Katherine Anne Porter: The Life of an Artist
Dubbed “Joan of Arc of Texas” by Christopher Isherwood, Katherine Anne Porter was a creature of burning ambitions. As a child in Kyle, she identified with the sainted French martyr, to the extent of adopting “Witch” as her personal pseudonym. After she overcame poverty and obscurity to become the grande dame who devoured and discarded lovers, husbands, agents, editors, lawyers, executors, and biographers, some pronounced the “w” as if it were a “b.” Entrancing and exasperating, Porter was the most celebrated writer to come out of Texas, and out was where she preferred to be. “I got out of Texas like a bat out of hell at the earliest possible moment,” she told East Texas writer William Humphrey.
Her earliest moments, in 1890, were spent in a log cabin in Indian Creek, near Brownwood. After her mother died when Katherine Anne was two, she went to live with her paternal grandmother, the impoverished scion of plantation gentry who inspired in the little girl grandiose fantasies about the defeated feudal South. Before getting out of Texas, Porter lived in San Antonio, Houston, Corpus Christi, Dallas, and Fort Worth. When she died, in 1980, she returned to the cemetery in Indian Creek. However, her papers ended up at the University of Maryland, not the University of Texas, which had enraged the famous author by appearing to renege on a promise to name a library after her. Porter’s taste for her native state had already soured in 1939, when the Texas Institute of Letters passed over the acclaimed author of Pale Horse, Pale Rider to confer its first annual book award on J. Frank Dobie for Apache Gold and Yaqui Silver.
In 1955, Porter discouraged a young scholar named Edward Schwartz from writing her biography. “Nobody will be able to see what my life meant until it is ended,” she told him, 35 years before its end. “How can we write a story until we know the end?” However, in 1965, she invited Henrique Lopez, a Mexican lawyer and journalist, to tell her story; a few years later she withdrew her support. At 86, Porter bestowed her blessing on Joan Givner, who was able to see how the story ended before publishing a biography in 1982. In 1995, Janis P. Stout published an intellectual biography, Katherine Anne Porter: A Sense of the Times. And now Darlene Harbour Unrue, a professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, adjusts the public Porter record, with particular attention to her subject’s amorous adventures. Porter, who called Mexico her “second country” and spent much time in Europe, changed addresses about as frequently as she switched men. Unrue follows her trail through many of the cities in which she lived after leaving Texas, which included Chicago, New Orleans, Denver, New York, Mexico City, Washington, Guadalajara, Berlin, Santa Monica, Ann Arbor, and Charlottesville. In her eighties, Porter boasted to a group of devout Texas Baptists that she had had 37 lovers and three husbands, but Unrue corrects the undercount, revealing two additional brief marriages.
As much as a Joan of Arc, Porter was a Wife of Bath, and though Unrue subtitles her biography The Life of an Artist, the life very often interfered with the art. More adept at initiating literary projects than carrying them to completion, Porter rarely allowed deadlines and contracts to keep her at her desk when she could be out plying her social wiles. The biography of Cotton Mather that she began writing in 1928—and for which she accepted recurrent payment from an exceedingly patient publisher—remained unfinished at her death. Though she lived to 90, Porter was far less productive than Stephen Crane, who died at 28. Her literary legacy consists of a small but potent batch of stories and novellas, including “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall,” “Flowering Judas,” “Old Mortality,” “Noon Wine,” Pale Horse, Pale Rider, and “The Leaning Tower.” Despite the enormous popular success of her 1962 potboiler Ship of Fools, her talent was for concentrated forms, and she made her reputation during an era when the novel had not yet monopolized the literary marketplace. She also thrived at a time when publishing was still a gentleman’s business, when the urbane editors who kept the gates of Literature could allow themselves to be charmed by a pretty Southern belle. The international conglomerates that now produce books are unlikely to invest in temperamental suzerains of precious short fiction.
