From the gothic Old South to revolutionary Mexico, few writers have evoked such a multitude of worlds, both exterior and interior, as powerfully as Katherine Anne Porter. This collection gathers together the best of her Pulitzer Prize-winning short fiction.
In 'Pale Horse, Pale Rider' a young woman lies in a fever during the influenza epidemic, her childhood memories mingling with fears for her fiancÚ on his way to war.'Noon Wine' is a haunting story of tragedy and scandal on a small dairy farm in Texas. In 'The Leaning Tower', an innocent young American experiences life in Berlin just before Hitler's rise to power. And in each compelling story, harsh and tragic truths are expressed in prose both brilliant and precise.
Edited and with an introduction by Sarah Churchwell
She published fewer than thirty short stories and one novel—despite living to the age of ninety—but many of Katherine Anne Porter’s tales are widely considered to be “unsurpassed in modern fiction,” as the critic Robert Penn Warren argued. Edmund Wilson declared that Porter “writes English of a purity and precision almost unique in contemporary fiction.” V.S. Pritchett named her one of the most important writers in the genre of the short story because she “solves the essential problem: how to satisfy exhaustively in writing briefly.” When assembled into one volume in 1965, The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.
Over her long life, Katherine Anne Porter (1890-1980) experienced firsthand many of the most iconic events of the 20th century and wrote about most of them. Growing up on a hard-scrabble farm in Texas at the end of the nineteenth century, listening to her Southern grandmother’s moonlight and magnolia legends of life on an antebellum slave plantation, Porter lived to write about the first manned flight to space, although she was thirteen when she first rode in an automobile. A lifelong advocate of liberal social politics, Porter worked as a female journalist in a patriarchal world on the American home-front during the First World War; barely survived the influenza epidemic of 1918; moved to Greenwich village during its heyday as a center of radical politics and bohemian artists; lived in Mexico during and after its failed revolution; was in Europe during the rise of Nazism; and returned to the US during the Cold War and rabid McCarthyism. She published her first and only novel, Ship of Fools, at the age of seventy-two—and watched with some glee as it brought her fame, wealth, and transformed her into one of America’s literary grandes dames. Ship of Fools was the bestselling novel in America of 1962, and went on to be filmed with Vivien Leigh and Simone Signoret in 1965, but fell out of print for many years, until a new Library of America edition was published in 2010.
But it is upon her short stories, some of which continue to be regarded as masterpieces of the form, that Porter’s literary reputation today rests. Set in her native Texas and revolutionary Mexico, in Germany between the wars and the reconstruction South, her stories tell of betrayal, retribution, and disillusionment, offering an unvarnished view of human nature in faceted, gemlike language. “Her prose is severe and exact,” wrote V.S. Pritchett, “her ironies subtle but hard.” But although Porter wrote during an age of high modernism, and is considered by some to be one of the 20th century’s most important modernist writers, she wrote with such clarity and precision that her stories remain eminently accessible to readers at large.
That Porter’s output over her fifty-year career was so markedly small was due in part to her eventful life, but even more to her perfectionism: she refused to publish anything that did not meet her exacting standards. She once said: “There is no describing what my life has been because of my one fixed desire: to be a good artist, responsible to the last comma for what I write.” That sense of responsibility, of an aesthetic obligation to her stories and her readers, is what makes so many of her stories compact masterpieces of insight and emotional power. A fellow master of the short story, Eudora Welty, said that Katherine Anne Porter writes stories with a power that stamps them to their very last detail on the memory.
