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A Writer's Writer

Preserving the Archives of Katherine Anne Porter

By Sara E. Wilson | HUMANITIES, September/October 1998 | Volume 19, Number 5

“I don’t imagine I’ll ever be a popular writer,” wrote Katherine Anne Porter to her father in 1931. “I simply want to be free to say what I feel and think exactly as I am able -- leave my testament, if you like, offer my evidence of what I found in this life and how it seemed to me, and what I was able to make of it.” Porter wrote these words towards the beginning of a writing career that spanned nearly six decades, beginning with the appearance of her first short story in 1922 and ending with The Never-Ending Wrong, published in 1977. She offered her evidence of how life seemed, not only in published works, but also in thousands of letters she wrote to family, friends, business associates, students, and acquaintances. In her published works, voluminous correspondence, working papers, notes and drafts, Katherine Anne Porter achieved her early ambition to leave a testament of her life.

An attempt to preserve this legacy is currently underway at the University of Maryland, where 120 linear feet of Porter’s papers are stored. The Archives and Manuscripts Department is currently microfilming about 100,000 pages of the collection, which was donated to the university by Porter in the late 1960s. The goal is twofold: to protect the original materials and to make the collection more accessible to researchers.

Beth Alvarez, Curator of Literary Manuscripts at the University of Maryland, and Rachel Vagts, the project archivist, have been going through Porter’s papers to select items for microfilming. They are also preparing a finding aid so inquirers can search for materials on specific aspects of Porter’s life or search for letters to or from any one of the more than one thousand correspondents.

The Katherine Anne Porter Collection is important not only to scholars, but also to aspiring writers. Porter claimed to have written her first short story, “Maria Concepcion,” in one sitting and described herself as a one-draft writer, but her papers belie that assertion.

“These papers are an inspiration for working writers,” explains Alvarez, “because they can use Porter’s working papers and drafts to see how she developed her stories.” In addition, Porter worked out ideas for stories in her letters, so fiction writers can learn important aspects of the craft of writing from Porter’s correspondence.

The writer, Malcolm Cowley, a contemporary of Porter, once said that Porter’s letters were her real masterpieces. But Alvarez says, “Miss Porter resented that remark because it reminded her of what people told her from childhood -- that she shouldn’t try to be a writer but that if she wanted to write, she should just write letters.” Porter did not take that advice to heart, but she did write an enormous number of letters throughout her life in addition to her published fiction, essays, and reviews.

Born Callie Russell Porter in Indian Creek, Texas, in 1890, Porter’s childhood was a difficult one. When her mother died in 1892, her father, Harrison, moved the family to Kyle, Texas, to live with his mother, Catherine. When her grandmother died in 1901, Callie Porter suffered another loss. Harrison Porter packed up the family again and moved, first to San Antonio and then to Victoria, Texas. It was in San Antonio that Porter, about fourteen, received the last of her schooling.

“Katherine Anne Porter was one of the most important short story writers in the world,” says Alvarez. Incredibly, the woman who earned that reputation had little formal education beyond grammar school. In a 1941 letter to her nephew, Paul Porter, she explained this secret of her success: “I began to read with excitement and interest, when I was very little, and I read far beyond my years, and only got my education, the kind of education able to use later, in just that way.”

Porter married at sixteen and moved several more times with her husband, John Koonz. Her marriage was unhappy, and in 1913, when she was twenty-three years old, she left Koonz. She moved to Chicago the following year, where she hoped to get into the movie business. In 1915, she divorced Koonz and legally changed her name from Callie to Katherine Anne.

Already pursuing what she later described as a “nomadic” life, Porter lived briefly in Louisiana with her sister, and then moved back to Texas. Back in Texas, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis, beginning a lifelong battle with ill health. If there was anything beneficial in contracting a debilitating disease, it was that while recovering in a sanitarium in Carlsbad, Texas, Porter met a woman who would later give her a paid position as a writer for a newspaper. Later Porter denied that she had ever been a “newspaperwoman,” a term she disliked. Whatever the title, the fact remains that she launched her writing career while working for a newspaper.

In 1918, Porter continued her recuperation in Denver, where she wrote reviews for the Rocky Mountain News. She had barely recovered her health when she was hit by influenza in the epidemic that killed 500,000 Americans. Many years later, Porter wrote Pale Horse, Pale Rider, a novella about Miranda, a young woman working for a newspaper, who survives the epidemic only to discover that Adam, her beloved, has succumbed to the disease. Alfred Crosby dedicated his history of the influenza epidemic to Porter because he believed Pale Horse, Pale Rider to be an exceptional depiction of the suffering endured during the epidemic. Robert Penn Warren considered the novella to be “at the top level, you know, in that collection of the world’s short novels.”

