Katherine Anne Porter: Collected Stories and Writings
(Library of America, 1093 pages, $40)
“SHE SIGHED WITH A HUMUROUS BITTERNESS. The humor seemed momentary, but the bitterness was a constant state of mind.” So Cousin Eva, a Texas schoolmistress, suffragette, and old maid, ca. 1912–her never having married evidently attributable to a recessive chin–reveals her spiritual morbidity to a young relative, Miranda, who has happened to sit across from her on a train that is taking them to a family funeral. By the time Katherine Anne Porter’s story “Old Mortality” is over, Miranda has vowed to part ways forever with her blood relations and with her recently acquired husband. “I hate love, she thought, as if this were the answer, I hate loving and being loved, I hate it.” She can no longer abide the legendary romantic past–frontiersmen who risked everything, splendid belles who loved them–that her family has inflicted upon her, and she is determined to go at the rest of her life clear-eyed, free of illusions, free of attachments, indeed free pure and simple. The closing sentence indicates that she is in for a rougher time than she expects: “At least I can know the truth about what happens to me, she assured herself silently, making a promise to herself, in her hopefulness, her ignorance.”
Youthful hopes are a fine thing, especially when they have some experience and acquired wisdom to back them up, but constant bitterness has a way of engulfing hope in Katherine Anne Porter’s world. The Library of America’s new volume of her stories, essays, and reviews–her most famous work, the novel Ship of Fools (1962), is omitted–is almost too pungent in its despondency to bear in high doses. Renouncing love in one’s youth suggests the fantastic desperation of a bargain with the devil, and the devotee of solitude who abides by the terms of the bargain will likely find himself, or herself, more bitter than the inveterate lover whose heart is broken time and again. The world will leave those who hope for an agreeable passage through it, or at least a painless one, begging for a quick end, with a blindfold. Begging, however, will not help. Whether you hate life or try to love it, it will gore you and stand there watching you bleed out real slow.
If you’ve just noticed rhythm getting the better of grammar for rhetorical effect, that’s Texas talking; for Callie Russell Porter was born in Indian Creek, Texas, in 1890, the fourth child of native Texans. She grew up on farms and in small towns, her sensibilities abraded by prairie winds, even as she was reading all of Shakespeare by the age of 12. There seemed never to have been a time when she didn’t know life was hard. Her mother died when she was two. Her beloved grandmother Cat Porter, who took the bereaved children in hand, died when she was 11. At 14 Callie asked to be called Katherine in honor of her grandmother. By then the young girl was writing stories, acting in summer stock, reading Gibbon, Voltaire, and William James. At 16 she married a hard-drinking yahoo who beat her into unconsciousness and threw her down the stairs. She stuck out the marriage for nine years, which was at least nine years too long. After getting her divorce in 1915, she married and rid herself of two more men in rapid succession. She contracted tuberculosis and did time in a Dallas charity hospital. A few years as a journalist, in Fort Worth and Denver, followed. In 1918 the Spanish influenza nearly numbered her among the millions it killed; she claimed to have been vouchsafed on the verge of death “what the Christians call the ‘beatific vision,’ and the Greeks called the ‘happy day.’” Something less than happy about the near-death experience turned her hair permanently white. She was still an attractive woman, however, especially vain about her breasts and legs, and she took to dyeing her hair black.
Coming close to death did seem to make her bolder. She headed to Greenwich Village, bent on writing stories and poems. When what she wound up doing was ghostwriting and cranking out publicity releases for movies, she took off for Mexico to write articles on politics and culture.
One wonders how she found time to write a thing. Never one to pass up sexual adventure, she had successive affairs with the governor of Yucatan, a Polish diplomat, and a Nicaraguan poet, whose baby she aborted. For several years she would bounce between New York and Mexico and carom among an assortment of men, resulting in stillbirth, gonorrhea, removal of her ovaries. In 1933 she tried marriage again, to a man 14 years younger than she; it would last four years. Ten days after that divorce, she married another man, 21 years younger than she; this marriage too would last four years, and would be her final one. The sexologist Alfred Kinsey hoped to find her a trove of recondite erotica, but in certain respects she proved quite conventional; when he asked her in an interview whether she had ever made love with a dog, she replied, “Why, no, Dr. Kinsey. Have you?”
THE 1920s AND 1930s SAW PORTER come blazing into her own as a writer of stories and essays. Texas, Mexico, and Europe, where she spent the years 1931 to 1935 (most of that time in Paris, which she loved) became her prime imaginative terrain. Stark landscapes bred hard people who knew a thing or two about heartbreak and perhaps something about violence. In the story “He,” Porter depicts the travails of possum-eating poverty, the pride of those who have nothing and refuse to be pitied, which is to say looked down upon. The title character is a severely retarded boy; that the he is never referred to by name but only by the capitalized pronoun bespeaks both his degraded status and his exalted one as the child most beloved by his mother. When He suffers a seizure and becomes bed-ridden, his parents decide they must put him in the county home, and his mother thinks on the journey over, “there was nothing she could do to make up to Him for His life. Oh, what a mortal pity He was ever born.” Unrelieved, unjustified, unredeemed, the pain of one nameless defective swells to fill the human world. It is not compassion that Porter evokes here so much as horror. This poor boy’s existence is gratuitous cruelty for which there shall be no consolation. Wisdom comes from suffering, it is said, but the only wisdom here is wrung from the mother, who learns that even her love for Him counts for nothing in the end.
This withering nihilism is at the bitter heart of “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall”–the woman whose name suggests that she has seen and endured everything. Left at the altar in her youth, on her deathbed she regards her misery then as so much silliness. She married and buried another good man, and had no choice but to take over his work when he died. “Why, he couldn’t possibly recognize her. She had fenced in a hundred acres once, digging the post holes herself and clamping the wires with just a negro boy to help. That changed a woman.” All that behind her, preparing to die yet clinging to life, she prays that God send her a sign, but she is jilted once more. “Again no bridegroom and the priest in the house. She could not remember any other sorrow because this grief wiped them all away. Oh, no, there’s nothing more cruel than this–I’ll never forgive it. She stretched herself with a deep breath and blew out the light.”
Put out the light, and then put out the light: in stories that take a turn toward the macabre, such as “Maria Concepcion” and “Noon Wine,” people whom you would never suspect of having it in them commit murder. Death by violence and by pestilence crushes the love of life in “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” the story to which Porter earned the rights when she nearly died of the flu. As the illness takes hold, Miranda–Porter’s alter ego in several stories–has a delirious intimation of the world’s frightfulness:
Back of the ship was jungle, and even as it appeared before her, she knew it was all she had ever read or had been told or felt or thought about jungles; a writhing terribly alive and secret place of death, creeping with tangles of spotted serpents, rainbow-colored birds with malign eyes, leopards with humanly wise faces and extravagantly crested lions; screaming long-armed monkeys tumbling among broad fleshy leaves that glowed with sulphur-colored light and exuded the ichor of death, and rotting trunks of unfamiliar trees sprawled in crawling slime.
Nature’s malevolence, and man’s — witness the erotic, racial, and political poisons expressed in Ship of Fools, Porter’s yarn about a sea voyage from Mexico to Germany in 1931 — overwhelm the felicities of art and intellect and love that Porter attempted to live by. Porter was not a born hellion but a person whose energies were turned demonic and who was unable to love life; the experience of and sensitivity to natural and moral evil that warped her as a woman also guided her as an artist. Her art is one of fearlessness and consummate skill, like those required in milking a rattlesnake, and the spectacle fascinates for a time. But her bitterness is a constant state of mind, and in the end, she makes one long for the writers who give the angels their share of the melody.