Sarah Klein


Writing Katherine Anne Porter: A Biography in Parts
Part Three of the CD-Rom Project
Sisterhood: KAP and the Female Narrative 

See Also Part One and Part Two

“Individual stories from biographies and autobiographies have always been conceived of as individual, eccentric lives. I suspect that female narratives will be found where women exchange stories, where they read and talk collectively of ambitions, and possibilities, and accomplishments.”

-- Carolyn Heilbrun

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 Woman’s Life. If we’re to avoid the traditional masculinist suppression of true female experience in writing a woman’s life, it’s important to voice the aspects of Porter’s 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 women’s 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 women’s 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 Givner’s 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 what’s 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 Porter’s 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, Porter’s 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, Porter’s life also deflates the myth of woman’s 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 O’Connor, 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 woman’s 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,

It was never that men who said they loved me wished me to be other than what I was . . . Yet not one of them wished me to live as I must live, given my nature and my vocation. They wished to put my whole life to uses for which it simply was not intended, and when under the strain of trying to live in the vise in which they would fit me, I took on, you might say, the shape of their own distorted desires . . .But one man and one woman may form a secret and powerful alliance of love between them as individuals . . . this is what counts and is all the good there is in the business. (Autobiographical/Biographical notes. . . see works cited)

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 Porter’s “failure” – as the traditional masculinist narrative, obsessed with the marriage measuring stick in assessing women’s lives, would write it – but rather her strength, self-awareness, self-honesty, and in fact, her bravery.

Finally, Porter’s life explodes the myth of female aging. As Heilbrun has observed,

It is perhaps only in old age, certainly past fifty, that women can stop being female impersonators . . . Biographers often find little overtly triumphant in the late years of a subject’s life, once she has moved beyond the categories our available narratives have provided for women. Neither rocking on a porch, nor automatically offering her services as cook and housekeeper and child watcher, nor awaiting another chapter in the heterosexual plot, the old woman must be glimpsed through all her disguises which seem to preclude her right to be called woman. She may well for the first time be woman herself.(126, 131)

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-70’s 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 Porter’s life as a woman, and her life as a writer.

Works Cited

Autobiographical/Biographical notes, Series II, Reel 65, Box 1, Papers of Katherine Anne Porter, Special Collections, University of Maryland, College Park.

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