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This Brave Voyage

ISSUE:  Autumn 1983

Katherine Anne Porter: A Life. By Joan Givner. Simon & Schuster. $19.95.

In his essay, “The Figure under the Carpet,” Leon Edel evokes the spirit of Virginia Woolf as she puzzled at the prospect of writing the biography of her friend, Roger Fry. “How can one make a life of six cardboard boxes full of tailors’ bills, love letters and old picture postcards,” Woolf exclaimed. Joan Givner must have confronted the same question as she faced the difficult task of recreating “a life” for Katherine Anne Porter, whose active career as a writer spanned seven decades. What baffles the modern critic, Leon Edel explains, is a failure to see the biographer as a storyteller, a specialized kind of historian “who may not invent his facts but who is allowed to imagine his form.” That form for Givner—as it was for Virginia Woolf—is basically novelistic. As for art, biography does not aspire to literary criticism: it searches the work for clues to the life. The biographer’s “passion for life” is the will to know the true shape of another’s experience, to capture it in the face of all resistance. Joan Givner’s biography of Katherine Anne Porter possesses this “passion for life”; it is a full and moving dramatization of an inner portrait of Porter as she fought to establish an artistic integrity for herself against the most unlikely odds. With a keen admiration for her subject, Givner never collapses into adulation, nor does she become crushed by the incredible flow of facts and documentation surrounding the nine decades of Porter’s life (1890—1980). Porter’s own steadfast determination, in the face of all obstacles, to become a good literary artist justifies her own description of her life as “this brave voyage.” In attempting to reveal “the figure under the carpet,” Givner has conquered the confusion of fact and myth which Porter herself constructed to create her personal vision of art and artist.

No one was more eager than Katherine Anne Porter to achieve immortality by having the story of her incredible life told. To this end, she scrupulously accumulated and preserved the paraphernalia of her lifetime—photographs, souvenirs, mementos, correspondence, and the most private documents. Unlike T. S. Eliot or W. H. Auden, Porter did not fear the inquisitive instinct in biography, and she surely sensed that the story of her life was a dramatic variation on that theme so persistent in the history and literature of her country—the American Dream. As Givner demonstrates, Porter belonged in this tradition of those “who dreamed of what they wanted to be and never rested until they had transformed themselves accordingly.”

Born “Callie” Porter in the dismal poverty of rural Texas in 1890, she was later to invent a totally new personal myth of a more genteel and aristocratic Southern heritage. Orphaned of her mother at the age of two, young “Callie” was raised by her Aunt Cat, a rigid moralist. Porter’s father was a classic ne’er-do-well who drifted from job to job and depended on others to fill his responsibilities. The Porter children grew up in a kind of loveless destitution and without benefit of formal education. Porter’s only encounter with schooling was her brief attendance at the Thomas School for “young ladies” in San Antonio. The curriculum consisted of music and dance and “useful” manners for young girls. After one semester, “Callie” and her sister opened their own school of music and dance—their wages used to support their father. It was inevitable that Porter was soon tempted to escape her poverty and homelessness into the imagined security of marriage. She entered into the first of her three unfortunate marriages at the age of 15, a union which lasted for nine years before she simply fled to face independently an unknown reality.

Throughout her long life, Porter sought in marriage and love an admiration and security that had been denied her as a child. As Givner traces the web of Porter’s many passionate relationships, she renders both the frailty and strength of her subject. To some readers, these revelations may seem to be mere sensationalism or what Vladimir Nabokov described as “psycho-plagiarism,” biographical intrusions which fail to illuminate the writings of an author. But romance and love had a centrality in Porter’s existence which eclipsed “ordinary” life, and in many senses, her search for love was the core of her “personal myth.” To comprehend the dynamic in a personality—its evolving sense of itself as it is and as it would like to be—the biographer must first uncover the truth. In Givner’s revealing account, much is learned about Porter as artist from the facts she invents about herself, and the altered truth of Porter’s personal myths was to become the substance of her real and fictional worlds. In recreating Porter’s life, Givner, with sympathy and distance defines the myth that orders her subject’s experience and that offers the key to her nature.