Even a brief summary of the long and eventful life of Katherine Anne Porter could easily fill an introduction by itself, fluctuating as it did between glamour, romance, success, celebrity and poverty, loneliness, depression and illness, across the backdrop of some of the 20th century’s most epochal events. Her life story might seem sufficiently interesting without embellishment, but Porter spent much of her long life revising it, burnishing and polishing her tale until it conformed to the romantic image of Southern elegance she’d cultivated. Born Callie Russell Porter on 15 May, 1890, in the backwater of Indian Creek, Texas, she was only two years old when her mother died. Her father brought his four children to Kyle, Texas to live with his mother, Catharine Ann Porter, a strong-willed pioneer who raised her grandchildren amidst the poverty of turn-of-the-century Texas. If Porter would later describe her grandmother as Puritanical, she also said that it was from her grandmother that she learned to love story-telling; the old woman regaled her with romantic tales of life in the Old South, tales that later found their way into Porter’s writing—as did the realities of pre-industrial life on a Texas dirt farm.
When Porter was eleven, her grandmother died, and her father moved his family to San Antonio, Texas, where she attended a year of private school; years later she would claim to have been educated at a convent school, and said that her love of Mexico began in those years living near the Mexican border. At 16, Porter eloped with John Henry Koontz, converting to Catholicism to appease his family, and changing her name to Katherine Anne in partial tribute to her grandmother. Porter soon divorced Koontz, in 1915, citing physical abuse on her divorce petition; she quickly married another man, only to have the marriage almost instantly annulled. She began working as a journalist, first in Fort Worth, Texas, and then in Denver, Colorado, where she succumbed to the influenza epidemic of 1918 and nearly died, experiences that formed the basis of “Pale Horse, Pale Rider.” After she recovered, she moved to Greenwich Village in 1919, where the bohemian life was just beginning to take hold. But before it could take hold of her, Porter had accepted a job in Mexico, where, she later said, she “ran smack into” the Mexican Revolution: throughout the 1920s she moved between Mexico and the American northeast, restlessly traveling and turning her Mexican adventures into short stories, including “Maria Concepción,” “Flowering Judas,” and the later “Hacienda.”
In 1926, she married an Englishman named Ernest Stock, but divorced him a year later after contracting gonorrhea, which she said he gave her; she subsequently had a hysterectomy. In 1929 she went to Bermuda to recuperate from illness, and it was there that she was inspired to begin her stories of Miranda Gay, the alter ego who allowed her to explore and mythologize her own childhood simultaneously. In 1930 she published her first book, a collection of stories called Flowering Judas. She returned to Mexico, married Eugene Pressly in 1933, and began work on her novel,
Ship of Fools, which would take 30 years to complete. In 1931 she was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship, and sailed from Mexico for Germany. Her experiences on shipboard and in Berlin were the basis not only for Ship of Fools but also her novella of Germany between the wars, “The Leaning Tower.” In 1936 Porter returned to the US, and in 1938 divorced Pressly, after writing most of the Miranda Gay stories, including “Old Mortality” and “Pale Horse, Pale Rider.” She immediately married Albert Eskine, who was 20 years her junior, after lying about her age; they divorced two years later. In the 1940s she began lecturing and teaching, and published The Leaning Tower and Other Stories in 1944.
For the next 20 years she taught on and off, including at Stanford and University of Michigan, and struggled to complete her novel (urged on by publishers reminding her of the advances they’d paid). Finally, in 1962, her first and only novel was published, to good reviews and tremendous commercial success. In the New York Times, Mark Schorer declared: “This novel has been famous for years. It has been awaited through an entire literary generation…. Now it is suddenly, superbly here.” It became the bestselling novel of the year. In 1966, her Collected Stories won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Ten years later, she published “The Never-Ending Wrong,” about the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti half a century before. The essay was her last published piece of writing; Porter died on September 18, 1980.
Stories such as “Flowering Judas,” “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall,” “Old Mortality” and “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” are widely regarded as classics in the art of the short story. Porter’s literary craftsmanship, her remarkable mix of clarity and poetry, literal details and symbolic meanings, her complex understanding of human psychology, and her interest in changing social and gender mores, ensure that her stories remain as topical today as when they were first published. Circling around questions of innocence and justice, the conflict between freedom and conformity, independence and intimacy, her stories are particularly interested in the continuing human problem of the misleading stories we tell ourselves in the search for meaning, our myths and false gods, and the fraudulent and deceptive corruption of romanticism.
