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Katherine Anne Porter in VQR


ISSUE:  Spring 2009

Toward the end of 1934, VQR editor Lambert Davis began assembling a roster of prominent Southern writers to contribute essays, short stories, and poems to the tenth anniversary issue of the journal focused exclusively on “Southern letters.” Among the most coveted names on his list was Katherine Anne Porter, a native Texan and author of the acclaimed short fiction collection Flowering Judas. By 1935, Porter had become a regular contributor to VQR, and was just beginning to make a name for herself in the larger literary community. Her first essay, “Hacienda,” appeared in October of 1932, followed by her first story, “That Tree,” in July of 1934. A few months later, Porter’s publisher sent VQR fifty pages, titled “Midway of This Mortal Life,” the second part of her long, autobiographical novel-in-progress, Many Redeemers. Davis chose two Southern-themed stories, “Uncle Jimbilly” (later retitled “The Witness”) and “The Last Leaf,” for the Winter 1935 issue, and published them both under the heading “Two Plantation Portraits.” The two stories filled what Davis called a “gaping hole” in that issue, but left both writer and editor searching for an appropriate theme to bring to the anniversary issue that spring.

In December of 1934, Porter wrote that her short stories were growing too long to publish in a journal and that she much preferred “these fragments from ‘Midway of This Mortal Life’ to anything I have done lately.” So Davis returned to the manuscript and found another publishable section, “The Grave,” though he expressed some reservation about how it would read out of context. Ms. Porter, concerned that she might be left out of the anniversary issue entirely, wrote back in January, 1935:

I have never insisted violently on my Southerness as writer, because being a Southerner is for me quite literally as natural as breathing. But just the same if there is going to be an all-Southern number I almost feel like insisting that I must be in it.

Whether he needed to be persuaded or not, Davis accepted “The Grave” for the anniversary issue in February, believing it had “more movement than the other parts, and a certain symbolism which completes it artistically and allows it to stand on its own feet.” “The Grave” is a brief, yet beautifully haunting and rich story, a story full of the mingling “sweetness and corruption” of life, and one that, according to Porter, highlights the whole theme of her book, Many Redeemers: “the perpetual war in the human mind between the will to live and the will to die.” Davis also noted that he had a hard time deciding what to use from “Legend and Memory” (Porter had changed the title of “Midway of This Mortal Life” to “Legend and Memory” sometime in January) because, “it’s all so exceedingly well done.”

A year later, after receiving a request for permission to reprint “The Grave” from Stark Young, Davis wrote Porter again:

It has been very gratifying to me to see the amount of interest that has been created by “The Grave.” For myself, I think it and Conrad Aiken’s “Secret Snow, Silent Snow,” which appeared in 1933, are the two best pieces of creative prose that the Quarterly has published.

In fact, “The Grave” has proved to be one of Porter’s most critically acclaimed and anthologized stories.

While she never published “Legend and Memory” as the first section of her unfinished novel Many Redeemers, most of it ended up in her 1944 collection, The Leaning Tower and Other Stories, under the heading “The Old Order.” Ultimately, all five pieces of writing that Porter published in VQR between 1932 and 1935—four of her most productive years—were included in her 1966 Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, Collected Stories. Katherine Anne Porter belongs to that extraordinarily small group of writers who, according to Robert Penn Warren, “have done serious, consistent, original, and vital work in the form of short fiction,” and VQR is proud to have participated in her legacy.

View the original manuscript of “The Grave”

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