The Lady from Indian Creek By Joan Givner Regina Canada It is now two years since the death of Katherine Anne Porter and her ashes have been placed, as she requested, at her mother’s grave in the deserted country cemetery near the now-defunct town where she was born. The plans for a memorial there a monument bearing the words she wrote at the graveside on her 1936 journey of homecoming and reconciliation, or her fictional attempt to recreate Texas graveyard poetry in “Old Mortality” were set aside. Instead, her final resting place is marked by a plain slab of stone engraved with the motto of Mary, Queen of Scots: In my end is my beginning Any sense that she had thus achieved a final reconciliation with her native state is illusory. Porter’s large and important literary archive of letters, photographs, papers and unfinished manuscripts was willed to the Katherine Anne Porter Room at the University of Maryland’s McKeldin Library, and it is there that students of her work must go to do their research. This two-fold disposition of her remains is somehow typical of her life-long ambivalence towards Texas. Just as typical is the state’s tendency to drum her periodically out of its literary regiment. Larry McMurtry’s taxidermy job in the October 1981 Texas Observer is the most recent instance. The earliest was in 1938 when Porter was up for a prize from the recently formed Texas Institute of Letters. The award went instead to J. Frank Dobie because of his residence in the state and because of the “indigenous nature” of his subject matter. The book Porter had just published, to the highest nationwide critical acclaim, was her collection of three short novels, Pale Horse, Pale Rider, Old Mortality \(setting: New Orleans and Noon Wine \(setting: small McMurtry begins by denying Porter the status of a major writer and ends by writing her off as a kind of minor belles lettrist, whose essays are her finest achievement. In many ways, his attack deserves to be dismissed as careless and ill-founded. It contains such errors as the statement that “Katherine Anne Porter virtually eluded criticism in her own time.” In fact, she was unanimously acclaimed in the early days, reviewed with both praise and hostility after Ship of Fools and ‘constantly explicated and discussed by the academic critics in numerous articles and book-length studies. \(The merit of the criticism is “Edmund Wilson paid her a few compliments, chided her for irrelevance.” In fact, Wilson in his 1944 New Yorker essay on Porter, paid her very high compliments indeed and never mentioned her irrelevance. It was Porter herself in the Paris Review interview who used the word, to represent the very slight reservations Wilson expressed about her work, either in his essay or in conversation with her. Finally, McMurtry’s preference for Porter’s critical essays is patently absurd. Even the most partisan of her admirers have to admit that her literary opinions were based on personal loyalties and personal animosities rather than sound judgment. ALL THE SAME, while recent popular and critical response to Porter has not been so disparaging it has definitely been cold. At one time, her stories were the standard fare for college freshmen, and generations of students were nurtured upon them. In the last few years, she has been displaced by current favorites and, furthermore, collections of her stories are out of print or difficult to locate. McMurtry suggests that it is Porter’s personal weaknesses, chiefly her misrepresentations about her own life, that diminish her stature as a writer. This point is worth noting, since Porter did indeed indulge in fantastic embroidery of her own biographical record and in a great deal of posturihg, as did Faulkner and Hemingway. In Hemingway, the pose of the man \(described by Leslie Fiedler as did sometimes, especially in the later fiction, compromise the work of the artist. But it did not always do so, by any means. And with Porter? Some years ago, Eudora Welty, disapproving of my efforts to straighten out Porter’s snarled biographical record, accused me of malice and busybodiness. She concluded her rebuke by telling me that in her art Porter practiced the greatest truth that any artist is capable of. In these words, Welty said a true thing. Porter often \(not the kind of Old Southern background she so longed to have. But in that context, her confrontation with her own most painful knowledge and experience is totally true and courageous. Her descriptions of a young girl’s sexual terror in “The Gave” and Frau Rittersdorfs ambush by the memories of her terrible past in Ship of Fools are perhaps the best examples of many of this confrontation. These are the real toads in Porter’s imaginary gardens, and such placing of personal insight and revelation within framework is characteristic of the work of most significant artists. The other reservation often expressed about Porter concerns the “perfection” of her writing style. Porter herself complained that she had been called a stylist until she wanted to tear out her hair. McMurtry finds that she has “boiled her native accents” out of her speech. R. G. Vliet, on the other hand, finds in her language a dichotomy between the accents of the South and the Southwest, a split that he believes exists in the area of Hays County in which she grew up. Elroy Bode in his Alone in the World Looking makes this rather myopic statement: Sometimes it seems that in her strenuous effort to reach perfection of statement she squeezes the spark of life out of a story and all we have left are the carefully measured words \(not that I’m knocking words; words, yes, let’s have only the right ones. But let’s also have the feelings, too, jammed above and around and under and behind the words. Steinbeck and Faulkner and Hemingway do precisely this sort of backgrounding in their best stories: you read the words, but as you do so there are unseen, unexpressed yet nevertheless palpable feelings crawling off the page onto your There is no room here for detailed stylistic analysis. Suffice it to say that “perfection” is an odd word to use. She had, like Virginia Woolf, a hazy idea of grammar and punctuation. Malcolm Cowley told her years ago, and quite rightly, that she was no hand at writing well-organized paragraphs. But she did have, in conversation as well as in writing, a lively style based on the idioms and rhythms of her region. To this she THE TEXAS OBSERVER 29
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