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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Southern Renaissance Katherine Anne Porter (1890-1980)

[7280] Anonymous, Crowds Surge around President-Elect General Obregon Entering Mexico City in a Truck with Ricardo Topete on His Right and Generals Manzo and Cruz on His Left (1928), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-115962].

“It is my firm belief,” Katherine Anne Porter once said, “that all our lives we are preparing to be somebody or something, even if we do not do it consciously.” Porter knew at a young age she wanted to be a writer, and she worked diligently and methodically toward that goal, achieving recognition as one of America’s finest writers of short fiction by the time she reached the age of forty. Born Callie Russell Porter in a small log house in Indian Creek, Texas, Katherine Anne and her three siblings were raised by their maternal grandmother after their mother died. The family lived in poverty, and when Porter turned sixteen she married a railroad clerk named John Henry Koontz–both to leave home and to find the financial security she’d never known. Porter did not take to domestic life, however, and soon separated from her husband, assumed the name Katherine Anne, and turned to a life of travel and career changes. After a serious bout with tuberculosis, Porter took her first job as a professional writer with the Fort Worth Critic, and from there she went on to live and work in Denver, New York City, Mexico, and Europe. Her first published story, “Maria Concepcion,” appeared in the prestigious Century magazine in 1922 and was soon followed by “The Martyr,” which was about the artist Diego Rivera. Porter’s best-known story, “Flowering Judas,” was published in 1930 in Hound and Horn; from then on, her reputation as a writer was secure.

Although her settings are often radically different (such as revolutionary Mexico and bohemian New York City), Porter’s fiction is characterized by a strong sense of locale, and much of her work explores the tensions faced by women as they negotiate their place in the modern world. Porter’s careful attention to planning and revising her work–sometimes over a period of several years–resulted in the publication of only four story collections and one novel, each considered a literary event. Her books of short fiction are Flowering Judas(1930), Noon Wine (1937), Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939), and The Leaning Tower (1944). Her novel Ship of Fools was begun in the early 1940s, but Porter developed and revised it for more than twenty years before it was finally published in 1961. The novel was a commercial success and was later made into a popular film. Porter’s Collected Stories was published in 1965, bringing her the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and the Gold Medal for Fiction from the National Institute of Arts and Letters.

Teaching Tips

  • “Flowering Judas” can be somewhat difficult for students to get into at first because of the lack of explication for its foreign setting. In preparation for reading the story, ask your students to look into the history of Mexico in the early twentieth century, focusing on the abundance of revolutionary activity during the period. (The decade of 1910-20 was an especially turbulent time in Mexico, as different leaders in different regions of the country mounted military campaigns against each other as well as the Mexican government. Many Mexicans found themselves caught between military leaders at local and regional levels, and power shifted from one faction to another repeatedly during the period.) After your students have read the story, ask them to use their research to discuss what Porter means when she says that Laura “wears the uniform of an idea, and has renounced vanities.” What does this suggest about Laura and the role she plays in the revolution?
  • In an interview in The Paris Review, Porter said that she had “no patience with this dreadful idea that whatever you have in you has to come out, that you can’t suppress true talent. People can be destroyed; they can be bent, distorted, and completely crippled. To say that you can’t destroy yourself is just as foolish as to say of a young man killed in war at twenty-one or twenty-two that that was his fate, that he wasn’t going to have anything anyhow.” Introduce your students to Porter’s statements; then ask them to discuss them in small groups. Does Laura, the protagonist of “Flowering Judas,” seem “bent” or “distorted” in any way? Does Porter’s statement, above, give us a way of understanding these characters? What do Porter’s thoughts suggest about authorship in general?
  • Good fictional characters commonly face a major problem or decision which develops from a misunderstanding, a value conflict with other characters, misinformation, or some other challenging situation. However, like many of the writers included in this unit, Porter often creates characters who seem challenged by some failing of their own–as a result of either some inner conflict or some past event that we as readers cannot directly access. Ask your students to analyze the characters in Porter’s stories: What are these characters challenged by? Do these characters seem to be healthy human beings facing unusual obstacles, or do the characters themselves seem deficient in some way? For example, does Laura, the protagonist of “Flowering Judas,” seem “bent” or “distorted” in any way? For purposes of comparison, invite your students to catalog the “deficiencies” of other protagonists, such as those created by Faulkner, O’Connor, or Williams. Why might southern authors create characters who seem to be, in some way, “damaged”?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: What kinds of lives do the people in “Flowering Judas” lead? What clues does the story contain to help readers understand how its characters live?
  2. Context: In her introduction to a 1940 edition of Flowering Judas, Porter wrote that she’d spent much of her life trying “to understand the logic of this majestic and terrible failure of the life of man in the Western World.” Consider Porter’s statement in light of World War I and World War II. How does “Flowering Judas” seem to reflect that “majestic and terrible failure”?
  3. Context: The setting of “Flowering Judas” (revolutionary Mexico) might challenge students’ concept of “southern” literature, yet thematically, the story is very much within the realm of the work of Porter’s southern peers. For example, like similar characters in Faulkner’s writing, Laura in “Flowering Judas” seems torn between repudiating her past and its traditions and accepting the revolutionary values of the world in which she finds herself. What does such a setting and theme suggest about the meaning of “southern literature” in this period and its dominant preoccupations?
  4. Exploration: In a sense, Porter was as much a fiction as any of her characters; at a young age she changed her name, and throughout her life she lied about her birth date, marriages, education, and work habits. More importantly, she denied she’d been raised in poverty on a Texas dirt farm and claimed instead to be the descendant of a romantically degenerating “white-pillar” family of the Old South. Why do you think Porter lied about her background? How might her lies have changed the way her writing was received in the 1930s and 1940s? What does this suggest about American “literature” and the critical establishment? By way of comparison, you might also consider the fact that William Faulkner changed his name (he added the “u” to his last name) and lied about such things as being wounded in World War I. Why would these writers feel compelled to fictionalize their own lives?

Selected Archive Items

[7280] Anonymous, Crowds Surge around President-Elect General Obregon Entering Mexico City in a Truck with Ricardo Topete on His Right and Generals Manzo and Cruz on His Left (1928), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-115962].
Mexico City crowd scene. Katherine Anne Porter lived and worked in Mexico, in many locations, and used revolutionary Mexico City as a setting for “Flowering Judas,” one of her short stories.

[7365] George Platt Lynes, Katherine Anne Porter, Head-and-Shoulders Portrait, Facing Left (1940),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-114332].
Portrait of southern writer Katherine Anne Porter. Porter was part of the Southern Renaissance in the first half of the twentieth century. Her only novel, Ship of Fools, was set in the 1930s aboard a German passenger liner.

[8615] Various, The Story of the Sacco-Vanzetti Case (1921), 
courtesy of Special Collections, Michigan State University Libraries.
Written after the initial trial of Italian anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. They were originally arrested in 1920 on the charge of being “suspicious reds” but were later charged with the murder of two men. They were found guilty and executed in 1927, though over one hundred people had testified to their innocence. This pamphlet was partially designed to raise money for a new trial for the men. The Never-Ending Wrong, by Katherine Anne Porter, grapples with this case.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Credits

Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6

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