Katherine Anne Porter (1890-1980) was born Callie Russel Porter to Harrison Boone Porter and Mary Alice (Jones) Porter. Her father had a cousin who was an American writer: O. Henry, whose real name was William Sydney Porter. Perhaps those literary genes ran in the family. When Callie was two years old, her mother died and she and her siblings were raised in Texas by their grandmother, Catherine Ann Porter, until her death a decade later. In those formative years, her grandmother had an everlasting effect on Callie, who later adopted her grandmother’s name.
Katherine had very little formal education beyond grammar school. At the age of sixteen, she married—the first of her four childless marriages over the next three decades, all ending in divorce. While separated in her early twenties, Porter moved to Chicago, where she worked as an “extra” in movies, before returning to Texas as an actress and singer. After deciding to become a writer, she began reviewing dramas and writing society gossip for the Fort Worth Critic. In 1918, she wrote for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, Colorado. That same year, Porter almost died from the flu. Decades later, her near-death experience was reflected in her trilogy of short novels, Pale Horse, Pale Rider, for which she received the first annual Gold Medal for Literature from the Society of Libraries of New York University.
In 1919, Porter moved to Greenwich Village and began ghost writing children’s stories and doing publicity work for a motion picture company. New York City had a political effect on her, and the following year she went to work for a magazine publisher in Mexico where she became acquainted with members of the Mexican leftist movement. Between 1920 and 1930, Porter traveled back and forth between Mexico and New York City and began publishing short stories and essays. In 1930, she published her first short-story collection, Flowering Judas and Other Stories, which received positive reviews and increased her status among American authors.
In the mid-1940s, Porter was a writer-in-residence at several colleges and universities, including the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan, and the University of Virginia. Between 1948 and 1958, Porter taught at Stanford and other major universities, where her atypical style of teaching made her popular with students.
During Porter’s long life, she became an award-winning journalist, essayist, short story writer and novelist. Her full-length novel, Ship of Fools, was published in 1962, based on her memories of an ocean cruise she took thirty years earlier. It was the best-selling novel in America that year, and gained further notoriety when it was made into a film directed by Stanley Kramer in 1965. But Porter’s short stories received even more critical acclaim. A three-time nominee for the Nobel Prize in Literature, Porter was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and the U.S. National Book Award in 1966 for The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter. And the following year, she received the Gold Medal Award for Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Following is a glimpse of several of Katherine Anne Porter’s well-known stories:
- “Holiday” tells the story of a young woman who, seeking to escape her troubles, takes a holiday to a rural Texas farm owned by a very traditional German family. The tale centers on her relationship with the family’s disabled servant girl. Later, she discovers the girl is actually the eldest daughter of the family. Porter explores themes of alienation, isolation, and the complete sacrifice of an individual for a loftier goal. Some critics believed that the main character was based on Porter herself, describing her own alienation as a female writer in a male-dominated literary world.
- “Flowering Judas” introduces readers to multiple themes of fear, apathy, power, corruption, guilt and betrayal. Taken from Porter’s short-story collection of the same name, “Flowering Judas” blends religious faith, political belief and romance in a narrative that simultaneously feels tangible and illusory. Set in Mexico, the main character is a young, idealistic American woman who is committed to socialism but still “slips now and again into some crumbling little church to pray.”
- “Theft” contains several interlocking themes. One is alienation. The characters portrayed in a modern setting are suffering from empty human relationships. Paralleling that theme is rejection. A woman experiences rejection of one sort or another from all of the characters. Porter connects the themes of alienation and rejection with yet another one: loss—the loss of the woman’s stolen purse and the woman’s feelings. On one level, the purse represents a material possession that she is willing to give up; on a deeper level, it is not just her possession, but an extension of her personality.
Katherine Anne Porter’s writing touches upon many emotions, some of which she experienced during her lifetime. She remains on the list of authors whose works interest and inspire today’s readers and writers.
-Francine Pappadis Friedman