Katherine the Great

Katherine Anne Porter, the best writer Texas has produced, has long been slighted by her home state. But the book isn’t closed on her legacy.

May 1997By Comments

MAY IS TEXAS WRITERS MONTH, an occasion traditionally accompanied by a poster celebrating a Texas writer. But when the event’s organizers chose William Sydney Porter (O. Henry) for this year’s honors, it could be argued that they picked the wrong Porter. Being ignored in her native state is nothing new for Katherine Anne Porter, the best writer the Lone Star State has produced. At last November’s splashy Texas Book Festival, a panel of semi-distinguished commentators sang the praises of the familiar founding-fathers trinity of Texas letters, J. Frank Dobie, Walter Prescott Webb, and Roy Bedichek, but nary a word was proffered for Porter. Back in 1939, her Pale Horse, Pale Rider, perhaps the greatest work of fiction by a Texas-born author, lost out for the Texas Institute of Letters’ first annual best book of the year award to a collection of treasure-seeking tales by local culture hero Dobie titled Apache Gold and Yaqui Silver. Of course, Porter didn’t write about cowboys, Longhorns, rattlesnakes, mockingbirds, or buried bullion. And the fact that she had left Texas more or less for good when she was 28 probably didn’t help either.

Although Porter’s 1962 novel, Ship of Fools, won the Texas Institute of Letters award for fiction, her standing in her home state remained shaky at best. As recently as 1981, a year after her death, Texas’ leading novelist, Larry McMurtry, dissed her in an oft-quoted essay in the Texas Observer. In remarks that were hopelessly off base, McMurtry wrote Porter off the Texas literary macho map, accusing her of being “genteel to the core,” of having created too pure a style—of being, in short, all plumage. On the national scene Porter fared much better, winning both a Pulitzer and a National Book Award in 1966 for her Collected Stories. Today her stories are the only ones by a Texas author that are routinely included in anthologies of American literature.

In the nineties signs of a growing recognition of Porter’s Texas roots have begun to appear, thanks to the efforts of academics exploring Porter’s life and art and to a general reawakening of interest in Texas culture in the years following the sesquicentennial. There is, for example, a statue of Porter at San Antonio’s Sea World, a somewhat surprising site, perhaps, until you realize that Harcourt Brace, her publisher, used to own this aquatic amusement park. More significantly, her hometown of Kyle, a little one-exit-ramp burg on Interstate 35 twenty miles south of Austin, now boasts a historical marker summarizing Porter’s life and a little museum located in the modest frame house where she lived from 1892 till 1901.

Callie Russell Porter was born on May 15, 1890, in a simple wooden house in a small frontier community near Brownwood called Indian Creek, about 130 miles northwest of Austin. Her mother died when Callie was not quite two years old, and her father, Harrison Boone Porter, handsome, emotionally fragile, and utterly grief stricken, moved back home with his four small children to his mother’s house at 508 W. Center Street in Kyle. Callie’s grandfather Asbury D. Porter had died long before she was born. It was from her grandmother Catharine Ann Skaggs Porter, austere, loving, and authoritarian, that Porter eventually took her public name.

According to “Notes on the Texas I Remember,” written for the Atlantic Monthly when she was 85, the six-room house “of a style known as Queen Anne, who knows why?” was one with “no features at all except for two long galleries, front and back galleries—mind you, not porches or verandas . . .” These, she wrote, were covered with honeysuckle and roses and provided a wonderful venue for repose and conversation and iced tea and “tall frosted beakers of mint julep, for the gentlemen, of course.” Gentlemen consuming mint juleps on flower-embowered galleries is straight out of Southern plantation mythology, and Porter, here and in her fiction about her family, ratchets up the social level several notches to attain a grander personal myth along the lines of Porter as the last of the Southern belles.

A visitor to the little museum is likely to find the house’s six rooms quite small and those “galleries” much less impressive than the ones in Porter’s imagination. The museum occupies a small front living room and an even smaller adjoining dining room. Family photos, including some quite good ones of the young Callie Porter, as well as a smattering of books and magazine articles by and about Porter that lie open for perusal, are the chief objects on view. The front yard contains one remnant of cultural interest: an “upping” block, a small boulder about two feet high that was used to assist women in climbing aboard horses before the automobile era.

The Porter historical marker is located to the left of the Kyle City Hall. Installed in 1990, it imparts some of the basic information about Porter’s life but contains one misleading statement: “Following a brief failed marriage, she left Texas in 1915.” Porter herself was particularly unreliable about that early marriage. Transacted when she was just a few days past her sixteenth birthday, it lasted nine years, seven of which she spent in residence with her husband, John Henry Koontz, who was from Inez. Porter was married four times in all, had many lovers, sent nude photographs of herself to her family, and was once lifted and carried aloft like a trophy at a glittering literary gathering in New York by the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. The Porter plaque makes no mention, of course, of this sort of history.

