Sarah Klein, Asst. Editor

June 30, 2000

Writing Katherine Anne Porter: A Biography in Parts

"It is a hard thing to make up stories to live by. We can only retell and live by the stories we have read or heard. We live our lives through texts. They may be read, or chanted, or experienced electronically, or come to us, like the murmurings of our mothers, telling us what conventions demand. Whatever their form or medium, these stories have formed us all; they are what we must use to make new fictions, new narratives."

-- Carolyn Heilbrun, from Writing a Woman's Life

Origins of the Project:

What follows is Parte Uno of a biography in serial form, with several installments to come in the months ahead. The full project, a biographical work on twentieth century American author Katherine Anne Porter, was originally conceived in the spring of 2000 when I had the good fortune of participating in John Fuegi's grad seminar on women and biography at the University of Maryland. Course content revolved around the metaphor of archaeology, and led us to examine the ways in which women's lives have historically and often systematically been made to disappear - and the ways in which new scholarship and work in a variety of mediums seeks to discover, uncover, and re-examine the stories of women's lives across historical, national, and cultural boundaries. Together we spent a good deal of thoughtful time examining the ways in which countless female life-narratives across time and place have been distorted for various interests, sidelined, minimalized, discredited, or entirely erased. We also spent time with the works of brave new voices doing groundbreaking biographical and autobiographical projects on extraordinary female subjects ranging from author Virginia Woolf to early filmmaker Alice Guy, from mathematician and early founder of comptuer programming Ada Countess Lovelace to composer and philosopher Hildegaard of Bingen; we explored the life-narratives from postwar women of Vietnamese ancestry and contemporary Phillipino politician Corazon Aquino.

Fuegi is the UM professor of comparative literature who authored the revolutionary biography Brecht & Co., uncovering the buried stories of the women whose creative work and dedication hugely contributed to the esteemed dramas attributed to Bertolt Brecht. He has also committed a significant portion of his professional life to telling women's stories through documentary filmmaking and the Women of Power series. John Fuegi led us through a metabiographical critical journey of traditional text works, film, and multimedia that has forever changed the way in which I think about the lifewriting genres of auto/biography and women -- the seminar has radically enhanced and in some ways altered my own work with literature, women's writing, and feminist theory. The final projects presented by my colleagues in the class were wide-ranging in subject matter and form - they were profoundly revealing, creative, important, and exciting. For the first time since entering this labyrinth called professional academia, I've been truly inspired.

My own semester project was a multimedia biography of Katherine Ann Porter, and one which became quite complicated early on by a number of factors. Primary among these were the issues of access and permission for use and reproduction of primary sources, coupled with institutional reservations about multimedia works and more specifically, about uncontrolled public access and Internet publication. Porter designated the University of Maryland as the primary site for her papers and her personal library, and is therefore THE location for Porter scholars working with the primaries. U Maryland holds (and has recently microfilmed for interlibrary loan availability) vast amounts of important and fascinating Porter documents and artifacts - including vast correspondence, personal papers, photographs, writings and fragments, manuscripts, and personal effects. With the help of the collection's curator I was able to spend 3-4 weeks daily going through the collection, primarily on microfilm. This crucial source provided the backbone of my project, coupled with the works of Porter's fiction and the key critical works available on KAP. However, the presumed ease of access provided to me as a Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland, an "accessibility" which in part attracted me to my subject matter, did not somehow magically guarantee an easy pathway for the particular aims and theoretics of my scholarship. In fact, I met obstacles and challenges at every turn. (A less stubborn researcher might have been swayed from the work altogether, so I'm told!)

The project was initially envisioned as a Web site database/biography/interactive source on Katherine Anne Porter, inspired by and modeled loosely after exciting projects such as the acclaimed "Romantic Circles" Web resource and the online Emily Dickinson Project spearheaded by U Maryland's own MITH (Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities). However, my initial blueprint was not to be fully realized. Due to institutional fears about the lack of control over and legal policing of the Internet and content there published, as well as the university's desire to guard and be compensated for use of the valued KAP collection, as well as the necessity of gaining certain permissions from the private individual entrusted with KAP's estate, compounded by the time constraints I was under and my status as a graduate student, the project was quickly and extensively pared down and modified. It became indeed a multimedia biography, but its audience and reach, as well as its content, were markedly curtailed.