When Porter was 30 years old in 1920, she moved to Greenwich Village. Behind her were the years of a failed marriage and a sequence of acting and journalistic efforts in Denver and Chicago. In Greenwich Village, where she lived on and off throughout the twenties, she moved in a new circle of highly influential literary friends—Edmund Wilson, Yvor Winters, Allen Tate, and Caroline Gordon. They were charmed as Katherine Anne Porter spun airs of her genteel Southern origins. These were the “fabulous” years for Porter, the period in which she learned her craft and the decade which culminated in the publication of her first collection of short stories, Flowering Judas. It was a significant achievement because the stories showed that Porter was at last finding her own subject matter and had established complete artistic control.

Marianne Moore once called Porter “the world’s greatest procrastinator,” and there was much truth in the comment. Porter was 40 years old when her first collection of short stories appeared, but she had overcome enormous obstacles to bring her artistry to that point of excellence. She simply never had the leisure of isolated time which every writer needs to produce. Ever restless, her world was inevitably makeshift; and her own unbridled tendency to be in the midst of events prevented her from sustained writing. With a stronger ambivalence, she was constantly trying to serve two master impulses within her—life and art—and her need for seclusion from the glare of changing events was both ardently desired and feared. Her writing demanded its own discipline and was never compatible with the demands of ordinary life. While she felt a deep sense of dislocation from her native place, she constantly created situations in which “dislocation” became a way of life. Her journey to Mexico in the late twenties had been an effort to retreat from the entanglements of Greenwich Village, but her home in Mixcoac—ever a mecca for visiting friends and hangers-on— became unbearable. By far the biggest interruption to her work was the arrival of Hart Crane. The remaining months were terrible; and shortly after Crane’s suicide, Porter and Eugene Pressly, her second husband, abandoned Mexico and set sail for Europe. She had literally become desperate because of her failure to write. Flowering Judas had been composed of earlier works, and in the final 17 months of her stay in Mexico, she was totally unable to write, even a short story. She may well have wondered if her career was finished; and in panic, she blamed everyone but herself.

In this dark mood, she made plans to uproot herself and to embark upon a different world. When she and Pressly boarded the S. S. Werra in August 1929, they had originally intended to sail to France, but symptomatic of her wayward plans, the ship was bound for Bremen. Her choice of a German ship and a German city as her destination was purely accidental. Decades later, when it was abundantly clear what the German trip had yielded, Porter revised the haphazard-nature of her flight from Mexico: she then spoke of her journey as if it had been part of a calculated plan. Forty years later, when the events of the voyage appeared in Ship of Fools, the substance of the novel adhered closely to the actual events. Although Porter remained in Germany only six months, it was an incredibly rich period in its yield of fictional material. It provided the substance for the novella, “The Leaning Tower,” and the novel, Ship of Fools. By a strange paradox, it was also a period of her life which reflects much personal discredit. The full extent of her malice revealed itself much later; but by the beginning of her fifth decade Porter had developed “a greater ruthlessness, a deeper alienation,” than had been present before. Perhaps, so she explained, the accumulated angers and irritations had driven her to repay brutality with brutality.

Two successive chapters of Givner’s biography are entitled “Paris, Madrid, Basle, Paris” and “Pennsylvania, New York, Louisiana, Texas.” During these years, Porter had extricated herself from her second marriage and entered a third with Albert Erskine.

Places and the people had a way of crowding in upon her to the point of suffocation. She made little progress on her fiction during the thirties, but she did have the satisfaction of seeing in the spring of 1939 the three stories she had written in Pennsylvania published in one volume, Pale Horse, Pale Rider, and the critical praise could hardly have been higher. Ralph Thompson in the New York Times called her “a brilliant stylist,” and Wallace Stegner praised her as “one of the surest and most subtle craftsmen now writing.” With her literary reputation established, she became a drawing card as a lecturer at many universities. But her hard-won literary successes were undercut by disappointments in her personal life. Her marriage to Erskine collapsed in 1940, and once again she felt the sting of failure and rejection and rootlessness. Reflecting on the past ten years, she wrote: “We none of us flourished in those times, artists or not, for art like the human life of which it is the truest voice thrives best by daylight in a green and growing world.” But she was quite wrong, as Givner points out; the past two decades had been her most productive, and she would never again rise to such heights of creativity. Porter, however, remembered only the pain and disappointments in her life. Many of her great “classic” stories had now been completed, and she desperately wished to write a novel equal to her best short fiction.