Another point of interest can be found in the Kyle Cemetery, about two miles south of town on Old Stagecoach Road. Here rest the remains of Porter’s paternal grandmother and grandfather. A ten-foot-high granite sculpture marking their graves consists of two columns, one labeled “Mother,” one “Father,” with their names and dates of birth and death. Below, on the base, we read “Reunited.” The two columns are crowned with an embellished arch. A student of mine who once visited this site for a class assignment wrote that the columns were those of the plantation the Porters never had in life.

Porter’s grandmother figures in several of her stories set in and around Kyle. A powerful matriarch, she embodied the precepts of her generation, which Porter affectionately called the Old Order: the importance of religious instruction, family social standing, and traditional values. Porter both loved and feared her grandmother, and this woman’s death, in 1901, was another crucial shock in her childhood, the loss of a second maternal figure before the little girl had reached puberty. Porter in fact witnessed her grandmother’s death, an event that occurred during a trip the two made to Marfa, in West Texas. Her grandmother suffered a stroke, and the eleven-year-old Callie was permitted to wander in and out of the bedroom where she lay dying. This and other childhood incidents appear in Porter’s fiction set in Kyle, usually altered in some way but clearly discernible as being rooted in her experience.

It appears that Porter’s early life was sufficiently fraught with both familial and cultural difficulties to make her feel it was necessary to leave Texas for good. An early letter from her brother Paul written on March 23, 1909, neatly sums up everything her family (its male members, at any rate) thought about women and their roles. The letter was apparently provoked by one Porter had written her brother complaining about some aspect of her marriage. By this time she was almost nineteen and had been married for nearly three years.

Early in the letter Paul tries to account for the “vehemence” of the letter she had written him: “What was the trouble; had JK [John Koontz] asserted himself in contravention of the laws or rather, rights of woman. Poor old JK. He is probably an h.p. [henpecked] suffragist at home any way if merly [sic] for the sake of peace.” The rest of the letter contains numerous arguments of the day against women getting the vote or doing anything except marrying, staying home, and having children. Near the end, Paul writes, “You say women are slaves; bound by routine and unappreciated labor. I should call them the White Mans [sic] Burden,” using Rudyard Kipling’s famous line about European imperialism. Paul wanted to keep women on a pedestal (“A man loves a woman on a pedestal”). At the end of the letter, he waxes downright liturgical: “It matters little whether women vote or not, as man is boss now will he be then; finis.”

Porter rebelled too against the strict Protestantism of her early upbringing by converting to Catholicism, her first husband’s faith and the bane of Southern Protestants, in 1910 and in her later bohemian lifestyle. She also resisted the rigidity and cruelty of the racial stratification of Texas around the turn of the century. In an uncompleted short story of 1933—34, tentatively titled “The Man in the Tree,” Porter told of a lynching and how it affected the family of a little girl based upon herself. The child’s reaction to the lynching is one of disgust and a desire to flee a place where such a miscarriage of justice could occur: “I—I—I’m going to leave . . . get as far away as I—I can . . . I w-won’t stay in this filthy country. . . . I won’t s-stay here and—and—and be murdered too!” In 1956 Porter wrote in a letter that she had “left my native land to get away from … the Negro Question.”

In 1914, when she was 24, Porter made her first attempt to leave Texas. She spent several months in Chicago, where she landed a few bit parts in movies, but by 1915 was back in Texas. She spent some time in a sanatorium near San Angelo, recovering from a brush with tuberculosis, and in 1917 got a job writing society pieces and reviews for the Fort Worth Critic. The following year she took a job in Denver with the Rocky Mountain News. She came down with the virulent influenza that was sweeping the country and was so close to dying that the newspaper prepared her obituary. In 1919 she moved to Greenwich Village, and the next year she made the first of numerous trips to Mexico, where she met a lot of famous people, including director Sergei Eisenstein, poet Hart Crane, and painter Frida Kahlo. As different from Kyle as it could possibly be, ancient, exotic, Catholic Mexico informed her earliest triumphs in fiction, stories such as “María Concepción” (1922) and “Flowering Judas” (1930). Through the rest of the twenties and thirties, Porter lived a nomadic existence, traveling to and sometimes staying for extended periods in the Northeast, Bermuda, Madrid, Paris, Berlin, and other locales.

