Katherine Anne Porter

Katherine Anne Porter (born Callie Russell Porter; May 15, 1890 – September 18, 1980) was an American writer.

Her mother died in 1892, when Porter was two years old. Depressed and unale to take care of the children, Porter’s father passed on that task to his mother, Catherine Ann Porter, who became Porter role model (whose name the writer would later adopt).

After her grandmother’s death, in 1901, when Porter was 11, the family started to live an erratic life, moving from one town to another, in Texas and Louisiana. Callie attended several different private schools, but her formal education ended in her early teenage years.

In 1906, at sixteen, Porter left home and secretly married the son of a wealthy family in Texas. The marriage was a disaster: her husband was physically abusive and drank a lot. In 1914, she escaped to Chicago, where she hoped to work as a movie actress. In 1915, she divorced and used the opportunity to change her name to Katherine Anne Porter.

In 1915, she was misdiagnosed with tuberculosis (it was bronchitis) and spent many weeks in a sanatorium. During this period, she decided to become a writer. Porter later recalled: “I started out with nothing in the world but a kind of passion, a driving desire. I don’t know where it came from, and I don’t know why – or why I have been so stubborn about it that nothing could deflect me. But this thing between me and my writing is the strongest bond I have ever had – stronger than any bond or any engagement with any human being or with any other work I’ve ever done. I really started writing when I was six or seven years old…. All the old houses that I knew when I was a child were full of books, bought generation after generation by members of the family. Everyone was literate as a matter of course. Nobody told you to read this or not to read that. It was there to read, and we read… I was reading Shakespeare’s sonnets when I was thirteen years old, and I’m perfectly certain that they made the most profound impression upon me of anything I ever read.

In 1917, Porter began working as a journalist, writing theatre reviews and society gossip for the Fort Worth Critic, and later for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, Colorado. In 1918, she was a victim of the influenza pandemic and almost died. When she was discharged from the hospital she was completely bald. When her hair finally grew back, it was white, and remained so for the rest of her life.

Porter moved to Greenwich Village in New York City and made her living ghost writing, writing children’s stories and doing publicity work. She also worked for a magazine publisher in Mexico, where she became acquainted with members of the Mexican leftist movement. In 1920, she traveled to Mexico to study art and was witness to the Obregon revolution. The following year she returned to the USA  and wrote articles about Mexico. “I went to Mexico because I felt I had business there. And there I found friends and ideas that were sympathetic to me. That was my entire milieu. I don’t think anyone even knew I was a writer. I didn’t show my work to anybody or talk about it, because – well, no one was particularly interested in that. It was a time of revolution, and I was running with almost pure revolutionaries!

Her time in Mexico gave her material for her first story, María Concepción, first published in Century Magazine in 1922/1923, when she was 33: “I don’t think I learned very much from my contemporaries. To begin with, we were all such individuals, and we were all so argumentative and so bent on our own courses that although I got a kind of support and personal friendship from my contemporaries, I didn’t get very much help. I didn’t show my work to anybody. I didn’t hand it around among my friends for criticism, because, well, it just didn’t occur to me to do it. Just as I didn’t even try to publish anything until quite late because I didn’t think I was ready. I published my first story in 1923. That was María Concepción, the first story I ever finished. I rewrote María Concepción fifteen or sixteen times. That was a real battle, and I was thirty-three years old. I think it is the most curious lack of judgment to publish before you are ready. If there are echoes of other people in your work, you’re not ready. If anybody has to help you rewrite your story, you’re not ready. A story should be a finished work before it is shown. And after that, I will not allow anyone to change anything, and I will not change anything on anyone’s advice.”

Between 1920 and 1930, Porter published several short stories and essays, while making a living as a journalist. Her time in Mexico also gave her material for the title story of her first collection, Flowering Judas and Other Stories (1930), a book she published when she was forty years old.

Porter’s private life was tumultuous: she married again in 1925, contracted gonorrhea from her second husband and had to undergo a hysterectomy; from 1910 to 1026, she uffered several miscarriages and at least one stillbirth (she once confided to a friend that “I have lost children in all the ways one can”); in 1927, she divorced her second husband, and claimed to have had a relationship with Hart Crane in 1932, just before he committed suicide; then, she married for the third time in 1933 (with a writer thirteen years her junior); they divorced in 1938, and Porter married once again, with a student who divorced her in 1942, after discovering that she was 20 years his senior.