With a deep longing to bring her creative talent to fruition, she accepted a much coveted invitation to Yaddo, the artists’ colony in upstate New York. After the disillusionment of the third divorce, Yaddo seemed an ideal refuge, solving both her material and emotional problems. Porter settled down to contemplate the ruins of her personal life, and “perhaps to write.” She had tried for years to combine artistic participation with marriage, but with a strange and paradoxical cruelty, the equation never balanced. The thought of living alone for the rest of her life filled her with horror. In spite of the support of her publisher and many literary friends, her unwieldly novel failed to materialize. The many months at Yaddo had not turned the tide, and in the immediate years ahead, she was able to produce only two short stories, “The Leaning Tower” and “The Downward Path to Wisdom.” Resigned to her own artistic inaction, she accepted the position of consultant to the first chair of poetry at the Library of Congress then occupied by her long-time friend, Allen Tate.

Washington, D. C. was a place of great happiness for Porter, and toward the close of her long life, she once again returned to the city that had been so joyful. It was a most satisfying city, full of excitement and romantic adventure. Surrounded by supportive friends, she enjoyed a period of great tranquility, although her productivity as a writer was not high. Out of a clear blue sky, a very lucrative opportunity as a film writer was proposed, and she accepted it because this California venture seemed an answer to all of her financial worries. After all of the lean and hungry years of scrimping, she now found herself commanding the enormous salary of $1,500 a week. Although Porter remained in California for four years, less than one year was actually devoted to screenwriting. With the outbreak of World War II, she returned to her Berlin material which now seemed particularly relevant. Based on her account of the journey to Europe in 1929 on the German S. S. Werra, she had begun a story as “Promised Land,” the germinal basis for what later became the substance of Ship of Fools.

The pattern of Porter’s life and work after 1945 becomes difficult to assess. In her mid-fifties, she was still a very beautiful woman and a possessing speaker. Through the power of her many influential literary friends, her critical reputation stood very high. With the assistance of Wallace Stegner, she secured a teaching position at Stanford University and later a similar position at the University of Michigan. She fully appreciated the irony of her lack of academic credentials; and when she received her first honorary doctorate from the University of North Carolina, she moved into a new world. A certain mystique surrounded her in these days. As a stylist, her stories were compared with those of Henry James, and in the academic world she seized the advantages of her heightened stature. Lurking always was the promise of the great novel—still light years away from realization—but the “promise” merely added to the mystique.

In 1960 Katherine Anne Porter was 70 years old, and her much promised, much delayed novel was an artistic torment for her. In months of great concentration, she finally managed to bring into novelistic control the sprawling memories of her fateful journey to Germany in 1929; and Ship of Fools was published in 1962. It was a great moment for her, and she savored it to the full. Although the book was not honored by any major literary awards, Ship of Fools gained a wide reading audience for her work. The royalties were enormous, and she suddenly became a very rich woman, with all of the complications that new wealth entailed. Paradoxically, her new wealth became one of her chief miseries, for she now felt that she was no longer in control and that her monies were being drained away. The great literary prizes that had earlier eluded Ship of Fools now came effortlessly when her publishers issued the Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter, which won both the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize. With typical extravagance, she purchased an emerald ring, and it became the triumphant symbol of her success. Academic and literary honors now flowed to her from all directions, and she was ranked among the great writers of 20th-century American literature.

The closing decades of Porter’s life were years of wealth and acclaim: she had indeed traveled a long way from her humble origins in rural Texas and had achieved the measure of literary success she demanded from herself. In retrospect, her life seems an almost archetypal unfolding of “the American Dream”: and Givner adds depth and substance to this powerful struggle for recognition. A reader who possessed absolutely no knowledge of Porter’s literary work would still be captivated by the story of her life—it is a perplexing combination of incredible strength and will, marred frequently by meanness and trifling.

Some critics and readers will miss the lack of a clear line of progression and artistic development in the discussions of Porter as a creative artist. Givner’s strength as a literary biographer is not displayed to best advantage when she turns to critical analysis. At times, she seems too intent on demonstrating the parallels between biographical and fictional events. Katherine Anne Porter’s method of writing frequently obscured the lines of development and progression. The inciting idea or image for a story was sometimes developed in notes but not carried forward into a sustained piece of fiction until years later. Themes, events, and ideas changed and combined in the creative act, and their origins were lost. Given these difficulties and Porter’s erratic mode of composition, Joan Givner’s critical account of Porter’s work reflects this wayward and tenuous pattern. Givner does not attempt to produce an intense and detailed evaluation, but she manages—with considerable brilliance—to unfold the complex and frequently paradoxical life of the writer. She has rendered “the true shape of another’s experience.”


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