After being away from Texas for nearly a decade, Porter began to rummage through her early life for material for fiction. In the late twenties she began an uncompleted novel titled “Many Redeemers,” which dealt with family history and remembrance. Much of this material would find its way into stories published in the mid-thirties and on into the forties. It was necessary, it appears, for her to travel thousands of miles and live in faraway places before she could return, in her writing, to the landscape of her childhood. “My time in Mexico and Europe,” she wrote in a 1954 essay, “served me in a way I had not dreamed of, even, besides its own charm and goodness: it gave me back my past and my own house and my own people—the native land of my heart.”

Porter had always kept close ties to her family through letters, and in 1936 she returned to Texas for a visit. This was a time of both artistic maturity and personal reconciliation with her father, from whom she had been estranged since leaving her first marriage. The two of them journeyed to her mother’s grave at Indian Creek, a moving experience for Porter and one that led to her decision to be buried there herself when the time came. On another visit to Texas about a year later, Porter and her father returned to the house in Kyle: “My father and I visited the dreary little place at Kyle, empty, full of dust, decayed, even smaller than I remembered it,” she wrote to a childhood friend. The two also attended an Old Settlers’ Reunion in San Marcos, where she was reminded powerfully of what the Old Order generation meant to her. In a letter to her friend Josephine Herbst, the novelist, Porter commented, “The world I was brought up in taught me nothing about the world I was to live in, but as I looked around me, I thought, these people are strong, and they are my people, and I have their toughness in me, and that is what I can rely upon.”

The trips home complemented the creative journeys back to the past that Porter had been undertaking in her fiction. The results were the Miranda stories, as they came to be called, some of which were written abroad, before the visits to Texas, and some afterward. “The Grave,” for example, an American classic, appeared in 1935. In it Porter tells the story of two children, Miranda, a surrogate for herself, and her older brother, Paul. The children explore an empty graveyard and discover, through Paul’s killing of a pregnant rabbit, profound truths about birth and death. The story is located solidly and unforgettably in the Kyle countryside of 1903. In all there are nine Miranda stories. Six of them, grouped under the heading “The Old Order,” were collected in The Leaning Tower and Other Stories (1944). Another, “The Fig Tree,” though not published until 1960, was written much earlier. Finally, there are the two short novels, “Old Mortality” and “Pale Horse, Pale Rider.” Taken together, the nine works trace the education and maturing of a girl from age six or seven through her first marriage at seventeen and her near death a few years later. They constitute a kind of shadow novel, among the best and most lasting of Porter’s work, her own well-wrought, unromanticized Old South of memory and desire.

Porter’s personal and artistic reconciliations with Texas fared better than her public ones. In the late fifties she had a keenly disappointing experience with the University of Texas. At the behest of Harry Ransom, then the vice president and provost of the university, Porter was invited to Austin, in 1958, to deliver a lecture in the English department’s “Program in Criticism.” By this and other inducements—including a position as writer-in-residence—Ransom hoped to secure her literary papers for a new library then under construction (now the Flawn Academic Center). Porter enjoyed the visit, renewed contacts with old friends from Kyle, and left with the conviction that the new library (or at the very least a room in that library) was going to be named after her. She held this conviction for more than a year, writing to one friend that having a library bearing her name would be a greater honor than winning the Nobel prize; she even said that she envisioned being buried in the library. During this period the university continued negotiating with her for a position as a visiting writer. Things got so far along that her schedule for the fall 1959 semester was set: “Short Story Workshop” at ten on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and “The Modern Short Story” at nine on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays (a rotten schedule, by the way). Then everything unraveled, negotiations broke down in a fiasco of confusion and misunderstandings, and once again Porter felt estranged from her native state. The whole issue of her literary remains was settled in 1967, when the Katherine Anne Porter Room at the University of Maryland’s McKeldin Library was established.

At long last, and quite late in her life, Porter received some measure of public approbation in Texas. In 1976 Howard Payne University in Brownwood, near the place of her birth, hosted a literary symposium in her honor, and Porter gratefully attended. Her future biographer, Joan Givner, wrote of Porter’s reading at the symposium: “There was a feeling as she read that something had come full circle for Katherine Anne Porter on this day. A pattern had been completed, all loose ends gathered and tucked in, and nothing lost.”

Before Porter’s death, in 1980, she had made arrangements for her final return to Texas. She had purchased a simple wooden coffin from an Arizona artisan, and following cremation, her ashes were buried in the coffin beside her mother’s grave in Indian Creek. The verse on the tombstone is from one of her favorite authors, T. S. Eliot, and was also the motto of Mary Queen of Scots, whom she admired: “In my end is my beginning.”

Don Graham is the J. Frank Dobie Regents Professor of American and English Literature at the University of Texas at Austin.

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