In 1931, Porter received a Guggenheim Fellowship for her first volume of stories, Flowering Judas, and travelled from Germany to Mexico, ina journey that would inspire her only novel, Ship of Fools (1962). In 1938, she received her second Guggenheim Fellowship, and in the followinf year her collection of three short novels, Pale Horse, Pale Rider, was published, for which she received the first annual gold medal for literature from the Society of Libraries of New York University.

Porter became an elected member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1943 and, in the following year, she published another collection, The Leaning Tower. After the Second World War she taught at Stanford University, the University of Michigan, and the University of Texas. Porter also appeared on radio and television discussing literature, was a mentor for Eudora Welty, and a friend of Edith Sitwell, Marianne Moore, and Wallace Stegner.

In 1959, she received a Ford Foundation grant in literature. In 1962, she won the O. Henry Memorial award for her story “Holiday.” That same year, in 1962, she published Ship of Fools, which was a best seller and was made into a film in 1965, directed by Stanley Kramer, starring Vivien Leigh.

In 1966, Porter was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and the U.S. National Book Award for The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter, and, that year, she was appointed to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, from which she received a Gold Medal Award for Fiction, in 1967. She was nominated three times for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

In 1977, she suffered a disabling stroke. Porter died in Silver Spring, Maryland, on September 18, 1980, at the age of 90.


Books

Short story collections

  • Flowering Judas(1930)
  • Flowering Judas and Other Stories(1935, with four additional stories)
  • Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939)
  • The Leaning Tower and Other Stories (1944)
  • The Old Order: Stories of the South (1955)
  • The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter (1964)
  • A Christmas Story(1967, story, previously published, about Porter’s niece Mary Alice Hillendahl)

Novel

  • Ship of Fools (1962)

Nonfiction

  • My Chinese Marriage by Mae Franking, ghostwritten by Porter (1921)
  • Outline of Mexican Popular Arts and Crafts (1922)
  • Katherine Anne Porter’s French Song Book(1933, seventeen French songs and Porter’s English translations)
  • The Days Before(1952, book reviews and essays)
  • The Collected Essays and Occasional Writings of Katherine Anne Porter (1970)
  • The Never-Ending Wrong (1977, Porter’s reflections upon the 1927 executions of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti)
  • Letters of Katherine Anne Porter, ed. Isabel Bayley (1990)
  • “This Strange, Old World” and Other Book Reviews Written by Katherine Anne Porter, ed. Darlene Harbour Unrue (1991)
  • Uncollected Early Prose of Katherine Anne Porter, ed. Ruth M. Alvarez and Thomas F. Walsh (1993, fiction and nonfiction not included in earlier published editions)
  • Porter: Collected Stories and Other Writings(2008, fiction and nonfiction)
  • Selected Letters of Katherine Anne Porter: Chronicles of a Modern Woman, ed. Darlene Harbour Unrue (2012)

Poetry

  • Katherine Anne Porter’s Poetry, ed. Darlene Harbour Unrue (1996)

About her

  • Katherine Anne Porter: A Life, by Joan Givner (1982)
  • Katherine Anne Porter and the Art of Rejection, by William L. Nance (1963)
  • Katherine Anne Porter Remembered, by Darlene Harbour Unrue (2010)
  • American women writers and the Nazis. Ethics and politics in Boyle, Porter, Stafford, and Hellman, by Thomas Carl Austenfeld (2001)
  • Katherine Anne Porter, ed. Harold Bloom (2000)
  • Katherine Anne Porter’s artistic development. Primitivism, traditionalism, and totalitarianism, by Robert H. Brinkmeyer (1993)
  • From Texas to the world and back. Essays on the journeys of Katherine Anne Porter, by Mark Busby (2001)
  • Katherine Anne Porter. Conversations, ed. Joan K Givner (1987)
  • Tomboys, Belles, and Other Ladies. The female body-subject in selected works by Katherine Anne Porter and Carson McCullers, by Ellen Matlok-Ziemann (2005)
  • Katherine Anne Porter. A sense of the times, by Janis P. Stout (1995)
  • The ambivalent art of Katherine Anne Porter, by Mary Titus (2005)
  • Critical essays on Katherine Anne Porter, ed. Darlene Harbour Unrue (1997)
  • Truth and vision in Katherine Anne Porter’s fiction, by Darlene Harbour Unrue (1985)
  • Katherine Anne Porter. The life of an artist, by Darlene Harbour Unrue (2005)
  • Katherine Anne Porter and Mexico. The illusion of Eden, by Thomas Francis Walsh (1992)
  • Porter’s Women: The Eye of Her Fiction, by Jane Krause DeMouy (1983)

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