Darlene Harbour Unrue
An extended interview with Darlene Unrue.
The professor of English at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, has written and edited several books about the work and life of Texas literary talent Katherine Anne Porter, who died in 1980. Unrue just edited Porter: Collected Stories and Other Writings, an augmented reprint of the landmark volume that won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award in 1966.
Can you briefly describe the arc of Porter’s career?
Her first publication was an amateurish poem for a trade journal in 1912. She worked as a freelance journalist, and in 1930 she published a collection of short stories, Flowering Judas, to critical acclaim. Then came Pale Horse, Pale Rider, in 1939, and Ship of Fools, in 1962, which was hailed by some as one of the greatest novels in the English language.
What about her tumultuous life?
Porter offended conventional society with her vagabondage, numerous marriages and divorces, smoking heavily, drinking at will, and taking ill-chosen lovers almost to the end of her days.
Can you share one line that captures Porter’s essence?
“Adventure is something you seek for pleasure, or even for profit, like a gold rush or invading a country; for the illusion of being more alive … But experience is what really happens to you in the long run, the truth that finally overtakes you.”
How significant was this collection when it was first published in 1965?
It was important, of course, because it brought together her stories and short novels in one volume and it offset any doubts Ship of Fools raised about her reputation. But her importance as an American modernist writer was established long before the publication of The Collected Stories. The praise the collection generated, as well as the significant awards, simply confirmed her importance.
Does this edition differ from the 1965 collection?
The Library of America edition includes the same stories and short novels that are in the 1965 collection. But the Library of America edition also includes Other Writings, a large collection of nonfiction, some pieces of which appeared in the 1970 The Collected Essays and Occasional Writings of Katherine Anne Porter, but also includes other pieces that were posthumously published in various collections and still other fugitive pieces that have never before been collected. The full title of the Library of America edition is Katherine Anne Porter: Collected Stories and Other Writings. The Library of America edition also differs from the 1965 collection of stories because of the addition of a chronology of Porter’s life and of extensive explanatory notes linked to the texts (of both the fiction and nonfiction).
How did you go about selecting the additional material (essays, articles, etc.) that you included in this new collection?
I didn’t want to simply reprint the pieces in The Collected Essays and Occasional Writings of Katherine Anne Porter, which was published in 1970 and incorporated all the pieces in her 1952 collection of nonfiction, The Days Before, and added various others. Posthumously published collections of her nonfiction contained pieces I thought were preferable to some of the pieces in The Collected Essays. I worked closely with Library of America editor Christopher Carduff, and we agreed to include all the pieces of The Days Before and then add important pieces from “This Strange, Old World” and Other Book Reviews by Katherine Anne Porter, published in 1991, and Uncollected Early Prose of Katherine Anne Porter, published in 1993, as well as most of the pieces from The Collected Essays. What finally is included in the Library of America volume is the most extensive collection of Porter’s nonfiction as well as all of her short fiction.
You call Porter an “American modernist”—who else fits into that column?
William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, T. S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound certainly fit into that column, as does Eudora Welty and others. In the larger category of twentieth-century modernists, Porter belongs with James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, too.
As a past president of the Katherine Anne Porter Society, Porter has been a large part of your academic life—what about her body of work resonates so strongly with you?
In the mid-1970’s, when I was a young assistant professor beginning my academic career of teaching and publishing, I routinely taught Katherine Anne Porter’s story “The Grave.” In 1975 I wrote a paper on that story, placing it in the tradition of American literary history, and I read that paper at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association. In the spring of 1976, faculty at Howard Payne University, in Brownwood, Texas—the university closest to Porter’s birthplace at Indian Creek—decided to honor her with a birthday celebration in her homeland that coincided with the school’s commencement.
When the president of Howard Payne, Dr. Roger Brooks, invited scholars who had studied Porter’s work to participate in a three-day symposium held during graduation week, I was included because of my paper on “The Grave.” That event in May of 1976 charted the course of my academic life, although I didn’t know that at the time. It was there that I met Katherine Anne Porter and subsequently began work on a critical book on her fiction, encouraged to continue my work by Porter’s positive response to the paper I read at the symposium. For the next fifteen years I read everything I could find by and about Porter whether published or unpublished, visiting many archives that housed her letters and manuscripts, interviewing persons who knew her or were related to her, and following her footsteps through Mexico and Europe as well as the United States. The more I read and researched and the more I heard, the more I became committed to pursuing as full an understanding of the woman and her writings as possible. In the more than quarter century since our 1976 meeting, I have become even more deeply interested in my subject.
Did the opportunity to talk with the author about her work change your critical perspective?
I didn’t really talk to Porter about her work, but I heard her talk about it to all of us in her audience at Howard Payne. Nothing I heard her say then changed the critical perspective I had developed. I saw her work as firmly modernist in its internal reconciliations and in the structures she appropriated from classical works such as The Divine Comedy and The Odyssey. Although in the decades since then I have refined my interpretations of her fiction, my original critical position is fundamentally unchanged. When I said that I was encouraged to continue my work on Porter’s fiction because of her positive response to the paper I read at the symposium, I was referring to her selecting my paper, among the many at the symposium written on The Grave, for publication in a collection of symposium papers (the book did not come to fruition).
Readers (and writers, I suppose) have changed since 1965—which piece is a 21st century reader’s best entrée to Porter?
Readers and writers have indeed changed since 1965, but Porter remains relevant and exciting to 21st century readers because she was concerned with universal themes and subjects. Porter was not an experimentalist with language the way Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner, and Stein, for example, were, and her fiction, like that of Hemingway and Welty, is readily accessible to 21st century readers through purity of language and simplicity of style. For a reader new to Porter I recommend beginning with the seven short pieces that make up The Old Order, and moving to Old Mortality and Pale Horse, Pale Rider. Those works, featuring Porter’s autobiographical character Miranda Gay, provide a foundation for the reader before moving to the stories inspired by Porter’s experiences in Mexico and others such as “Noon Wine” and “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall.”
Has Porter translated well to film?
We know that Ship of Fools translated well into film. With a star-studded cast and exceptional directing, it won critical praise and awards. The success of that adaptation is understandable partly because the novel is structured with substantial dialogue and dramatic episodes. There also are film versions of some of her stories and short novels, and they have had mixed success. Works such as Pale Horse, Pale Rider and “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall,” both of which depend heavily on interior monologue, have translated less well, I think. A film adaptation of Noon Wine, which some readers have regarded as a modern Greek tragedy, has been more successful, again because of its dependence on dialogue and its dramatic structure.
What connections do you make between events in her life and her fiction?
I came to believe that at the core of every one of her fictional works lies her own experience. It was for that reason that I simultaneously conducted biographical research along with critical analysis.
Are there any unpublished works that might see print in the future—or are the archives exhausted?
I’m convinced that an unpublished, completed, and polished story by Porter doesn’t exist. Fragments of stories she considered nearly complete do exist, and while some of those have already been published, more are likely to appear as parts of scholarly articles and books.