The Life of Katherine Anne Porter by Joan Givner - review by Hermione Lee

Hermione Lee

Infectious Bravado

The Life of Katherine Anne Porter


Jonathan Cape 416pp £15

There’s a conversation in Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools in which Jenny Brown (one of several women characters in the novel with a strong resemblance to Porter) rhapsodises to her unresponsive lover, David, about her memories of Veracruz.

David protested this memory coldly, doubtfully. ‘You never told me this before’, he said.

‘I hope not,’ she said. ‘Wouldn’t that be dull? But you never believe any memory that is pleasant … You must let me remember it in my own way, as beautiful at least once.’

The exchange sums up the difficulties, and the interest, for Porter’s biographer. Like Jenny Brown, she fictionalises her own past in the service of novelty, romance and beauty. What she says about her writing (‘I arrange it and it is fiction but it happened’; ‘I wangle the sprawling mess of existence … into some kind of shape’) applies to her life-story. In interviews and in letters, Katherine Anne Porter rewrote her past with a bravado so contagious that she ended up believing the invented version herself.

The Paris Review interviewer of 1963 was treated to an elaborate account of Porter’s genealogy and childhood which closely resembled the Texas families in ‘Old Mortality’ and others of her stories, but which was, biographically, highly misleading. The citing of impressive ancestors (Daniel Boone on the mother’s side, Colonel Andrew Porter on the father’s), the Southern plantation stories of Negro servants and exotic relatives (what she called ‘the guilt-ridden white-pillar crowd’), the tales of literary awakening (her father telling her, at age fourteen, to read ‘the entire set of Voltaire’s philosophical dictionary with notes by Smollett’) are all ‘wangled’. The short stories, set in ‘a mythical old South she had never known’, had become the autobiography. Even when she wrote an essay explaining the sources of a brilliant story, ‘Noon Wine’, she could not bring herself to admit that the family of poor whites it describes, called the Thompsons, was really her own family.

She never admitted to her real name, Callie Russell. She lied about her age until she was seventy, giving her date of birth as 1894 instead of 1890. She pretended that her first marriage hadn’t happened, though in 1965 she remarked: ‘I have no hidden marriages, they just sort of slip my mind.’ She concealed the fact of her hysterectomy, and would even make casual references to her periods in letters to lovers or husbands. Her own biographical and critical works were extremely unreliable, and she resisted all attempts by would-be biographers to pin her down.

In many ways she was the incarnation of Blanche Dubois or Scarlett O’Hara: the Southern belle who can’t face reality. But, unlike Blanche Dubois (and like Scarlett O’Hara) Katherine Anne Porter was tough. She had four husbands and numerous lovers, she lived till she was ninety, she acted out the American cliche of starting life in a log-cabin and ending as a celebrity, she pulled through TB and near-fatal influenza, and her true story, fully, sympathetically, and carefully told by Joan Givner, is one of struggle and survival.

‘“Ah, the family”’, says Cousin Eva in ‘Old Mortality’. ‘“The whole hideous institution should be wiped from the face of the earth.”’ Porter’s childhood, far from being ‘a tremendously beautiful life’ as she says in the Paris Review, was a miserable time of poverty and isolation in small Texan towns, presided over by a fierce, puritanical grandmother and an ineffectual, violent-tempered father. (Givner notes the strong women and weak men in Porter’s fiction, and her fatal attraction for men like her father). At sixteen she made her first ‘preposterous’ marriage to a young Texan clerk. After that she began an adventurous, erratic career: bit parts in films in Chicago, singing tours of Louisiana, journalism in Denver during the ‘flu epidemic, organizing a native art show in Mexico in 1920, writing in Greenwich Village, working on Cotton M at her in Salem, recovering from TB in Bermuda, sailing from Mexico to Germany in 1929, living in Berlin and Basle in the early Thirties, and gradually, all this time, establishing her reputation. In later life she is very much the grande dame, respected (as Norman Mailer said snidely in 1963) ‘the way a cardinal is respected: weak people get to their knees when the cardinal goes by.’ But the biography does not start genuflecting when its subject becomes a Pulitzer Prize winner and Honorary Doctor, because the problems went on into old age: physical frailty, sexual susceptibility, and chronic writer’s block.

