Whether or not she considered herself a feminist, Katherine Anne Porter led a highly unconventional life, subverted gender norms and constraints at every turn, and created strong, fully-developed fictional female characters with many of the same capacities. In both life and work, she re-wrote the traditionally-ascribed female script. In this sense she is part of a sisterhood of women, often silenced in the margins of masculinist his/story, who led extraordinary lives against the grain of a standard female fiction that has long distorted or buried what we know about women, their accomplishments, and their real experiences.
Given a start in life and a historical/cultural context that together stacked all the odds against it, Porter challenged many of the strictures Carolyn Heilbrun addresses in Writing a Womans Life. If were to avoid the traditional masculinist suppression of true female experience in writing a womans life, its important to voice the aspects of Porters experience that made her life as a woman and as an artist so unique. As Heilbrun has suggested, a biographical silence, or shrouding in distortion, has plagued the writing of womens lives particularly around subjects that conflict with conventional gender norms. Subjects such as the struggle for predecessors and models to look to, friendship between women, marriage, sexuality, anger, power, and aging have been manipulated, if not completely silenced, in the telling of womens lives -- thereby undercutting the reality of those lives and denying their integrity.
One of the interesting things about Katherine Anne Porter is that, although her professed philosophies about gender politics shifted markedly and sometimes irregularly throughout the course of her long life (and for a variety of reasons, as Givners biography suggests), she was profoundly aware of her own difference from the so-called norm, of the fact that she was living and working quite consciously from a subversive script. Telling her life while paying little conscious attention to the elements of it that undercut the traditional female script would leave even this first stage of whats to be a work in progress too much un-done.
In the world of her art, Porter never flinched from quite literally writing the new and more empowering script of female experience. In discussing Porters earliest short stories, for example, Joan Givner has documented what she describes as a current of marked, and probably unconscious, feminist bias, centered around female characters who represent the antithesis of passivity and ineffectuality (143). These stories set the tone for the works to come, including Maria Concepcion, The Cracked Looking-Glass, and The Jilting of Granny Weatherall. As Givner also argues, Porters distaste for the saintly heroine formed the very foundation of her artistic sensibility and her ethic: The people who really need to be watched are the so-called innocents who stand by and allow others to perpetrate evil . . . She came eventually to see passive, virtuous people as guilty of promoting evil even when they do not consciously do so (135). Whether conscious or not, this philosophy in direct reaction to the loathed saintly heroine icon of traditional, masculinist narratives reveals the deep-seated dangers of sentimentalizing, dominating, and disenfranchising women producing a class of passive individuals robbed of full humanity, equality, and moral responsibility, whose very passivity perpetuates a cycle of power abuse and decay. Porter believed wholeheartedly in the full humanity and the full capacity of her sex, and she created female characters who reflected as much.
As an artist, Porters life also deflates the myth of womans isolation from other women a myth that erases the frequent and supportive connections historically between many women of great accomplishment. Throughout her life, Porter developed and treasured friendships, working relationships and supportive connections to other female writers and publishers, including, among others, Eudora Welty, Flannery OConnor, Barbara Harrison Wescott, Cyrilly Abels, Caroline Gordon, and Edith Sitwell. She felt a kinship to and great admiration for Virginia Woolf, though they never met.
Related to the myth of womans isolation from other women is the myth of the marriage plot. Here too, Porter rejected a script that did not work for her or reflect her reality. She married and divorced four times. She had passionate love affairs, sometimes with men significantly younger than herself, and she enjoyed the fullness of those experiences, sometimes writing quite comfortably and frankly about her sexuality. At the same time, the power and agency that she claimed when she literally renamed herself, transforming Callie Porter into Katherine Anne, she too claimed when she walked away from unsuitable matches that did not foster the life of her mind or did not work over time despite the extreme unconventionality and potential stigma of such choices. When she was unable to reinvent with her lovers a more productive and nurturing model of marriage than that which conventionality modeled for her, she chose the equally stigmatized and wrongly-maligned path of independence and single life -- which, while it sometimes brought frustration and loneliness, also allowed her great freedom and the flexibility to follow her artistic goals. As she wrote of marriage and her experience,
Her choices were not always easy, and they sometimes brought her great personal pain but they were her choices, and they were conscious. In her romantic disruptions we should locate not so much Porters failure as the traditional masculinist narrative, obsessed with the marriage measuring stick in assessing womens lives, would write it but rather her strength, self-awareness, self-honesty, and in fact, her bravery.
Finally, Porters life explodes the myth of female aging. As Heilbrun has observed,
Porter lived a long, full, and highly productive existence, truly beginning her artistic work only after the age of 30 and accomplishing many of her greatest achievements in the second half of her 90 years. She published her bestseller at age 72, and won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer in her mid-70s as well. She wrote, negotiated book deals, made appearances, traveled, corresponded, and spent valuable time with family and dear friends, almost up until her death. Power and old age were truly compatible for her, because she envisioned it and made it so, because she willfully and persistently disrupted and re-wrote the narrative models of female reality set before her. If, as Heilbrun argues, women come to writing simultaneously with self-creation, and if for many women this act may unfold later in life than in the male tradition, then we can more fully appreciate the interconnections between Porters life as a woman, and her life as a writer.
Autobiographical/Biographical notes, Series II, Reel 65, Box 1, Papers of Katherine Anne Porter, Special Collections, University of Maryland, College Park.