Porter’s earliest stories were set in Mexico, often amidst the Mexican Revolution. Her first published story, “María Concepcíon,” set in a deceptively “picturesque” Mexican peasant village, is the story of a devout young Catholic wife who literally gets away with murder when she kills her husband’s mistress; “The Martyr” is an early satire of the artist Diego Rivera, as well as an exploration of the authenticity of Mexican folk arts. “Flowering Judas,” which Porter considered one of her best stories and is probably still her most famous, is a tale of repression and failed revolution, concerning a young American woman named Laura, who dabbles in the revolution but refuses the seductions of the revolutionary leaders, especially the self-regarding (and symbolically named) Braggioni. His failed seductions are both political and erotic: Laura’s sexual repression is mirrored in her spiritual emptiness, and she finds herself alienated at story’s end not only from the society around her, but from her own life and feelings.
Her growing interest in Mexican folk stories inspired Porter to begin to mine her own family’s past, although she continued to write of her experiences in Mexico in stories like “Hacienda,” a tale of clashing cultures and politics when self-important communist film-makers come to Mexico. Stories such as “Theft” and “The Leaning Tower,” explore Porter’s liberal politics: “Theft” is a short, powerful parable about the spiritual aridity of materialism, as a young woman in New York learns that her favorite gold purse has been stolen, but comes to realize that the love she has betrayed is far more valuable. Set in Germany between the wars, “The Leaning Tower” tells of a young American, an aspiring artist in Berlin, confronting the living death of Germany that allows for the rise of Nazism; the story serves as precursor and précis of the novel Porter would publish twenty years later, Ship of Fools.
Increasingly, however, Porter turned to the stories she had heard growing up in Texas, especially from her grandmother. “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall,” one of Porter’s best-known and admired tales, based in part on her memories of Catherine Anne Porter, is the stream-of-consciousness memory of a dying old woman in Texas, assessing the sum total of her own life; she left the plantation Old South of her childhood to follow her husband west and after his death single-handedly raised a large family and carved a life out of the unforgiving land. Her memories of her family and life on the farm are interspersed with her memory of having been left at the altar as a young woman, the death of her youngest child, and the ultimate, chilling realization that her promised final “bridegroom,” Jesus, is going to jilt her as well. In stories such as “The Cracked-Looking Glass” and “Holiday,” Porter also tells stories of disillusionment and the compromises necessary for survival in small-town farming communities, a life she understood well.
Pale Horse, Pale Rider was Porter’s second book, published in 1937, a triptych of long tales (which Porter called “short novels”) that many critics consider her masterpiece: “Old Mortality,” “Noon Wine,” and “Pale Horse, Pale Rider.” Although only the first and last tales share a protagonist, Porter’s alter ego Miranda Gay, the three stories none the less form a coherent thematic whole, working novelistically together to suggest a progression from morning, to noon, and night, from past to present to future, from birth to family to death. As the critic Mark Schorer observed, the stories that comprise Pale Horse, Pale Rider ask the three questions that humankind has always asked: What were we? What are we? What will we be?
“Old Mortality” introduces Miranda Gay, a young woman at the turn of the 20th century who is struggling to assert her identity against her Southern family’s powerful mythologizing tendencies, to understand her present in the light of their past. It is complex story, told in three parts, reconstructing the story of a dead young woman named Amy Gay from the perspective of her two young nieces, Miranda and her sister. In Part I, set between 1885 and 1902, eight-year-old Miranda learns the family myths surrounding her beautiful aunt Amy, and pieces together an incomplete version of Amy’s rebellious life and early death. Part II, set in 1904, takes place when ten-year-old Miranda encounters Amy’s widower, Gabriel, who has been described to Miranda as a romantic cavalier, at the racetrack, and is disillusioned twice over, by the violence and cruelty of the races, and the dissipated, drunken visage of a raddled old Uncle Gabriel instead of the dashing young man she expected. In Part III, set in 1912, Miranda, now 18, has eloped like her Aunt Amy, and is returning home for Gabriel’s funeral. On the train she encounters her Aunt Eva, Amy’s sister, a suffragist who hated her petted, spoiled sister, and rejects the family’s romantic legend of Amy and Gabriel, insisting that Amy wasn’t beautiful, was “impure,” and that her death was in some way mysterious, suggesting either a botched abortion or suicide. Miranda ends the tale by insisting to herself that she will know the truth of her own life, “making a promise to herself, in her hopefulness, her ignorance”.