After a period of negotiations and my fledgling attempts to convey my benevolence as a researcher, agreements were at last made and I set to work at ensuring that university requests for absolute security and nonpublic access of the project were strictly maintained. In exchange, I was granted limited use of those photographic images of Porter which were uncredited, as well as standard public access to the collection on microfilm. Security of the text and images was enhanced by building the project in Macromedia Flash, and in a CD-ROM format made available only to the collection's curator, to my professor, and in one screening to my colleagues in the seminar. The complications about copyright versus holdings control, of "fair use," and of "educational use," paired with a clear reluctance on the part of the university to support my project on any level and my own desires to not "rock the boat" or garner negative attention at my own degree-granting institution, created a fearful and sometimes quite confusing climate in which to conduct the research and write the project's content. I meticulously walked on eggshells throughout the process, working hard to meet the university's requests at the same time I was learning how to be a biographer - and one working in new multimedia, at that. I came into the project excited and idealistic about the theoretics of my undertaking, but uninitiated and inexperienced by a background of researching largely with secondaries and of keeping my scholarly work entirely private. I completed the project a little wiser for the wear. I quickly lost any lingering naivete about the glory of scholarly research, intellectual "brotherhood" and "free educational use," about the biographical process, and about the brave new world of democratic cyberspace publishing.

This project was a process, and taught me a great deal about (a.) the theory and practice of biography, (b.) the yet-unresolved dilemmas and controversies of Internet publication and multimedia scholarship; (c.) the politics of the Ivory Tower, of working with collections, and of the delicate dance called primary research. Somewhere along the way I also came to know Katherine Ann Porter more intimately and fully than ever before, and to appreciate her and to value her artistic work on new levels and through new and more complex lenses.

The serialized biography that begins here and will come in installments over the next few months unfortunately does not include the striking visual and multi-sensory impact of the actual project, with its highly interactive format and its use of a number of photographs of Porter, linked through an extensive textual timeline of her life and her work and connected to excerpts from Porter's fiction. However, it's my hope that here publishing excerpts from my essays that made up a portion of the CD-Rom project will somehow make worthwhile in a more accessible forum this work, and most importantly, will encourage interaction amongst scholars and biographers working on women's lives in a range of media to dialogue more fully about our projects and experiences, the constraints and challenges we face, and about exciting ideas for future work. The project may or may not be expanded, or ever made accessible, in the future. I wish I could share its visual, interactive impact here, in this forum. Yet within the capacity of the text alone, I hope to begin, here, to share the basic foundations of the project, in hopes of sparking a critical dialogue with others like me doing biographical work on women and investigating new forms and new media, as well as with those literary critics and teachers working on Katherine Ann Porter.

The CD-Rom is titled "Katherine Ann Porter: A Biography." Its composition and navigation are completely nonlinear and interactive by design - so my publication of bits of the text here is somewhat arbitrary, the product of my own construction due to the available format.

The primary textual credo grounding the project is titled, simply,


Given the limitations of time, access, copyright, trustee holdings, and security, the project has attempted to accomplish, in a preliminary way, the telling of a life in a new medium, a new form, using a new "language" of visual combined with text in an interactive format. Wherever possible, it has included and attempted to privilege Porter's own words and expressions, and to use primary documents as its key sources. It has also integrated the philosophical and theoretical underpinnings of its content into its form - expressed and designed to be received in a largely nonlinear fashion. Hopefully, this initial project reflects the belief that form and content pack the greatest punch when they together form the overall integrity of a work.

As a protection to address concerns about copyright, Internet access, and security of particular sections of the text used, this biography has been built in formats (ex: Macromedia Flash) that optimize the visual effects of the work while protecting the text and images from downloading or other reproduction. As an added safeguard, the project has been built in a CD-ROM format rather than as a Web site posted to the Internet.

Given permissions and access, the fullness of time for more thorough and extensive work, and security and legal provisions for Internet publication, this project has many potentials for future development. It was initially conceived with two main goals: (1.) To make use of a wide variety of biographical materials, including primary documents such as reproductions of original manuscripts, extensive photographs, audio recordings, and video feed, to maximize the sensory forms and the narrative layerings of the presentation; and (2.) To more fully integrate form with content and theory by making the project widely available in an international, diverse audience through relatively accessible and democratic medium (i.e., at this time, the Internet). In this format, the text of the project could also be translated for non-English speaking viewers.

Ideally the project should make use of more visual images of Porter, drawing from the very extensive amount of such images extant of the author, her family, friends, associates, and the places where she lived, worked, and traveled. It would also capitalize on the availability of audio and video of Porter herself (ex: conducting interviews), of her works as they've been produced for stage and film, and of the music she loved and collected. It would also ideally incorporate visual image reproductions of original manuscripts of Porter's writing in various forms (exs: correspondence, fragments of personal writings and fictional works). Also possible for an eventual project to be taken on by the University of Maryland could be a digital archive of hypertext Porter works.

This initial stage of the project includes two text-rich segments that are biographical sketches written by myself, drawing largely from primary documents. These are organized thematically - and could include countless other topics, and integrate visuals and audio, given more time for research and writing as well as access/permissions.

