Is Katherine Anne Porter a Southern Writer?
By Travis Rozier
Should Katherine Anne Porter (1890-1980) be considered a southern writer? Two recent biographic publications authored by renowned Porter scholars—South by Southwest: Katherine Anne Porter and the Burden of Texas History by Janis P. Stout and Selected Letters of Katherine Anne Porter: Chronicles of a Modern Woman by Darlene Harbour Unrue—take opposite approaches to this regionalist labeling. Choosing to apply this designation to Porter, or not, is a problematic matter. Highlighting her southerness elides the breadth of both her life experience and her literary corpus. Porter’s ambivalent relationship with the U.S. South prompted her to seek escape from the region at a young age. She lived in myriad locales after leaving the South, including long stays in New York, Mexico, and Europe, and these experiences find voice in her fiction. Despite her rebuke of the South and her worldliness, however, Porter remained attached to the region of her birth. She returned to scenes from her southern childhood in her work, particularly in the mid-1930s when she published many of her best stories. Thus, while Porter rejected the South as a home, she did find fertile ground in the region for her fiction. If Porter was not a southern writer, she was certainly a writer of the South.
Janis Stout’s excellent book interrogates the significance of Texas on Porter’s life and oeuvre. Figuring Porter’s birthplace of Indian Creek, Texas as a space of overlapping borders, both between the U.S. and Mexico and between the Old South and the frontier West, Stout argues that growing up in this area of imbricate cultural conflicts deeply affected Porter and her art, suggesting that the subtle undercurrent of violence that characterizes Porter’s fiction stems from coming of age in a place underwritten by violence. Stout offers cogent readings of Porter’s works, though her insistence on the centrality of Texas to Porter’s fiction fits better in some contexts than others. For example, Stout’s thesis works aptly when discussing Porter’s work from the 1930s, the period in which Porter produced the Miranda stories. These stories, based on her childhood experiences, signal Porter’s reevaluation of her family and Texas home. Stout’s readings illustrate how the experience of growing up on the border between the Old South and the West registers in Porter’s fiction, the Old South signifying the strictures of the past and the West signifying the freedom of a less constraining future, particularly for women subject to the South’s traditional gender roles. Stout’s proposition also figures well in her chapter on the depiction of racial tensions in Porter’s work. This chapter is particularly valuable for its discussion of “The Man in the Tree,” an unpublished and unfinished short story that has received scant critical attention. The focus on Texas, however, feels slightly strained in other sections, such as the chapter discussing Porter’s works concerning World War II. The role of Texas in texts such as “The Leaning Tower” (1944) and Ship of Fools (1962) is, at best, peripheral, and Stout’s readings perhaps suffer from the attempt to make it central. Also, scholars familiar with Stout’s work on Porter will recognize some republished material, but despite some repetition, the book contains much new writing and usefully extends Stout’s previous essays.
While Stout’s book keeps Porter tied to her origins, Darlene Unrue’s collection of letters focuses instead on Porter’s engagement with the modernizing world of the twentieth century. This is only the second collection of Porter’s letters, and though Unrue includes half as many letters as Isabel Bayley’s 1990 collection, she expands Bayley’s work by extending the years of the letters collected by a decade on either side of Bayley’s selected timeframe. Unrue’s selection foregrounds Porter’s engagement with major intellectual and political developments of her time while also offering insight into her personal life. Porter’s letters are fascinating to read for both form and content. They contain idiosyncratic turns of phrase, spellings, and punctuation that imbue them with a sense of voice characteristic of Porter’s fiction, manifesting a modernist prose Porter might deem “littery.” They also offer perspective on Porter’s views on writing as a craft, both in regards to her own work and that of her contemporaries. The reader gleans a sense of what Porter valued through her praise of authors such as Henry James, William Faulkner, or Eudora Welty, as well as what she found distasteful through her critiques, and often outright contempt, for many of her fellow writers including Gertrude Stein, Truman Capote, or Norman Mailer, to name just a few. Perhaps most intriguing, however, is the way Unrue’s collection tracks Porter’s journey through the twentieth century, including her involvement in the political upheaval of Revolutionary Mexico, her time spent in the bohemian literary community of Greenwich Village, her life in inter-war Europe, and her later years spent negotiating a life of literary fame. Porter, the consummate socialite, also surrounded herself with interesting and influential people, and the recipient list of Unrue’s collection includes many principal figures of the twentieth century. From these letters the reader senses that Porter led, in one of her own favorite idioms, a “Life, capital L.”
These additions to scholarship on Porter come from two seemingly different perspectives; Stout’s work keeps Porter firmly connected to the South, while Unrue’s selection of letters highlights her engagement with the larger changing world. However, these viewpoints, when considered together, offer a fuller understanding of Porter’s paradoxical relationship to the South. According to Stout, Porter “never reconciled” the ambivalence she harbored about her home state of Texas. These irresolvable feelings drove her out of her southern home and into a world in which she became thoroughly enmeshed, a journey traceable in Unrue’s collection. As Stout deftly argues, however, though Porter’s hard feelings toward the South pushed her away from her birthplace, they also compelled her to return there in her fiction, generating her best work. Porter’s ambivalence about her southern home made her both a woman of the world and a fixture in the canon of southern writers.
South by Southwest: Katherine Anne Porter and the Burden of Texas History.
By Janis P. Stout.
University of Alabama Press, 2013.
242 pp., $44.95.
WHAT WE’RE READING NOW
By Amy Clukey
I’m teaching an honors seminar on the suffragettes and most of my reading has been for that. We’ve spent the semester reading novels about the campaign for the vote and women’s rights—Henry James’s The Bostonians, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, Gertrude Colmore’s Suffragette Sally—along with lots of essays and speeches by late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century activists like Sojourner Truth, Anna Julia Cooper, Emmeline Pankhurst, Margaret Sanger, and many others.
We’ve moved on to contemporary writings about the suffragettes: David Roediger’s Seizing Freedom: Slave Emancipation and Liberty for Alland Angela Davis’s Women, Race, & Class. I assigned both of these books because of their trenchant critiques of the racism of white suffrage activists and analysis of how the “rainbow coalition” of labor unions, women’s groups, and abolitionists fell apart after the passage of the fifteenth amendment thanks to a toxic brew of classism, sexism, and racism. It’s always a good time to read Roediger and Davis, but, in the wake of Donald Trump’s election victory, it feels like we need them more than ever.
Trump’s victory is also guiding my extracurricular reading. The day after the election, I went searching for answers for how to think about the unthinkable future that we’re now all facing. I started with Carol Anderson’s White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide. Anderson shows how white violence crosses boundaries of class and region. It’s not aberrantly southern or simply a byproduct of poverty, as many people would like to think: it’s the rule, not the exception, of American life. It’s a great book, and I definitely recommend it, but it doesn’t leave me with much hope for the future. Still, I think I’m going to assign it next semester in my Harper Lee class, so that we can start talking about white privilege, entitlement, and power both in Lee’s time and our own.