After regaining her health, Porter moved to New York hoping to launch a literary career. She lived in Greenwich Village. There she met several Mexican artists who helped her land a magazine assignment in 1920 in Mexico, where she lived on and off for nearly eleven years. Mexico provided the inspiration for “Maria Concepcion,” published in 1922, and for the stories collected in 1930 in Flowering Judas. The short story established her reputation and the book elevated her to the status of a world-class writer.

During the 1930s, Porter lived for a time in Europe and published the three short novels collected in 1939 in the volume Pale Horse, Pale Rider. Alvarez reports that one of these, Noon Wine, is considered by many scholars to be “the most perfect short novel ever written.”

Porter’s personal life was busy as well. She married Eugene Pressly and later, Albert Erskine, but whether these marriages were her second and third marriages is a matter disputed by scholars. While they agree that she was married at least three times, it might have been as many as six. Alvarez says that the correspondence being microfilmed provides "tantalizing bits of information on this subject, but no conclusive proof." Porter admitted as much herself that her genius was in writing, not matrimony, comparing her bad decisions regarding marriage to her equally bad choices for investing her money. Describing a particularly bad investment, she wrote to a friend in 1946, “I am romantic in these matters, and my judgment, let us admit freely, is even worse than in husbands.”

Managing her money well was important because Porter did not earn great sums for her short stories. She supported herself by writing book reviews, magazine articles, and even a catalog for a traveling exhibition of Mexican art. Beginning in the late 1940s, she earned a living as a university lecturer. And, though she made no money from it, she continued her voluminous letter writing. Her travels gave her the opportunity to constantly meet new people, many of whom were important figures in the arts. When she moved on, she kept in touch with these people through letters. The University of Maryland is microfilming her correspondence with such luminaries as Hart Crane, Ezra Pound, and Eudora Welty.

According to Janis Stout, author of a recent biography of Porter, the extent of Porter's letter writing contributed to her relative lack of output of published fiction. Alvarez says that one can truly get a sense of how much time her letter writing consumed by reading the correspondence between Porter and Eugene Pressly from the 1930s: "She was writing to him once and even twice a day. And the letters were ten to twenty pages each!" Stout concludes that Porter sometimes used letter writing to avoid the tremendously hard work involved in producing the quality of literary writing she considered necessary for publication. Porter’s own judgment about her relative lack of published fiction was harsher than that of her biographer’s. “I always did know what I wanted and what was good for me -- my trouble was failure of practical execution,” she admitted in 1959 to her close friend, Robert Penn Warren.

But Porter’s passion for letter writing wasn't just a tool for procrastination. Porter seems to have truly loved the particular art of writing letters. In 1929, she published a review of a book titled The Lost Art. Letters of Seven Famous Women. Porter sang the praises of the letters of these women -- Abigail Adams, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Jane Welsh Carlyle, Margaret Fuller, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and Mary Wollstonecraft -- commenting that, "It is their notorious indiscretion, their frankness, their beautiful interest in daily living...that give charm to the letters of women and cause the letters of long dead women to be so touching and so alive."

Porter's fame grew as she aged. She published another collection of stories in the 1940s and a work of nonfiction in the 1950s. Despite an ongoing struggle with her health, Porter continued her travels and writing well into old age. She was seventy-two when her first and only full-length novel, Ship of Fools, appeared in 1962. It had been in the works for more than twenty-five years. She was living in Washington, D.C., by then, and was an occasional guest in the Kennedy and Johnson White House. In 1965, at the age of seventy-five, she published The Collected Stories, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. As she had expected, she had not become a writer of popular fiction, but had obtained a reputation as a "writer's writer," a standing she cherished.

In 1966, Porter was awarded an honorary degree from the University of Maryland. Alvarez tells the story of the connection between that award and Porter's later decision to give her papers to the university: "Porter was not able to come to the University of Maryland to receive the award because she was ill. The president of the university and his wife went to her house in Washington, D.C., to conduct the ceremony. They were native Texans and immediately hit if off with Porter.

She was very impressed with them and their willingness to conduct the ceremony at her house."

Over the next three years, the Katherine Anne Porter Collection was established at the University of Maryland.

In her review of The Lost Art: Letters of Seven Famous Women, Porter wrote, "It would be exciting to be alive fifty years from now when our contemporary letters -- some of them marked urgently "Burn this!" -- are brought out and published." Archivist Vagts says that Porter did indeed write "Burn this!" on some of her own correspondence. Vagts says, with a chuckle, "She instructed the recipients to burn their letters, then kept a carbon copy of them in her own files." Some of Porter's correspondents may have obeyed their orders to destroy her letters, but the microfilming project at the University of Maryland will help protect what remains of her papers for the future.

About the Author

Sara E. Wilson is a freelance writer in Falls Church, Virginia.

Funding Information

The University of Maryland at College Park received $158,413 from NEH to preserve and catalog the papers of Katherine Anne Porter.