- South by Southwest: Katherine Anne Porter and the Burden of Texas History by Janis Stout
In South by Southwest Janis Stout faces the ambiguity of Katherine Anne Porter’s relationship with Texas, the author’s home state, and the regional culture Stout argues shaped Porter’s literary world. She offers an exceptionally eloquent and well-informed study on Porter’s relationship to the Texas identity that informed her long life.
According to Stout, the disconcerting qualities of being both a Texan and a woman were the major preoccupations of Porter’s [End Page 138] life. Exploring culture, violence, racism, and gender, Stout specifically engages other Porter biographers and establishes a distinctive viewpoint on Porter’s personal history. With a precise definition of culture and a noteworthy tie to the relationship between remembering and interpreting memories, Stout’s study opens up a new and convincing reading of Katherine Anne Porter and her literature. Stout describes her project best when she explains that her purpose “is not so much critical evaluation as exploration and interpretation of [Porter’s] life and works by way of her perception that being a Texan was a kind of burden to be carried” (xvi).
Her assessment of Porter’s influences balances historical research into the cultures of both East Texas and the United States while following the chronology of the author’s life. In chapter 1, “Callie Russell Porter’s Texas,” Stout lays the groundwork for Porter’s southern and Texan roots, reading each as present in Porter’s life and describing an unchartered regional border that delineates where the “South” ends and “Texas” begins as the site of Porter’s childhood. Convincing readers that culture shapes the context for every life, Stout uses chapter 2, “Away and Yet Not Away,” to describe the circumstances that led to Porter’s literary writing. Stout describes how Porter’s later distance from Texas ironically brought Porter closer to her roots by encouraging her to “reconstruct her personal history” (33), revisiting her memories and renovating them to meet her sense of herself. Chapter 3, “The Mexican Dream and Its Realities,” engages the influence that the art and politics Porter experienced in Mexico had on her writing.
After the emphasis on cultural impacts Stout turns to the feminine influences in Porter’s life to write chapter 4, “Recalling Childhood.” Studying models of feminine elegance and expectations for ladylike behavior, she also addresses Porter’s memories of the women in her life to suggest that a cycle of seven stories was related to these ideas. Stout pushes these ideas further in chapter 5, “Seizing the Moment,” when she suggests that in Porter’s “Annus mirabilis,” or “miracle year” of production, she dealt with questions of excessive violence, some of which she experienced in her own life. As a unique biographer Stout is careful to point out her own efforts in comparing biography, history, and letters to make her best navigation through points of truth and fictionalization. That [End Page 139] same care resonates in each chapter title giving special insight into its contents, perhaps making chapter 6’s title the most compelling: “Awakening the Southern Belle from Her Dreams of a Horserace.” Addressing the complexities that would inform much of Porter’s confliction, Stout describes how Porter awakens from relentless southern conditioning to find a perpetual disharmony between her traditional conception of beauty and the demands of her artistic discipline. Wrapping up the most direct look at southern influences, Stout devotes chapter 7, “Racial Nightmares and ‘The Man in the Tree,’” to Porter’s inability to bring her material about racism under control. Ultimately Stout proves that Porter is complexly and conflictingly racist.
An easy shift in focus happens when Stout turns to chapter 8, “War Alarms.” Examining Porter’s politics and her sense that war is a constant, Stout suggests that the long period spent writing Ship of Fools allowed Porter to develop a retrospective vision about World War II. Perhaps most interesting, however, is Stout’s question of why Texans appear in all...