- South by Southwest: Katherine Anne Porter and the Burden of Texas History by Janis Stout
Not to mess with Texas, but until the last few decades of the twentieth century, the state produced relatively few writers of national significance. Katherine Anne Porter, never one to be self-effacing, claimed that she was “the first and only serious writer Texas has produced” (qtd. in Stout 1). This reputation has clearly shifted with the likes of Sandra Cisneros, Amerigo Paredes, and Larry McMurtry, but for the better part of the twentieth century, Porter’s claim appeared to be correct. Porter left Texas in 1918, however, and only made a few brief visits to the state over the rest of her long life, and her relationship with Texas was usually contentious. Janis Stout argues in South by Southwest that Porter was obsessed with Texas, alternately imagining it in her fiction as an idyllic and gracious landscape, only slightly removed from moonlight and magnolias, and depicting it as a misogynist, racist, violent place from which she was permanently alienated. Porter, in other words, shared in the duality that affects most southern writers. [End Page 544]
Stout claims that earlier biographers have been incorrect in their assertions that Porter was ambivalent about her relationship to Texas and that it plays an incidental role in her writing. Instead, she believes that Texas played an essential role in Porter’s work because of its geography, its violence, its racism, and its misogyny, four themes that echo throughout the book. Stout explains that Porter’s experience of Texas was idiosyncratic. Texas is a border state, both nationally and regionally, and several cultures converge there, including the vestiges of colonial Mexico, the Native Americans of the desert southwest, the ranching Great Plains, and the cotton plantations of the South. Porter’s family came to Texas to raise cotton, bringing at least one slave with them, so Porter experienced Texas as the western margin of the South, according to Stout, a place where aggression toward women and minorities came with a frontier accent. A native Texan herself, Stout claims that Texas was a burden for Porter, personally because she felt disadvantaged by her family’s genteel poverty, socially because she felt stigmatized by Texas as an intellectual backwater, and creatively because many of her stories emanate from Texas, even those not set in the state. Porter’s relationship with Texas was antagonistic but crucial to her writing.
The version of Texas that appears most often in Porter’s work is distinctly southern. Many of her stories draw on her memories of childhood in Texas, her family’s stories, and Old South mythology, and the South’s influence can be plainly seen in the stories in the collection The Old Order. Several of her stories critique the South’s rigid gender roles, such as “Old Mortality,” which for Stout, “powerfully demonstrates that measuring young women by their beauty and charm was destructive and that elevating such attributes as goals to which girls should aspire was both daunting and crippling” (107). Porter, however, found herself caught in the double bind of southern womanhood, and she relied on her beauty to manipulate men while disparaging the feminist movement. She had similarly conflicted feelings about race. She grew up in a racist community where lynchings were not unheard of, and she developed some prejudices about race that she maintained her entire life. Stout, however, discusses an unpublished story manuscript about a gruesome lynching, “The Man in the Tree,” that “gives evidence of her depth of thought and feeling about race relations in the South, and indeed at one point directly echoes Faulkner” (138). The fact that Porter never completed the story suggests that she could not make a complicated public statement on race or that the story succumbed to her penchant for procrastination.
Porter spent most of her life away from Texas but never found a home, and she seems to have felt a sense of alienation from her life there that she had difficulty reconciling...