Sarah Klein, Asst. Editor

September 30, 2000

Writing Katherine Anne Porter, II: 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 part two 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 computer 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.

The KAP CD-Rom 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. I completed the project a little wiser for the wear. I quickly lost any lingering naivete about the glory of scholarly research, intellectual "community," 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 Anne 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 Anne Porter.

The CD-Rom is titled "Katherine Anne 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 for this current format.

Part Two:

"I Was Never in Exile for a Day":Porter's Geographies

In October of 1937, in New Orleans, Katherine Anne Porter reflected:

"I am glad now that I wrote about my years in Paris, setting down the things of everyday as they occurred, in order to correct myself when in my present mind I find so much unhappiness in life there. But the ills were in me, not in the place, and I was much happier there than I ever was, or ever could have been, in any other part of the world . . . Changing circumstances reveal to me constantly varying aspects of my own character, and some of the discoveries I made there about myself were severe but I think helpful." (emphasis mine) (1)

The fact that much of the literary scholarship on Porter explores her connection to various geographies - New York, Europe, Mexico, Texas, New Orleans - speaks to the importance of "Place" in Porter's life and work As she recognized, geographical wanderings and locations were always inextricably interwoven with her creative work, with the geographies of the mind, of the memory, and of the imagination. (2) Porter's desire for stability, comfort, and a sense of "home" could only be matched by her early and intense drive toward escape, exploration, experience, variety, and travel -- An equal fascination with, for example, both life in convents and the freedom of Bohemians (3) The paradox played itself out again and again in Porter's life and in her fiction, making for a tension that, while difficult, was also fruitful and conscious.

Texas, her birthplace and childhood home, was the first model for recognizing the uniqueness of lands, cultures, and peoples. This first, primary place was also the impetus for the lifelong paradox, the longing for "home" offset but not undercut by the longing for movement and freedom. As Joan Givner has suggested of Porter's four earliest works of fiction, written when the author was around the age of 30, "She seemed to think that an exotic setting, highborn characters, and exciting adventures were needed, and that so far her untraveled, humdrum life had yielded her no such experiences. After all, she had lived her whole life in Texas." (4) For a number of reasons, Porter's relationship with Texas was a complicated, inconsistent, and ambivalent one, ultimately reconciled late in her life when she visited her home state for the final time at the age of 86 and decided to be buried there, in Indian Creek, next to her mother.

In her letters and various writings over the course of her long life, she returned again and again, and in varying tones of sentimentality or anger, to a discussion of Texas as it existed in her memory and imagination. As for the importance of Texas as "Place" to Porter, the degree to which the relationship between the author and her homeland was rosy and bright remains somewhat irrelevant. Texas did, in fact, act as a significant springboard for Porter's creative and imaginative life and for specific works of her fiction, as well as for her lifelong pattern of travel - in that it represented all the loaded memories, both beautiful and horrific, of childhood and coming-of-age; and flashbacks of periods of illness, poverty, alienation, the desire for recognition, the desire for freedom. At the age of 42, Porter wrote to her father from Paris, "It is better for me to live in another place, for I should die of melancholy in a place that reminded me every day of all that I wish to forget or at least, not to brood over." (5) Yet the ambivalence was not inherently tantamount to rejection - just two years later, Porter wrote to her father, "I am growing more and more impatient to be getting back for a visit . . . Maybe the books being published will make it possible" (6) It was, at least imaginatively, at some points in her life, a haven. It was also a prototype for the writer -- of Texas language and speech, she said, "For me it is the true voice, the real tone and speech that I recognize t the first syllable, as it were the first three notes of a familiar song." (7)

The features of the life and place into which Porter was born illuminate how exceptional her life and work truly were. As Givner has pointed out,

"To consider Katherine Anne Porter's childhood is to realize the remarkable nature of her achievement, for no writer can have grown up in more complete literary isolation. Her regional uniqueness was a justifiable source of pride and she boasted of it . . . especially to Texans:

'I happen to be the first native of Texas in its whole history to be a professional writer. That is to say, one who had the vocation and practiced only that and lived by and for it all my life . . .' (8)

She might have added that it was a long time before anyone else from Texas gained a national or an international literary reputation and even longer before another woman did." (9)

At the age of 29, Porter wrote to her father, "I mean to leave this country every year for the balance of my days." (10) The initial flight from home took her to Denver for a journalism job. The first significant travel afield followed - around the age of 30 Porter went to New York for the first time, where she met artistic friends from the Mexican community in Greenwich Village. Her first, life-altering trip to Mexico soon followed.

Retracing the threads, Porter always argued that her love of and connection to Mexico stemmed from a childhood spent in and near San Antonio, Texas, where Mexican-American culture to this day constitutes the lifeblood of the locals. (11) Once there, she became actively immersed in the Mexican arts, and folk art in particular. Mexico and its arts directly influenced her development of an aesthetic philosophy. It's no surprise that this philosophy was deeply interested in rootedness, origins, and "home" - as Givner writes, "She refuted the idea that 'Mexican art' began well under foreign influences and later degenerated into a mere meaningless peasant art . . . The strength of Mexican art (and by implication, all art), she said, as in its native roots . . . And she pointed out that the life of the Mexican was bound to his home place, to his beloved earth: that no matter how far away he went, nor how long he stayed in foreign places, he would inevitably return to 'mi tierra.'" (12) Mexico proved also rich in mysticism and in the Catholic sensibility, which probably appealed to Porter's interests in the same, and arguably shaped her thematics. Mexican culture influenced Porter's life on every artistic level imaginable - for example, always a consummate cook with a real appreciation for the art of food and the communal meal, Porter would many years later write about conjuring up "the magic in food" by cooking "real mole poblano, with ingredients imported from Mexico." (13)