Stage two of this project would also ideally incorporate the ability for a user to launch her/his Web browser from the CD-ROM in order to link directly to the wide range of Porter resources available currently as sites on the Web. While the accuracy and quality of such sites varies widely, the presentation of some of these projects for evaluation and information-sharing would be ideal.

And finally, the site would incorporate pedagogical tools, resources for educators and students interested in Porter. This section of the project could include a Porter discussion listserv, announcements of Porter-related events, and the posting and exchange of syllabi, for example.

There are a number of constraints and concerns at this early stage - yet the possibilities are almost limitless, and very exciting. The implications of such work are immense, and the integration of new forms and theories for narrating women's lives may be the new lifeblood of that known as "biography," and that known as "scholarship."

Transitioning . . .

The CD-Rom project includes various thematic biographical essay-sketches, which can of course be linked in a multimedia format to photographic visuals, textual excerpts, and other links. In its CD-Rom form, all notes and credits are linked from within the text itself, and require only a "click" for quick viewing. The following introductory text is one of my essays included in the CD-Rom project, titled:

Lifewriting and KAP

"To justify an unorthodox life by writing about it is to reinscribe the original violation, to reviolate masculine turf."

-- Nancy K. Miller

Carolyn Heilbrun, in her now-classic book Writing a Woman's Life, tapped the theoretics of Nancy Miller's scholarship, using Miller's work as a foundation for her own new thinking about women and the biographical act. As with so much of the best of feminist scholarship, the referential quality of Heilbrun's work makes it all the richer. In that Heilbrun and Miller take part in an inter-textual dialogue, a tradition is formed into which other voices and other scholars can enter and take part. In this project I've drawn heavily on the theorizing of Heilbrun, which draws heavily on the theoretics of Miller (and others) - I understand Heilbrun's text as crucial to what this biographical project is all about, the heart and soul of the endeavor. In doing so, I enter a conversation. This "conversation," by its very nature, fosters new theorizing, new questions and new ways of answering them. Likewise, we also draw on subversive theoretics as a means of applying new tricks to old texts or subjects.

In working biographically on writer Katherine Anne Porter, at first glance much of the work "has been done." Porter's may not appear to be one of the scores of accomplished women's lives in need of major feminist archaeology. Her death in 1980 makes her almost our contemporary. An established legion of Porter scholars is alive and well (albeit smaller in number than those of many of her male contemporaries), and publishing, and networking, and promoting, and conferencing. Her works are in print; they are anthologized and, on occasion, even taken seriously in the halls and classrooms of the Ivory Tower. Merely 30-something years ago, her most popular novel was made into a Hollywood film. Porter has been the subject of a major, contemporary biography by Joan Givner, and the traditional boys-club of Texas literati has begun a substantial, even zealous, reclamation of its once under-rated and estranged native daughter. It's been pleasant to discover that Porter's stature as an artist is more fully recognized, and taken more seriously these days, than her relative lack of contemporary popular recognition suggests.

Outside literary circles and the strange world of academia, Katherine Anne Porter's name and works still remain largely silent and unrecognized. Just ask anyone on the street if they can identify her. Yet this woman rose above poverty, obscurity, ill health and no education to win the Pulitzer Prize (beating out Vladimir Nabokov, who has been immortalized not only in the literary world but iconized in American youth culture, such as in the 1980's pop song by The Police). Porter also won the coveted National Book Award. She traveled the world, corresponded with presidents. She worked in a variety of arts, and her persona was in many ways larger than life. She was connected to some of the most important and famous literary figures of her day. She also left copious documentation of an extraordinary existence. Yet, in popular culture, and even in many an English department, this is a life writ in the margins. In large part, it is this mystery of relative silence that prompted my project.

"Women will starve in silence until new stories are created which confer on them the power of naming themselves."

-- Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar

Porter makes an exciting, and daunting, subject for biographical work. There is much new ground to cover in writing this woman's life. In part because we haven't always asked the right questions, in part because we've only asked them in particular ways or with particular agendas. In part because the biographical task is large and ongoing, a work in progress no matter who's publishing it outright at any given time. And in part because of Porter's own complicated feelings about lifewriting itself, and her desire for control over the narrative of her life.

Porter continually discarded, revised, buried, and reinvented some of the events and circumstances of her own life, struggled personally with the art of lifewriting throughout her career, and, particularly later in her long life, became nervous and defensive about living under a biographical lens. This state of things makes Porter a frustrating subject to work on biographically, and it also makes the task more important and more exciting-particularly for a feminist scholar working with the likes of Miller and Heilbrun as a foundation. Porter took every disadvantage classically attributed to the woman writer - lack of formal education, lack of opportunity and economic stability, social expectation of marriage and gender conventionality, ageism, professional underappreciation, sense of alienation - and transformed herself again and again, self-creating, surviving, flourishing. Her own narratives of her life, told through countless of her private letters, her interviews, her scores of fragments and writings, are fascinating - we need not denigrate, nor diminish the true implications of such acts by arguing the difference between Fact and Truth. Porter was a consummate and fiercely driven artist, and the line between "her art" and "her life" is, thankfully, not always sharply drawn and explicated.

