find themselves “immured” (as the girls in “Old Morality” describe themselves). But something happens in The Leaning Tower and Other Stories that pushes the stories toward a kind of allegory and cartooning. The author seems to have made her mind up about her characters before describing them. The tendency is understandable if you are describing Weimar Germans with fascist leanings, but one notices that the brush has become thicker in all the stories, the outlines more squarish. The characters are either good or bad, and the bad ones are so bad that the author’s contempt for them leaves the reader with nothing much to decide about them. A glaze hangs over the prose like car wax on a windshield. This is an American’s dismayed impression of Berlin, from “The Leaning Tower”:
There were the faces. Faces with no eyes. And these no-eyes, pale, lightless, were set in faces shriveled as if they were gnawed hollow; or worse, faces sodden in fat with swollen eyelids in which the little no-eyes peered blindly as if all the food, the plates of boiled potatoes and pig’s knuckles and cabbage fed to the wallowing body, had weighed it down and had done it no good. The no-eyes in the faces of the women were too ready to shed tears.
What seems to have taken over Porter’s writing after Pale Horse, Pale Rider is the habit of moralism. It is not always explicit, but the tendency shapes all the stories, as if the discomfort of ambiguity and complexity had grown intolerable. Maintaining negative capability is a chore, after all. So the characters begin to flatten out. They are posed in rigid attitudes in brightly lit situations, and disquieting subtlety gradually gives way to more comforting polarities. Characterization moves toward caricature. The narrator rises above her own characters and peers down at them. The dramatic catalyst of a person driven by devils who is, at the same time, complex and interesting and worthy of our sympathies simply disappears. Bad characters become almost comically loathsome, all their exaggerated faults entertainingly on show.
There is an interesting letter that Porter wrote to Robert Penn Warren in 1946 about Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. She hadn’t liked it, though she recognized its “brilliancy.” Lowry’s protagonist, Geoffrey Firmin, the Consul, a brainy drunk, she found tiresome:
But oh God, how to the eyebrows am I fed up on the ubiquitous hero-heel with the soul of a sick jelly-fish—he never can believe in anything, an impotent Don Juan, an amateur theologian wrong-side-out, who asks God to destroy this world because that is the only way he will ever be able to get his nose out of a goblet of mescal or whatever his particular form of self-indulgence is. The poet manqué wallowing in a Baudelairian bed of Flowers of Evil… Yet there is something to the book, only I am left in deep doubt of one thing: is the author deceived by his hombre noble, or not? And if that is a noble man then what was Dante, Sir Thomas More, St. Francis, Erasmus, or even in the end just the Prince whose name I can’t remember now, in War and Peace?2
To be fair to Porter, she’d had her share of time in the company of abusive male drunks, including Hart Crane, and had had enough of their bottled fervor. But what she deplores in Lowry could be directed at a good portion of the greatest fiction writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and her letter explains the failure of a novel: not Under the Volcano, but Ship of Fools. In mid-life she apparently couldn’t stand the sight of layers of emotion with its multicolored ambiguity; she couldn’t bear, any longer, contradictory impulses lodged in one personality. This leads to allegorization—and the tendency to allegory is apparent even in her choice of the title for her novel.
Solotaroff in his review of that book noticed that Porter’s characterizations had gone steamroller-flat:
The main such weakness is that no effective principle of change operates on the action or on the main characters or on the ideas, and hence the book has virtually no power to sustain, complicate, and intensify either our intellectual interests or emotional attachments.
When Ship of Fools comes to life, as it does every one hundred pages or so, the animating force usually involves violence in a tableau effect, where action is frozen in mid-gesture:
Half a dozen Indians, men and women, were standing together quietly in the bare spot near one of the small houses, and they were watching something very intensely. As the bus rolled by, Jenny saw a man and a woman, some distance from the group, locked in a death battle. They swayed and staggered together in a strange embrace, as if they supported each other; but in the man’s raised hand was a long knife, and the woman’s breast and stomach were pierced. The blood ran down her body and over her thighs, her skirts were sticking to her legs with her own blood. She was beating him on the head with a jagged stone, and his features were veiled in rivulets of blood. They were silent, and their faces had taken on a saintlike patience in suffering, abstract, purified of rage and hatred in their one holy dedicated purpose to kill each other. Their flesh swayed together and clung, their left arms were wound about each other’s bodies as if in love.
This is not subtle, but it makes a claim on the attention. It remains to be said that Porter’s essays and reviews rarely draw blood or display it. We would never have heard of her if these essays had comprised the life work. They are, for the most part, urbane and worldly, full of praise for other writers, and of course beautifully composed, though the reader may be startled by her claims that Ezra Pound’s anti-Semitism was only “his so-called anti-Semitism” and that “he hated Catholicism worse than he did Judaism, and for many more reasons.”
Her essay on Gertrude Stein, “The Wooden Umbrella,” however, which William H. Gass has described as “one of the most rhetorically effective personal attacks in modern literature,” is another matter entirely, in which Porter gains entry to 27 rue de Fleurus, uses her pen to slash a few of the paintings, and then, with the same instrument, goes after Miss Stein. The narcissism is noted; the childishness; the irritability; the loquacity; the sluggishness; the avarice; the grandiosity; the “total confusion of mind and feeling…expressed with total incoherence”; the political naiveté; the gloating; the absence of form. Gertrude Stein has survived the attack, but anyone who reads the essay and continues to admire Stein’s writing (as I do) has to ponder how Porter’s assault should be answered.
No such difficulties interfere with her brief portrait of Hemingway, whom she met, once, in 1934. The meeting took place in Sylvia Beach’s bookshop in Paris. Hemingway, “tall, bulky, broadfaced,” came in, wearing a raincoat and floppy hair. He and Sylvia Beach “embraced in a manly sort of way,” and then, Porter says, “Sylvia turned to me with that ominous apostolic sweetness in her eyes.” That combination of adjectives—“ominous” and “apostolic”—is pure Porter and absolutely characteristic of the contradictions she sometimes entertained. Sylvia Beach then introduces Ernest Hemingway to Katherine Anne Porter, claiming that she wants “the two best modern American writers to know each other,” and then she rushes out of the room to answer the phone.
Hemingway and Porter stare at each other. “Hemingway then turned in one wide swing and hurled himself into the rainy darkness as he had hurled himself out of it, and that was all.” As Porter shrewdly notes, “it must have been galling to this most famous young man to have his name pronounced in the same breath as writer with someone he had never heard of, and a woman at that.” Sylvia Beach returns and finds Hemingway’s disappearance strange. “I didn’t,” Porter observes, “and don’t.”
When a person was trapped and wanted to escape, she always noticed and she often sympathized. And to her everlasting credit, she was never surprised by the sight of a human being, man or woman, in the grip of panic.