Unrue is insufficiently skeptical of Porter’s claim to have memorized all 154 of Shakespeare’s sonnets at the age of 12. But she is scrupulous about correcting inaccuracies, encouraged and even promulgated by Porter herself, in earlier accounts of her marital history. Unrue discovered that in 1915 Porter married an Englishman named H. Otto Taskett but that the union quickly ended in divorce without ever being consummated. She also reveals another brief marriage, about a year later, to someone named Carl von Pless. According to Unrue, Porter’s first marriage, at 16, to an abusive, philandering traveling salesman named John Koontz, remained unconsummated for 47 days. In a careful inventory of her subject’s reproductive mishaps, Unrue notes that in 1921, while in Mexico consorting with revolutionaries, Porter aborted the pregnancy that resulted from her affair with Nicaraguan poet Salomón de la Selva. In 1924, while living in Connecticut, she was sexually active with both a Chilean named Francisco Aguilera and his friend Alvaro Hinojosa. Both men disappeared from her life, but when she found herself pregnant again, Porter was determined to bear a child. She was devastated by its stillbirth. In 1926, to treat the gonorrhea she had contracted from English painter Ernest Stock, she underwent a secret ovariectomy. Nevertheless, well into her 50s, Porter pretended to be fertile, even on occasion faking menstruation. Maternity and death are repeatedly and obsessively linked throughout her fiction. Unrue makes a convincing case for locating the origin of the author’s fixation in her early loss of a mother and her own failures at motherhood.
Porter was a beauty, even after her hair turned prematurely white. She experienced early success in acting, on stage and screen, but retained her ability to turn in an utterly ingratiating performance. Within Unrue’s detailed tally of Porter’s amorous conquests are several married men as well as a few homosexuals. At 47, she was able to attract 26-year-old editor Albert Erskine powerfully enough to marry her. Into her 60s, she was still beguiling much younger companions. Though some of these relationships, including a couple of her marriages, were largely celibate, she could also be an ardent lover. Yet speaking about sex to her nephew Paul in 1972, she declared, “It is a crashing bore unless you are so dead in love with a person that you can’t live without him.” If the frequency of her impulsive liaisons with man after man is any indication, crashing boredom must have been a chronic ailment.
Averting a reader’s boredom is a generic challenge to literary biography, since many writers spend their lives doing little more of note than filling blank pages. But, in part because of Porter’s willingness to leave pages blank while she went after other things, Unrue’s book is never dull. Settings include Mexico during the Revolution, Germany during the rise of Nazism, and Greenwich Village during its period of greatest artistic ferment. At a dinner party in Berlin, Porter flirts with Hermann Goering. Important characters in the story include Diego Rivera, Sylvia Beach, Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks, William Goyen, Eudora Welty, Josephine Herbst, Glenway Wescott, and Hart Crane.
Porter was equally talented at making friends and alienating them. Unrue refers to “Katherine Anne’s old nemesis Alfred Kazin,” but since it is the first and only reference to him in the book, a reader can only imagine, on the basis of Porter’s other enmities, how and why Kazin was her nemesis. Though Unrue reports that Porter informed on her friend Josephine Herbst to the FBI, the biography ignores or slights some of Porter’s most offensive qualities. She harbored blatantly bigoted sentiments, not only publicly attacking the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision but making derogatory comments in private about individual blacks. According to Joan Givner, Porter scrawled in a copy of a book by the Tunisian author Albert Memmi, “Everybody except the Jews knows the Jews are not chosen but are a lot of noisy, arrogant, stupid, pretentious people and then what?” Though she benefited from increased opportunities for women, Porter was a fervent anti-feminist.
“I shall write well some day,” vowed Porter in 1919, while working as a journalist in Denver, “as well as anybody in America has ever written.” She fell somewhat short of that lofty goal. Unrue, who has written and edited several other books on Porter, takes for granted the merits of her subject’s work. The biography pauses to provide plot summaries for Porter’s fiction, but is not designed to convert its readers into admirers of her artistry. Porter herself was limited in her enthusiasm for others’ literary work. She claimed to find the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald totally unreadable because “I just can’t be interested in those perfectly stupid meaningless lives.” In this eminently readable biography of an eminent Texas author, Unrue piques and sustains a reader’s interest in a perfectly infuriating life.
Steven G. Kellman teaches comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio and is the author of Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth (Norton).