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Reviewed by:
  • Katherine Anne Porter: The Illusion of Eden
  • Janis P. Stout
Thomas F. Walsh. Katherine Anne Porter: The Illusion of Eden. Austin: U of Texas P, 1992. 277 pp. $37.50.

Professor Walsh's posthumously published book on Katherine Anne Porter's engagement with Mexico is the culmination of research carried out over a twenty-five year period. His admirable knowledge of the subject was developed not only by thorough research in newspaper archives and government [End Page 378] documents, but by extensive personal interviews with Porter herself and study of her unpublished papers even before they became generally available. For all of this, Walsh was peculiarly well qualified. There has rarely occurred so perfect a match of scholar and subject. Fluent in Spanish, intimately acquainted with Mexico through family ties and spending part of every year at a second home there, he headquartered in Georgetown, near Porter's Washington and College Park residences, where he conducted his interviews.

Katherine Anne Porter and Mexico is and can be expected to remain the definitive historical study of its subject. It casts light on a multitude of previously dark areas in our understanding of Porter's Mexican period and the complex relationship between her fiction, her nonfiction, and her personal experience. Not that it provides a reductive causal explanation of Porter's achievement; despite his willingness to see her stories as reflections of her sexual and familial anxieties, Walsh respects the art of this "writer's writer" and recognizes its inherent mystery. He does, however, illuminate the murky complexities of the political scene in Mexico during Porter's years there, providing needed information and leading the way toward our understanding of the displacements that went into the shaping of her work.

Walsh's elucidation of the political scene in the nineteen-tens and twenties is not always easy to follow. Not only is the cast of historical characters unfamiliar to most readers, but the events he traces out were often tangled in complications and cross purposes. These chapters deserve and indeed demand multiple readings.

Entering so baroque a scene, Porter might have been expected to show caution and to doubt her own powers of penetration. She did neither. Instead, she plunged into political intrigues which, as Walsh attempts to demonstrate, led to at least one assassination, then retreated in a rush of fear when her name appeared on the non grata list during President José Obregon's 1921 purges. Except in "Flowering Judas," her published writings give little of this story. As Walsh astutely observes, she always tended to conceal her real adventures and create false ones in their place.

The work is at its best, perhaps, in Walsh's thorough exploration of the making of "Flowering Judas" and his careful study of early non-fiction works such as "The Fiesta of Guadalupe" and "The Children of Xochitl," essays that, as he says, mark the poles of her despair and her idealism. It is probably at its weakest in those few passages in which he rides too hard his interpretive thesis of the deeply insecure and elaborately egotistical woman. One example: he uses a quotation from a 1932 letter Porter wrote to her brother—"I do not have to explain anything or listen to explanation, and I do not have that feeling of being at odds with society because I am an artist"—to buttress an argument that she "wished to be a rule unto herself." In context, however, the passage points in a very different direction: Porter was explaining why she preferred living in Paris to living in Texas. There, she said, she did not have to explain anything, etc. [End Page 379]

Thomas F. Walsh's papers have recently been donated to the McKeldin Library at the University of Maryland, where they will be available alongside the Porter papers, enabling other scholars to continue the work Professor Walsh himself brought to such admirable fruition. His rigor in pursuing the study of a clearly defined, indisputably important subject has set an example for those who come after.

Janis P. Stout
Texas A&M University


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pp. 378-380
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