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 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

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