- Katherine Anne Porter’s Familiar Countries
This landWill receive me as a friend, as a memberOf the family, will not mock at my journeys, nor recall them tome, nor deny them,But will say easily, “So, daughter, you are late,But come in, and welcome!”Katherine Anne Porter, “West Indian Island”
In writings that spanned nearly five decades, Katherine Anne Porter crafted a complex fictional world stricken by what she perceived to be the multiple contagions of modernity, amid which her South functioned both as epistemic and, increasingly, as asylum. While most critics seem compelled to treat the Texas-born author’s marginal claims to Southernness as “a decision, not a fate,” in Elizabeth Hardwick’s resonant phrase, many still indulge the geographical and biographical agendas of the old Southern studies by focusing chiefly on her plantation settings and themes as evidence of her so-called Southern inclinations. Porter, however, habitually displaced her imagined South onto unlikely places and times, including postrevolutionary Mexico, where she spent much of the 1920s; her lifelong work on a never-completed biography of the Puritan polymath Cotton Mather; her unpublished Bermuda poems; and her only completed novel, Ship of Fools (1962), which charts a transatlantic voyage on a second-class cruise liner. When she did write about the South, she often fashioned it as the quarry of imperial infections arriving from remote histories and geographies. In the end, Porter’s South poses an [End Page 187] instructive challenge for the scholars still attempting to define and deconstruct the region: it is at once everywhere and nowhere, an agent and an inheritor of colonial-capitalist trauma, a refuge and a nightmare.
Porter spent most of her career surveying—and attempting to safeguard herself and her South from—a world rocked by the “grotesque dislocations” and “sickness of millennial change” (“Introduction to Flowering Judas” 457). The notion of imperialism as a transnational plague recurs throughout her published works, fashioned generally as a foreign infiltration on US soil and a secondary infection in the South. Near the end of her luminous novella “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” (1939), among the few literary works to substantively treat the deadly 1918 influenza pandemic that she herself had narrowly survived, a character surmises that the crisis was “caused by germs brought by a German ship to Boston, a camouflaged ship, naturally, it didn’t come in under its own colors. Isn’t that ridiculous?” (296). The theory is indeed implausible: first, because researchers still do not know precisely where the outbreak originated, though many have found persuasive evidence for a US-based etiology; second, because the conspiracy notion clearly owes more to the World War I context of the story and to the insidious rise of Nazi Germany at the time of its composition. Moreover, in a tale set in the American West, the allusion to a New England port is obtrusive. But while her characters’ paranoia about alien incursions is at times hyperbolic, it is also a revelatory index of the transhistorical and transnational currents—and the insidious, reiterative plagues—inherited by the modern settler colonial state.
Appreciations of Porter’s transnational consciousness rely mainly on her ardent essays about Mexican culture and politics and her barely fictional Ship of Fools. The latter took more than three decades to complete and has almost invariably disturbed and risked offending readers with its grotesque portrayals of human evil on a vast, global scale. Yet even the editor of a recent collection of essays exploring the “untried” influences of European politics and contexts on Porter’s fiction eventually concludes that “[n]o matter how much Porter either knew, intuited, or eventually learned about Europe, she remained a child of the South” (Austenfeld 9). This categorizing holds, I contend, only if we admit a far more nuanced conception of Porter’s particular, symptomatic brand of Southernness, one she arrived at dialectically and sometimes defensively. As Paul Giles suggests, the newest transnational approaches are not incompatible with regionalism but are “crucial to its constitution: it is precisely the ways in which any given region configures itself in relation to the world around it that determines its internal sense...