restricted access Katherine Anne Porter's Artistic Development: Primitivism, Traditionalism, and Totalitarianism (review)
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Reviewed by
Robert H. Brinkmeyer, Jr. Katherine Anne Porter's Artistic Development: Primitivism, Traditionalism, and Totalitarianism. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1993. xix + 237 pp. $27.50 paper.

A shift has been evident in Porter studies in recent years from an emphasis on style and symbolic meaning to an interest in biographical and historical contexts. Robert Brinkmeyer's book contributes both to this accumulating body of revisionist scholarship and to the reassessment of Porter as a writer whose thinking was characterized by variation and tension, rather than by unity or internal consistency.

Brinkmeyer posits three major transformative shifts in Porter's thinking, all profoundly reflected in her work: primitivism, referring to her experiences in Mexico; traditionalism, referring to her embrace of memory and regional origins and her "choice to rewrite her Texas roots as Deep South tradition"; and totalitarianism, referring to both her World War II and post-War fixation on totalitarian threats to the American republic and her own tendency to adopt social and political ideas that he terms "totalitarian." After identifying and discussing each of the three themes, he summarizes and comments on pertinent stories, addressing primarily Ship of Fools as the example par excellence of her late "hardening conservatism" and "paranoia."

The strongest sections of the book are its discussions of Porter's turn toward the South and of her "dissenting sensibility." The argument that she was at her best in the Miranda stories, especially "The Grave," with its integration of memory and vision, is effective though scarcely surprising. The judgment of Ship of Fools as a "failed work of virtuosity . . . forced and overwrought" that reflects its author's negative preoccupations is, in my view, correct.

It is unfortunate, then, that these and many other valid and valuable understandings are attached to an excessively rigid and abstract framework [End Page 367] that, by forcing Brinkmeyer's analysis into a tripartite structure of successive stages, oversimplifies and oversystematizes Porter's always unsystematic thinking and thereby distorts it. Her early years in Mexico were not driven by the lure of primitivism (a term that connotes more nearly the self-indulgent wish-fulfillment she saw in D. H. Lawrence than her own interest) but by political zeal joined to a lifelong restlessness. Her time in Mexico did not disrupt her "intellectual continuity and security"; she never had any. And when she left Mexico in 1931 she was not disenchanted with "primitivism and its vitalizing potential" but with official venality and what she saw as the failure of the revolution. The turn to "traditionalism" and a redefined sense of her regional roots that Brinkmeyer attributes to her friendship with Southerners like Allen Tate and Caroline Gordon was partly, odd though it may seem, a result of her time in Mexico, where she experienced the strength of an art rooted in a strong sense of place, tradition, and cultural distinctiveness. And even after that turn she was not by any means consistent in her regional loyalty. Most emphatically, she did not arrive at either a personal totalitarian view or an obsession with totalitarianism (it is not entirely clear which is Brinkmeyer's point) as a kind of terminus. Her political and religious views even after Ship of Fools continued to show at least some degree of variability.

Regarding religion, Brinkmeyer finds that Porter made a "dramatic and extreme" turn from the Church in the 1940s and '50s, partly because of her linkage of Catholicism and fascism. It is worth noting that in making this linkage Porter was not alone; rightist Catholics were conspicuous in public discourse in the late '30s and on into the McCarthy years. Her anti-fascism did take on a strong coloration of anti-Catholicism after World War II, but one can also find expressions of loyalty to the Church in these years—just as one can find a strong strain of anticlericalism earlier. In 1962, the year Ship of Fools was published, she wrote to Allen Tate that "of course" she took a Catholic view of things, and in her closing years she took great comfort from the ministrations of the Church. The matter was not simply settled once and for all during the years...