The Jilting of Katherine Anne Porter
Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.
Henry has begged for a week off in order to move from his temporary abode into a home. We have graciously granted him that request, and are running one of his first columns for BiblioBuffet this week. We hope you enjoy his take on a writer who has slipped out of public viewing but who is well worth knowing.
Does anyone read Katherine Anne Porter’s fiction anymore? Porter, whose powerful Collected Stories about coming of age, the fear of death, and the search for love and home won the National Book Award in 1964, appears to be much neglected in today’s literary landscape. Although Darlene Harbour Unrue’s masterful biography, Katherine Anne Porter: The Life of an Artist (University of Mississippi Press; $30), lacks deep critical engagement with Porter’s fiction, Unrue offers us an engaging portrait of a woman who spent much her life weaving her own life into a fictional masterpiece.
Drawing on newly available archival material, Unrue chronicles Porter’s peripatetic life, attempting to write an “honest” biography of Porter. In contrast to Joan Givner’s Katherine Anne Porter: A Life (1982; revised 1991), which Porter’s friends and family denounced as vilifying Porter, Unrue tries to let Porter’s life speak for itself. “Does it finally matter whether she had the three husbands she acknowledged or the five that can be documented? Are their identities and histories significant? Does it matter whether she lost babies? . . . Does it matter whether her maternal grandmother was institutionalized in a ‘lunatic asylum’? For Unrue, the answer is “yes” and “no,” for she spends an inordinate amount of space trying to set the record straight while at the same time trying to show the ways in which Porter’s life folds seamlessly into her art.
Born in Indian Creek, Texas, in 1890, Porter’s young life set the course for her later work. When she was two, her mother died, instilling in Porter her lifelong fear of death that she so memorably exploited in her 1927 story “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall.” Porter resided for a time with her grandfather, a spellbinding raconteur from whom Porter took her genius for storytelling. The stories of her maternal grandmother’s insanity haunted Porter throughout her life, and she constantly feared the loss of her sanity.
Porter married neighbor John Koontz when she was sixteen, and endured a physically abusive early marriage. For nine years, until their divorce in 1915, Porter described her life as “one long orgy of reading.” She had written her first stories in 1905, and dated the beginning of her “serious” writing to 1906, the years of her marriage to Koontz.
Porter left Texas in 1914, beginning a life on the road to find her true home and to practice her art as freely as possible. She told novelist Caroline Gordon that she was running away from Texas and the South because she had no intention of “not thinking what I please, nor of conforming where conforming would cramp and annoy me.” Unrue faithfully, and at times ploddingly, records Porter’s travels from her early sojourns in Chicago and New York to her life-changing journeys to Mexico, Europe and Hollywood, where she, like Faulkner, wrote scripts for the money.
Her move away from the South threw her into grand literary circles, and Porter traveled in the company of Hemingway, Gertrude Stein (with whom she did not get along), Edmund Wilson, Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks, Allen Tate, Caroline Gordon, Eudora Welty and Josephine Herbst, with whom Porter had a falling out over politics and Porter’s alleged role in informing on Herbst’s association with the Communist Party.
Because Porter so often threw herself into rounds of social soirees, her writing life never developed as fully as it might have. She wrote intermittently, producing her first collection of stories, Flowering Judas, in 1930. Five years later, she appended six stories to her original collection, including her compelling coming-of-age story, “The Grave,” and published Flowering Judas and Other Stories. She released three short novels as Pale Horse, Pale Rider in 1939, and another collection of stories (The Leaning Tower and Other Stories) in 1944. While each collection garnered critical acclaim, Porter used the advance money to support her penchant for an elegant lifestyle and lavish parties.
It took her twenty-seven years to finish her novel, Ship of Fools (1962)—Flannery O’Connor once remarked that “Miss Katherine Anne and her 27 years have been giving me nightmares.”—to great acclaim, although some critics even now believe that if she had finished this portrait of the excesses of politics and anti-Semitism twenty years earlier, the book would have been more timely.
Unrue’s splendid biography underscores Porter’s lifelong lesson that “her truest art came from deep pain and that she needed ten or twelve years to establish artistic distance.” While Unrue’s book lacks the critical insights of Janis P. Stout’s Katherine Anne Porter: A Sense of the Times (University of Virginia, 1995) and Mary Titus’s recent The Ambivalent Art of Katherine Anne Porter (University of Georgia, 2005), it nevertheless provides an achingly honest portrait of one of the troubled life and art of one of the twentieth century’s most often unjustly neglected writers.
Henry Carrigan dreamed of being a rock ‘n roll star with a life of coast-to-coast tours and wild parties with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell among others. But books intervened, and instead he went to Emory University to major in Religion and Literature. Later, teaching humanities in college, he took up writing about books—this time to avoid reading students’ papers. Henry soon became Library Journal's religion columnist, then religion book editor for Publishers Weekly. While working as editor-in-chief for Northwestern University Press and editing classic books for Paraclete Press, he still continues to write for LJ and PW, as well as the Washington Post Book World, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Charlotte Observer, ForeWord magazine—and now, BiblioBuffet. And he still enjoys playing his guitar. Henry can be reached at