“Noon Wine,” set on a small Texas dairy farm in the 1890s, is a dark tale of murder, self-justification, guilt and suicide, that, like “Old Mortality,” also explores the sometimes grim consequences of conventional 19th century gender roles for the people who found it impossible to adhere to them. “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” takes up Miranda Gay’s story after she has left her family to make her way in the world as a journalist during the First World War; she and the young soldier she loves are caught in the influenza epidemic of 1918. The story opens in the hallucinatory world of Miranda’s delirious, feverish mind as she lies in bed with the influenza. In a series of flashbacks and dreams, Porter reveals Miranda’s story in stream of consciousness, symbols, metaphors, and fractured memories, as she first imagines she is in her childhood home, then thinks she is riding her horse and that Death is accompanying her. Semi-conscious, she then remembers the events of the previous day, at the newspaper where she was pressured to buy Liberty Bonds, despite her pacifism, and her happy memories of Adam, the soldier she loves but who she fears will die in the war. As death approaches, Miranda is drawn by her vision of paradise, but her desire to return to Adam forces her to wrench herself from the peace of death and back to the violence and pain of life. In a bitter irony, when she awakens, recovering, bells are ringing announcing the end of the war, but Miranda learns that Adam died of the influenza he caught from her a month earlier. She has returned to life only to take her place back “on the road that would lead her again to death”. “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” is a profound meditation on the human condition, the violence of life and futility of war, and the enduring power of love and hope.
Porter envisioned a full cycle of Miranda stories that she never completed, but in her Collected Stories she added “The Old Order,” a series of stories and vignettes about Miranda’s family that return to Porter’s own roots in the Southwest and her grandmother’s tales of plantation life to explore, among other themes, rites of passage, birth and death, and gender and race relations in Reconstruction-era Texas. Although “The Old Order” was published later, putting it before the three stories of Pale Horse, Pale Rider means that the reader can encounter Miranda’s family history in more or less chronological order, while still respecting the integrity and thematic coherence of Porter’s own Pale Horse, Pale Rider, in which the final two Miranda tales are interrupted by “Noon Wine.”
In 1966, in her acceptance speech for the National Book Award for The Collected Stories, Porter described herself as a "disappointed idealist." All of Porter’s work is characterized by a painful tension between an impulse toward idealizing and mythologizing, and betrayal and disappointment. The line between fiction and truth is one that Porter returned to again and again, as she explored the active revision of history through personal and cultural myths, the passing of old orders and traditions into the excitement, chaos and disappointments of the new, in both her art and her life.
Ultimately Porter’s most fundamental subject may be the impossibility of reconciling dreams with reality, and the imperative of continuing to try: "I shall try to tell the truth, but the result will be fiction," she told a Paris audience in 1934. Ten years later, in the midst of the Second World War, she affirmed the importance of art especially in the midst of global violence and despair:
“In the face of such shape and weight of present misfortune, the voice of the individual artist may seem perhaps of no more consequence than the whirring of a cricket in the grass, but the arts do live continuously, and they live literally by faith; their names and their shapes and their uses and their basic meanings survive unchanged in all that matters through times of interruption, diminishment, neglect; they outlive governments and creeds and societies, even the very civilizations that produce them. They cannot be destroyed altogether because they represent the substance of faith and the only reality. They are what we find again when the ruins are cleared away. And even the smallest and most incomplete offering at this time can be a proud act in defense of that faith."
This book collects the best of Katherine Anne Porter’s small, but far from incomplete, offerings on the altar of that faith, some of the greatest short stories in English of the 20th century.