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The Ambivalent Art of Katherine Anne Porter, Mary Titus's insightful and thought-provoking critical study, draws on "cultural studies and feminist and gender theory" to illuminate Porter's "gender-thinking: her serious and sustained examination of the interrelated issues of art, gender, and identity" (10, 8). Ranging widely through Porter's published and unpublished fiction, essays, and correspondence as well as making use of the facts of her biography, Titus focuses on what Porter experienced and explored as a woman artist, and "her deeply conflicted response to the union of those two identities 'woman' and 'artist'" (27). Furthermore, she finds that Porter's texts exploring gender and sexuality are "comic, contentious and conflicted" (8) and that her thinking on these subjects was "complex, contradictory, and ambivalent" (10), concluding that "her long career . . . represents an astonishing and significant achievement" (214).
Titus structures this critical work around a "touchstone" (10), Porter's "The Princess," a never completed work of short fiction written around 1927–1928. It is examined in the first chapter, and each of following nine chapters opens with a reference to it. In this tale, a princess and heir to the throne of an imaginary nature-worshipping kingdom refuses to shed the garment worn by prepubescent girls and walk naked, the custom for all women capable of bearing children. Defying her parents (the King and Queen), the Royal Council, and the High Priestess of the kingdom, the princess dons additional garments. Continuing her resistance to authority, the princess becomes an artist, training handmaidens to create her increasingly elaborate adornments of silk, precious metals, and gemstones. Eventually betrothed to one of the young men of the kingdom, she repulses his [End Page 646] requests for physical contact. Condemned to death for her heresy, the princess flees with her betrothed to a lake, into which she slips and drowns. Lapped by the waves, the body of the princess is freed of its adornments, finally naked, her story kept alive in the song of her betrothed. Titus finds this tale commenting on "the generational replication of a gender system, the social control of female sexuality and a young woman's attempt to escape cultural conscription through the invention of art" as well as "raising key questions that [Porter] continued to explore throughout her career" (14): Do patriarchal social systems perpetuate and enforce what they have defined as nature? Is female gender a product of costume and performance or rooted in biology? Do women turn themselves into artistic objects when they cannot become artists? Is gender simply fabrication and performance? Does a woman become a madwoman and a monster when she becomes an artist? Does a woman's art require and originate in the repression of her body?
In the chapter "Fairy Tales and Foreigners," Titus turns her attention to Porter's earliest published fiction: three children's stories derived from various sources, a "retold" tale intended for an adult audience, and "Maria Concepcíon." She further examines "Children of Xochitl," the unpublished version of a sketch published in 1921, and touches briefly on "The Evening," an early unfinished story set in Mexico. In these early works, Titus finds that Porter addressed female authority and creative power—women's choices, the constraints and distortion of their creative powers, and the price they pay for power.
Chapter 3, "Beautiful Objects," considers the relationship of male artist and female subject as depicted in five of Porter's narratives conceived in the 1920s: "The Evening," "Flowering Judas," "Virgin Violeta," "The Martyr, " and "The Lovely Legend." In all, Titus finds sadomasochism underlying the relationship between the male spectator/artist and the female spectacle/model/muse. The women of these stories desire both to escape the male gaze and experience pleasure in objectification. Titus concludes that these stories suggest that "women can either be artists . . . or sexual beings" (67). The woman artist's maternal legacy is the subject of the chapter "Seeking the Mother Tongue." Here Titus asserts that "Porter forged the creative concept of 'legend and memory'" that described "the process from which...