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Katherine Anne Porter. The Letters of Katherine Anne Porter. Ed. Isabel Bayley. New York: Atlantic Monthly, 1990. 642 pp. $29.95.

During the ninety years of her life Katherine Anne Porter wrote a great many letters—ten thousand, Porter said someone had estimated—most of them apparently typed, with a carbon retained for her files. This collection, selected and edited by Porter's friend, Isabel Bayley, is a small fraction of that number, made even smaller by the fact that it is restricted to a thirty year period, 1930-1967, "the most productive period" of Porter's career. This restriction rules out forty years at the beginning of Porter's life and thirteen at the end, some thirty-five years of her adult life left unrepresented. [End Page 568]

Also troubling are the numerous passages excised from these letters with only the vague excuse that what was cut "may not be so telling" as the rest. Scholarly readers will be disappointed at the absence of footnotes and headnotes where one or the other would help, identifying persons referred to only by initials or clarifying matters not sufficiently obvious from the context. There is an introductory "Who's Who" of Porter's correspondents and an index that appears to be accurate and thorough, including under the listing for Porter helpful subtopics, such as on writing, on feminism, and so on.

As for the letters themselves, they are somewhat disappointing. The now famous one to Hart Crane and the long one to Caroline Gordon, that later formed the basis for Ship of Fools, are of special interest. And the letter to the president of a western university refusing to sign a loyalty oath shows Porter in a particularly admirable light. The rest of the letters, although of historical and biographical interest, for the most part, seem rather self-conscious and at times stilted, as though Porter felt the need to assume the persona of the literary artist even when writing to friends. One thinks, in contrast, of the letters of Flannery O'Connor, at once so direct and human. Anyone familiar with Joan Givner's biography of Porter will be struck by the difference between the flesh-and-blood Porter that Givner evokes and the one reflected in these letters.

Katherine Anne Porter is an important writer of the modern period, not only because of the quality of her fiction, but because she was at the center of so much of the artistic and political activities of the 1920s and 1930s. This collection shows how deep and persistent that involvement was, and is an important contribution to our understanding of Porter and the history of the modern period.



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pp. 568-569
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