Katherine Anne Porter struggled off and on for many years working on another lifewriting project, her never-completed biography of Cotton Mather. She apparently thought regularly, and at some urging from family and friends, of doing an autobiography, yet it never came to fruition. She spent considerable time and energy in revising, responding to, critiquing and correcting countless biographical depictions of herself during her lifetime, sometimes with an angry and indignant frustration. She expressed a real ambivalence about lifewriting, and certainly about the narration of her own. Put in context, sometimes her thoughts on the matter reveal a great deal about her own struggles with personal narrative, and exude a particular awareness of the role of gender and its relation to telling a life:

"It's no good writing about yourself unless you are prepared to tell the whole truth, or at least what you honestly believe to be that . . . It's an interesting dilemma . . . For men write about themselves with an appearance of honesty that deceives . . . and yet can manage to come through not too badly. But women have a genius for giving themselves away in a most shocking manner, and all the time you are certain they mean to make themselves the most attractive woman, if not the outright heroine, of the book." 1

Porter here comments, perhaps, on the struggle with locating the true self, and for a heroine, in women's writing about their lives -- and this was the difficult task in which she herself often engaged -- the search-and-recovery of the self in the heroic narrative, the attempt to cut a new path with few known models to look to. Porter was aware that, as Heilbrun puts it, lifewriting tends to engage women in "the inevitable conflict between the destiny of being unambiguously a woman and the woman subject's palpable desire, or fate, to be something else." 2

The tension between Fact and Truth in telling a life, clouded or illuminated by that called Memory, seems to have been on Porter's mind when, late in her life, she wrote:

"The trickiness of memory, of memory unsupported by documentary evidence . . . (and) the fallibility of the record set down in the full tide of the event . . . It was literally impossible, beyond my powers to see, to feel, to act, and at the same time interpret and record fully even the smallest most trivial episode . . . I have always admired the courage, and the self-confidence of those who write reminiscences, autobiographies, who edit volumes of letters and interpret the lives and motives of their friends and enemies as well as their own. How did they learn so much? Do they really know? How much of it is one to believe. The most disconcerting thing, of course, is to read someone else's account of events at which I was present, personally involved, perhaps, or impressions of someone whom I knew also; I find myself saying No, NO, and talking back in marginal notes, giving my version, valid as far as it goes, true as I am able to see the truth, but I still know there are vast reaches of the unknown and the undiscoverable in which no doubt the whole truth lies concealed, I am afraid forever. For this reason it has been easy to resist the temptation to write my memoirs or publish my journals and letters." 3

The reasons for Porter's oft-expressed reticence and ambivalence about writing her own life and having it written by others are probably quite complicated. But from a gender-conscious perspective, Porter's desire to survive, to tell her own story on her own terms, to represent the self and the life as she knew and understood it, to control and maintain the power of and over the self, makes a great deal of sense. It makes this project all the more meaningful, and it pressurizes the vast research endeavor that is KAP biography in ways that cannot be ignored. This project of lifewriting is one small, new step in a new medium at giving a voice to an extraordinary woman's life. It has, whenever possible, prioritized her own words, her own expressions, her own vision of her life as well as the circumstances of it which the historical "facts" reveal.

This then is a feminist biographical project - "feminist" here as defined by Nancy Miller and adopted by Heilbrun - the desire to "protest against the available fiction of female becoming.'" 4 As Heilbrun argues, "Miller has shown us how 'the literal failure to read women's writing has other theoretical implications.' The same may be said of reading women's lives." 5 She rightly argues that "it all needs to be invented, or discovered, or resaid." 6 If power means "the ability to take one's place in whatever discourse is essential to action and the right to have one's part matter," then my biggest hope is to reinforce and re-inscribe that power for Katherine Anne Porter. 7

To Be Continued, with More Textual Excerpts from the CD-Rom "Katherine Ann Porter: A Biography" coming soon . . .


1 Notes/fragment writings on Biography and Autobiography, Series II, Reel 81, Box 14, Papers of Katherine Anne Porter, Special Collections, University of Maryland, College Park.

2 Heilbrun 20

3 Notes/fragment writings on Biography and Autobiography, Series II, Reel 81, Box 14, Papers of Katherine Anne Porter, Special Collections, University of Maryland, College Park.

4 Heilbrun 18

5 Heilbrun 18

7 Heilbrun 18

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