Ship of Fools took twenty-seven years to write and was interrupted, Porter told her interviewer, ‘by just anyone who could jimmy his way into my life.’ Falling in love was almost always a professional and personal disaster. Like Jenny Brown in the novel, she falls ‘always with utter strangers and as if I were going under water’ and falls out again ‘as if falling off a cliff’. Allen Tate, a friend, and briefly a lover, described her as ‘trapped in a cycle of romantic emotions that repeat themselves about every five years.’ Porter was ruefully aware of the pattern. She would invest the ‘subject’ with a light of such blinding brilliance all natural attributes disappear and are replaced by those usually associated with archangels at least … And when it is over, it is over. Most of these ‘archangels’ treated her badly. Her first husband beat her up, her second gave her gonorrhea; Matthew Josephson only had an affair with her because he was feeling intense and bohemian after writing a biography of Zola; Albert Erskine, who married her when he was twenty-one and she was forty-eight, rejected her brutally when he discovered her real age. Retrospectively, she was always disenchanted – ‘that monster’, ‘a silly fraud’, ‘a congenital liar’ – but she never stopped seeking enchantment. Her last affair, with the impressively named Elijah Barrett Prettyman Jr, began when she was seventy-six and he was forty-one, and was celebrated as effusively as always: ‘My darling, you came late to me, but I am glad I lived to know you – it was worth everything else! My love again and for always.’

Marianne Moore called Porter the world’s worst procrastinator. Her love life was partly responsible for the legendary delaying of the novel (on which her friend Flannery O ‘Connor, herself working against time – she died at thirty-nine commented: ‘A novel is like a machine, it either runs or it don’t … how awful to spend twenty-seven years on what won’t run.’) But Porter’s whole writing life was a painful struggle. The fictional output is not large: three collections of stories, Flowering Judas (1930), Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939), The Leaning Tower (1944) and the novel (1962). Each volume represents years of delay, material stored up, abandoned, returned to, periods of self-imposed isolation alternating with orgies of displacement activity. The biography is clogged with chapter headings like ‘getting ready to be a writer’, or chapter endings that read ‘she gathered her energies for her own work’ or ‘if she did not write it might be years before she would be ready again.’ Her relations with her publishers are characterised by grieved letters about long delays, and advances against work not yet begun.

But Katherine Anne Porter, though pitiable, was also something of a monster. She quarrelled with most of her friends and family, treated her loyal companions highhandedly, and became increasingly domineering, garrulous and unreliable. Her political stances were naive or ambivalent. Though a ‘liberal’ ,she was capable of playing the Southern aristocrat (she disapproved of school desegregation), of anti-Semitism, and of snobbery: ‘There is a caste in manners, both in the good and bad kind.’ Her literary judgements were crude. Faulkner was ‘morally confused’, Ford’s The Good Soldier was ‘frightfully sentimental’, Lowry’s Under the Volcano was ‘an evil book’, Bellow is ‘an awful writer’, and ‘as for Sartre and de Beauvoir, what a silly pair!’ At times she can sound like an American Barbara Cartland:

While I was going through [Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique] I thought, ‘Oh, Betty, why don’t you go and mix a good cocktail for your husband and yourself and forget about this business.’

But if she had airs, she also had graces: beauty, ‘high tension’, flamboyance, style, a way with people. Her Southern charms are evident; one of them is her passion for cooking: she invents superb menus for her last lover (‘Delmonico steak, poivrade sauce … spiced yam puree … Anjou pear baked in orange blossom honey…’). When she took up teaching, which she did with enthusiasm and irregularity, her students loved her.

Even if Katherine Anne Porter had not been a notable member of that interesting group, American women writers of the South (Ellen Glasgow, Flannery O’Conner, Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, Caroline Gordon), her life story would be entertaining . But its central interest, of course, lies in the relation of the life to the work. Joan Givner deals thoroughly and well with this complicated subject: the transformation of the Mexican material, in stories such as ‘Marfa Concepcion’, ‘Flowering Judas’ and ‘Hacienda’, where the fictionalising of her childhood in ‘Old Mortality’ and ‘Noon Wine’ are especially interesting. And the biography shows how Porter’s rather simple moral theory – based on the one idea that innocent bystanders collude in the activity of evil doers – came to dominate all her work. It is the connecting link between such apparently disparate elements as her attitude to her family, her Catholicism, her interest in Cotton Mather, her literary judgements and her personal behaviour.

There are some flaws. It isn’t always easy to keep track of Porter’s chronology (dates at the head of pages would help) and there are occasional gaucheries: ‘There can be little doubt that the loss of her uterus, so central to her sense of feminine identity, was traumatic.’ But the biography gives a vivid sense of places and of the extraordinary literary figures who periodically engage in hostilities with the heroine: Hart Crane drunkenly screaming to be let in outside her house in Mexico; Dylan Thomas, even more drunkenly, picking her up at a party in New York; Caroline Gordon flying at her ‘tooth and nail’ in Washington; Ford Madox Ford telling her she doesn’t know how to manage her own life. The central achievement is a colourful but unsentimental portrait of her subject, which makes us entirely understand the remark of one of Porter’s friends: ‘It must be very hard to be you, Katherine Anne, but worth it, worth it.’

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