- From Jilting to JonquilKatherine Anne Porter and Wendell Berry, Sustaining Connections, Re-engendering the Rural
"For to him that is joined to all the living there is hope."—Ecclesiastes 9:4
Sustainability, new agrarianism, localism, and other contemporary place-based interests invite reconsideration of our priorities as teachers and scholars of literature. Demonstrating rootedness in traditional agricultural work and place, Wendell Berry's literature voices a number of place-based concerns.1 However, our much-needed reconsiderations of the value of place raise questions about the ways in which we might reimagine gender as part of the discussion. The following essay reads Katherine Anne Porter's "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall" (1929), Berry's "A Jonquil for Mary Penn" (1992), and Porter's "Noon Wine" (1937) with additional attention to each author's larger body of work and ideas.
I am particularly interested here in Porter's and Berry's intersecting, but often at odds, treatments of female isolation and connection within communities. Whereas "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall," with narrative skill both formally and psychologically complex, addresses the alienation of its title character, Berry's story of a rural Kentucky woman, Mary Penn, functions as a reclamation of community connections from the alienated distances of Porter's and others' modernism. Nevertheless, Berry's work begs questions about his tendency to [End Page 166] gender characters' spheres of action and point of view, questions about gender and agrarianism explored six decades before "A Jonquil for Mary Penn" in Porter's "Noon Wine," a long story that speaks to patriarchal violence and gendered limitations of visual and psychological perspective on an early twentieth-century Texas farm.
Placed in conversation with one another, Porter's and Berry's literature represents an important literary and cultural series of intersecting issues pertaining to modern alienation, the connective potential and shortcomings of community, and the gendered nature of community, work, and point of view.
DISCONNECTION AND WHOLENESS
On Katherine Anne Porter's "Miranda" stories, which recall the aftermath of southern slavery and plantation culture, Mary Ann Wimsatt notes the author's "depiction of southern ethics, manners, mores, and codes of behavior" (82), and Porter has, in Mary Titus's words, "produced a complex, gendered analysis of southern womanhood" (190). Moreover, on the projects of Porter and other Southern women writers, Mary Burgan notes how certain authors work "to recover some kind of personal identity for characters" who have had "to dismantle the past and then . . . to put it back together again in a revisionary way that would permit them to survive its racist and sexist myths" (271). In other words, Katherine Anne Porter's stories have been read as dramatizing individual identities coming to terms with a southern agrarian past of opportunities narrowed along lines of gender and race.
In more modernist terms, Porter's stories demonstrate what Harry J. Mooney Jr. calls "the terrible predicament of the individual in the modern world," with reoccurring characters like Miranda and her grandmother, Sophia Jane, living "like Miss Porter, amidst a world always falling to pieces" (49). Similarly, Mary Titus compares the author with T. S. Eliot, describing Porter's works as "modernist visions of intertwined personal and cultural malaise" (137). Barbara Harrell Carson convincingly identifies the feminist modernist characteristics of much of Porter's life and work when she writes that Porter "found herself in one of those 'epochs of social disintegration' during which, according to de Beauvoir, 'woman is set free'" (246).
The preceding survey of criticism establishes some of the advantages and shortcomings of Porter's work on the rural South—where, on one hand, voices traditionally marginalized by sexist and racist ideologies [End Page 167] emerge in sometimes heroic moments of self-expression but, on the other hand, characters are often individualized to the point of alienation, inadequately connected within their communities just as Porter herself, the wandering modernist, seems never fully to have been connected to a single place for very long.
Deborah Tall, in her essay "Dwelling: Making Peace with Space and Place" (1996), notes how many "modern writers have applauded the conditions of 'perpetual exile' as ethically healthy, a necessary severance from the sentimentalities of nationalism...