Porter's travels also immersed her in the political dilemmas of her place and time (her observations of Hitler and the Nazi regime, written in her daybooks while living in Berlin in 1931, show chilling foresight) - and this was the case in Mexico, where she lived and worked in the midst of a nation's revolution and upheaval. Although Porter was known for her erratic and ambivalent political and social stances, ranging at various times in her life from ardent left-wing activist to stridently right-wing conservative, one thing is clear: the geographies in which she lived and worked over the course of many years of travel deeply affected her sensibilities and sharpened her nerves to the seriousness of the task before humanity, before the artist - that of grappling with diversity and difference, basic human truth and fundamental morality, the meaning of freedom, the horrors of war, and the struggle to define and achieve justice. The seeds of this political awareness were planted on her first trip to Mexico. She came to believe that "Literature isn't social criticism, except by inference, but it isn't altogether decoration either, or something to play with." (14)

Porter's Mexican stories are copious in their number and broad-ranging in their thematics of place - stories such as "Maria Concepcion," "Flowering Judas," "Virgen Violetta," "The Martyr," and "That Tree." Wherever she lived and worked, Porter avidly immersed herself in the arts and culture around her. When in Paris in the early 1930's, she published a translation of French songs covering a period of six hundred years and representing a range of kind and form, carefully preserving original rhythms in her translation. In New Orleans she tried her hand at fictionalizing voodoo culture. She enjoyed, and wrote about, indigenous flowers and natural beauty wherever she went. In Switzerland Porter photographed and took detailed notes on medieval architecture. She was a self-trained, self-motivated Renaissance woman, brave enough to go out into the world, and to write about what she found there:

"I lived out of this country in all, in the very important middle years of my life, for twelve years, in Bermuda, Mexico, Spain, Germany, France, Switzerland, nearly ten of them being divided between France and Mexico. Chronologically I belonged to the all-too-celebrated Lost Generation. But again, as we did not have The Twenties nor professional exiles in Mexico, so we did not have a lost generation, either. I was never in exile for a day, nor was I ever in the least lost for a moment. I got myself into some very odd corners, and some disconcerting scrapes, and quite often I wondered how in the world I had managed to land where I was, and was sometimes doubtful as to how I was going to get out again, but I knew where I was, and what I was doing, and I knew why." (15)

 

1. i from Porter's Daybooks (Notes & Observations), Series II, Reel 68, Box 3, Papers of Katherine Anne Porter, Special Collections, University of Maryland, College Park.

2.

ii Porter's geographic locations throughout her lifetime repeatedly show up as settings for her fiction, and her daybooks are full of notes on places, characters, and incidents, which she sometimes develops more fully into sketches. Her letters also reveal her interest in the peoples and "types" found in the various places she lived and worked.

3.

iii On Porter's lifelong fascination with convents, see Givner 58, 87, 283.

4.

iv 146.

5.

v 21 January, 1933. Series I, Subseries 6, Reel 52, Box 62, Papers of Katherine Anne Porter, Special Collections, University of Maryland, College Park.

6.

vi 29 February, 1935. Series I, Subseries 6, Reel 52, Box 62, Papers of Katherine Anne Porter, Special Collections, University of Maryland, College Park.

7.

vii from Autobiographical Notes, Series II, Reel 65, Box 1, Papers of Katherine Anne Porter, Special Collections, University of Maryland, College Park.

8. viii KAP letter to Dr. R.L. Brooks, president of Howard Payne University in Brownwood, TX, 1975, and can be found in the papers of Katherine Anne Porter at the University of Maryland. Relevant documentation of a battle over not only semantics but mantle and recognition, waged between Porter and the Texas literati, may be found in the same collection, Series I, Subseries I, Reel 12. Publication rights over a letter from KAP to Winston Bode is the battleground on which Porter fights for her stake in regional literary history, finally declaring: "I still say simply that I am the first real, unmixed, dedicated artist in literature that Texas has produced. If Texas critics, journalists, other writers, wish to deny this, let them bring up their proofs. If they wish to ignore it, let them. I have nothing at stake; this fact has neither helped nor harmed me." (frame 448, microfilm))

9.

ix 44

10.

x 3 May, 1920. Series I, Subseries 6, Reel 52, Box 62. Papers of Katherine Anne Porter, Special Collections, University of Maryland, College Park.

11.

xi Givner 79, citation for Porter's remembrances of San Antonio and its connection to her Mexican experiences.

12.

xii 166

13.

xiii Notes, 9 June, 1957. Series II, Reel 65, Box 1, Papers of Katherine Anne Porter, Special Collections, University of Maryland, College Park.

14. xiv KAP to William Harlan Hale, 3 September, 1932. Series I, Subseries 4, Reel 22, Box 29, Papers of Katherine Anne Porter, Special Collections, University of Maryland, College Park.

15.

xv from "Notes on a Decade," Series II, Reel 81, Box 14, Papers of Katherine Anne Porter, Special Collections, University of Maryland, College Park.

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