South by Southwest
Katherine Anne Porter and the Burden of Texas History
Publication Year: 2013
An interdisciplinary study of Katherine Anne Porter’s troubled relationship to her Texas origins and southern roots, South by Southwest offers a fresh look at this ever-relevant author.
Today, more than thirty years after her death, Katherine Anne Porter remains a fascinating figure. Critics and biographers have portrayed her as a strikingly glamorous woman whose photographs appeared in society magazines. They have emphasized, of course, her writing— particularly the novel Ship of Fools, which was made into an award-winning film, and her collection Pale Horse, Pale Rider, which cemented her role as a significant and original literary modernist. They have highlighted her dramatic, sad, and fragmented personal life. Few, however, have addressed her uneasy relationship to her childhood in rural Texas.
Janis P. Stout argues that throughout Porter’s life she remained preoccupied with the twin conundrums of how she felt about being a woman and how she felt about her Texas origins. Her construction of herself as a beautiful but unhappy southerner sprung from a plantation aristocracy of reduced fortunes meant she construed Texas as the Old South. The Texas Porter knew and re-created in her fiction had been settled by southerners like her grandparents, who brought slaves with them. As she wrote of this Texas, she also enhanced and mythologized it, exaggerating its beauty, fertility, and gracious ways as much as the disaffection that drove her to leave. Her feelings toward Texas ran to both extremes, and she was never able to reconcile them.
Stout examines the author and her works within the historical and cultural context from which she emerged. In particular, Stout emphasizes four main themes in the history of Texas that she believes are of the greatest importance in understanding Porter: its geography and border location (expressed in Porter’s lifelong fascination with marginality, indeterminacy, and escape); its violence (the brutality of her first marriage as well as the lawlessness that pervaded her hometown); its racism (lynchings were prevalent throughout her upbringing); and its marginalization of women (Stout draws a connection between Porter’s references to the burning sun and oppressive heat of Texas and her life with her first husband).
Published by: The University of Alabama Press
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Title Page, Copyright, Dedication, Quote
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List of Illustrations
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Even today, more than thirty years after her death, Katherine Anne Porter remains a figure of fascination. Probably she is most widely remembered for the award-winning movie made from her one novel, Ship of Fools. Readers of a certain age may recall her as a strikingly glamorous public figure whose photographs appeared in upscale magazines. Others may recall reading short stories...
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1. Callie Russell Porter’s Texas: History, Geoculture, and the Need to Escape
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Katherine Anne Porter liked to call herself “the first and only serious writer that Texas has produced.”1 By “serious writer,” she would have meant a writer of literary fiction or a polished stylist, discounting historical or naturalist writing. In those terms her claim to being the first was well founded, though not, as she very well knew, her claim to being the “only.” William Humphrey and William...
2. Away and Yet Not Away
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Katherine Anne Porter’s departure from Texas in the spring of 1918 was one of the defining moments of her life. When she finally, at the age of twenty-eight, managed to get away more or less permanently, she found opportunities for career advancement and maturation as an artist that she had not been able to put together in her home state. At first this meant newspaper work (though she later...
3. The Mexican Dream and Its Realities
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During her four stays in Mexico during the 1920s, Porter completed her emergence as an artist. Some of her most celebrated short fiction appeared during this decade. The fact that these two events—her experience of Mexico and her emergence as a serious writer—coincided was not mere happenstance. Mexico provided what she needed in order to bring to fruition her long preparation as a...
4. Recalling Childhood: Beauty, Death, and “The Old Order”
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Porter and Eugene Pressly sailed for Europe from Veracruz on August 22, 1931, aboard the German ship Werra. During the crossing she kept a journal-letter to Caroline Gordon, dotted with barbed descriptions of fellow passengers. This would become the germ of her novel Ship of Fools, where the Werra reappears as the Vera. Otherwise, she did not work during the voyage. Frustrated by her inability...
5. Seizing the Moment: Endless Memory and “Noon Wine”
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Porter’s years in Paris in the early 1930s were a time of achievement, especially with the completion and publication of “The Old Order.” They were also a tense time, fraught with concern over German rearmament. In addition, Porter had health problems, and her disposition suffered. Nevertheless, this trying period ended with the 1935 publication of the first “Old Order” and a revised and enlarged...
6. Awakening the Southern Belle from Her Dream of a Horse Race
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“Old Mortality” and “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” two of the three impressive novellas Porter completed in 1936 and 1937 as she “seized the day” of her artistic readiness, follow Miranda’s awakening from her relentless conditioning as a latter-day Southern belle. In addressing this essentially feminist theme, Porter was taking up a subject as deeply rooted in her early life in Texas as the mysteries...
7. Racial Nightmares and “The Man in the Tree”
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The only direct account of racial violence in any of Katherine Anne Porter’s published
fiction comes in “The Witness,” where Uncle Jimbilly recounts the abuse
inflicted by white masters during slavery:
“Dey used to take ’em out and tie ’em down and whup ’em,” he muttered, “wid gret big leather strops inch thick long as yo’ ahm, wid round holes...
8. War’s Alarms: Three Texans, Two Wars
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In her caustic essay about Gertrude Stein “The Wooden Umbrella,” Porter characterized the “literary young” who gathered around Stein in Paris, “snatching” at her every word, as “children . . . between two wars in a falling world” (CE 257). It is an apt characterization of the period when Porter was in Europe. As early as 1931 she was expressing in letters her apprehensiveness about the likelihood...
9. Two Almost-Last Straws
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In 1939 and 1958 two events occurred that drove Porter’s ambivalence about Texas nearly to estrangement. Both must be told along with a great deal of contextual material, including what I consider to be very pertinent to both: her long wish for a house of her own. As her poem “Anniversary in a Country Cemetery” tells us, she regarded herself as essentially homeless throughout her adult life...
10. Sexual Politics and Ship of Fools
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In 1964 a new phrase, “women’s liberation” (or simply “women’s lib”), entered the American lexicon. Propelled by two major publishing events—the English translation of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex in 1953 and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique in 1963—reinforced by the launching of Ms. magazine in 1972, the movement labeled by these widely circulated terms quickly...
11. Never Reconciled
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One of the two happiest events of Porter’s last few years was her return to the Catholic Church. She had developed friendships among the nuns of the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, in Baltimore, and they gently led her back. As long as she was able, she went to special services in the college chapel and received communion. The other happiest event was a final return to Texas, two decades...
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Page Count: 264
Illustrations: 16 illustrations
Publication Year: 2013