Katherine Anne Porter (1890-1980) was one of the most brilliant practitioners of the art of the short story. Her literary reputation rests on the stories in her Collected Stories (1964) rather than on her best-selling novel Ship of Fools (1962). Born Callie Russell Porter on May 15, 1890, she was the fourth of Harrison and Mary Alice Porter's five children. When her mother died in March 1892, her father moved the four surviving children from his farm in the central Texas community of Indian Creek to his mother's home in Kyle, just south of Austin, the state capital. The grandmother, Catharine Ann Porter, served as a mother to Harrison's children until her death in October 1901. Catharine Ann Porter was an important influence on her granddaughter Callie, who adopted her name in early adulthood with only a slight orthographical change.
The death of the grandmother left the family emotionally and financially adrift. About 1903, Harrison Porter relocated his family to San Antonio, where the three oldest children experienced the last of their formal education. Porter's older brother Paul matriculated at a military academy, and Callie and her older sister Gay attended the Thomas School, an excellent non-sectarian Christian private girls' school. Equipped with the training they received there, Porter and her older sister gave lessons in "music, physical culture and dramatic reading" in a rented room in Victoria, Texas, the family's next residence. Although she later taught at colleges and universities, she never had any formal higher education. She acquired wide-ranging knowledge through a lifetime of extensive reading on varied topics; she often annotated her books and journals as she read them, evidence of which survives in her personal library.
On June 20, 1906, Callie Porter married John Henry Koontz. This first of her marriages, at nine years, had the longest duration. The couple first lived in Louisiana, then moved to Houston and later Corpus Christi. In 1912, her husband's work-related absences allowed her more time for creativity, and she began writing more of the poems and short stories she had been composing since childhood. This activity resulted in her first published poem, "Texas by the Gulf of Mexico," printed that year in a trade journal to which her husband subscribed.
By 1914, it became apparent that the marriage was not working. Porter set out for Chicago hoping to find employment in motion pictures, though she later claimed that her plan was to work for a newspaper. She was a beautiful young woman, full of self-confidence, and, though she appeared in at least two movies for the Essanay Company, she returned to Texas within six months.
She obtained a divorce from Koontz in June 1915 and shortly thereafter discovered that she had contracted tuberculosis. Between 1915 and 1917, Porter married and was divorced twice. In September 1917, Porter became a journalist for the Fort Worth Critic thanks to the help of friend Kitty Crawford, whom she had met while both of them were hospitalized in a sanitorium. In the autumn of 1918, Porter secured a position on the Rocky Mountain News in Denver. Soon after her arrival in Denver, Porter very nearly died in the influenza epidemic that ravaged the country at that time. After her recovery, she resumed work on the Rocky Mountain News and, by February 1919, was the resident theater and music critic.
In October 1919, Porter headed for Greenwich Village to pursue a writing career. Her immersion in the artistic milieu of the Village encouraged a move away from journalism toward creative writing. In the early months of 1920, she succeeded in publishing three stories "retold" from myth and legend in Everyland, a magazine for children. However, in November of that year Porter followed the prompting of some new-found Mexican friends, Adolfo Best-Maugard and Tata Nacho, to go to Mexico and work there. She soon became the editor of the English language section of El Heraldo de Mexico. By early 1921, she was the editor of and a contributor to the English language Magazine of Mexico, published to promote American business and development in Mexico. As she immersed herself in Mexican art and culture, she also ghostwrote a memoir entitled My Chinese Marriage. Porter left Mexico before September 1921 but returned for three months in the spring of 1922 expressly to write Outline of Mexican Popular Arts and Crafts, the catalog for an exhibit of Mexican art that was to travel across the United States.
Her experiences in Mexico, including those of a third trip in 1923, provided Porter with the material for three short stories published in Century magazine: "Maria Concepcion" (1922), "The Martyr" (1923), and "Virgin Violeta" (1924). These achievements, combined with her freelance editing and book reviews (published mainly in the New York Herald Tribune and New Republic), drew Porter further into literary and intellectual circles. She established friendships with Elinor Wylie, Genevieve Taggard, Josephine Herbst, Caroline Gordon, Malcolm Cowley, Dorothy Day, and Robert Penn Warren, among others. She reveled in an active social life and was a prolific letter writer to distant friends and relatives.
Porter spent the spring and summer of 1926 with a group of other artists and writers in Merryall Valley, Connecticut. She and Ernest Stock occupied a farmhouse owned by Genevieve Taggard and her husband, Robert Wolfe. Porter enjoyed the beauty of the setting, and the contacts she established there not only inspired her writing but also helped her to get her work published.
Porter undertook a major project in 1927 when she signed a contract to write a biography of Cotton Mather with the publishing house of Boni and Liveright. In late 1927 and early 1928, she lived in Salem, Massachusetts, for several months, while researching Mather's life. In spring 1929, her friends funded a trip to Bermuda so that she could complete the biography. Porter was seriously ill at the time, partly from emotional distress, and the trip aided her recovery. She found solitude and wrote a great deal but was not able to complete the Mather biography. In fact, the book was never completed, despite extensive research and nearly fifty years of sporadic writing efforts, including another contract in 1965 with Seymour Lawrence.
Porter worked on short stories while in Bermuda. During her visit, she made progress on one of her best stories, "Flowering Judas," which was published in Hound & Horn in 1930. That year, a book of stories with "Flowering Judas" as the title story appeared while Porter was again in Mexico. This trip to Mexico became an extended sixteen-month stay, with Porter continuing to write more essays and reviews. Her financial situation, which was troublesome through most of her life, was improved by a Guggenheim fellowship of $2000, which she used for a long-desired trip to Europe.
In August 1931, Katherine Anne Porter and her companion and eventual husband, Eugene Pressly, departed from Mexico on the German ship S. S. Werra. The journal she kept during this journey became the basis for Ship of Fools, the novel she published thirty-one years later. After four months in Berlin, Porter visited Paris and Madrid before moving with Pressly, who had received a lifetime appointment in the American foreign service, to Basel, Switzerland, for six months, where she lived from June to December 1932. When Pressly was posted to the American Embassy in Paris, they settled there for nearly four years, marrying in March 1933. In Paris, Porter developed a circle of friends that included Monroe Wheeler, Glenway Wescott, and Barbara Harrison, who became lifelong supporters.
The Paris years were very productive--much of Porter's most important work was either written or begun during this period. Hacienda was published in 1934, and Flowering Judas and Other Stories came out in 1935, adding four more stories to those of the 1930 edition. The minor publication that led to Hacienda was entitled Katherine Anne Porter's French Song-Book. It included translations of French songs covering a six hundred year period, capitalizing on Porter's love of early music. Both works were published by Harrison of Paris, run by her friends Barbara Harrison and Monroe Wheeler.
In October 1936, Porter and Pressly returned to the United States, with Pressly traveling to Washington to look for work and Porter settling for a time in Pennsylvania. This visit was highly productive, as she completed two of the "short novels" that appeared in Pale Horse, Pale Rider in 1939. After a three-month reunion with Porter in New York City, Pressly found a temporary position in South America; this led to their permanent separation and eventual divorce. In June 1937, Porter visited her family in Texas, afterward joining Allen Tate and Caroline Gordon at Olivet College in Michigan for a writers' conference. While staying in the Tates' home in Tennessee after the conference, she met Albert Erskine, her next husband, who was then a graduate student at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and business manager for the Southern Review. In September 1937, Porter moved to New Orleans.
April 1938 brought both divorce from Pressly and another marriage. With Robert Penn Warren and his wife Cinina as witnesses, Porter married Albert Erskine. However, Porter and Erskine were separated within two years, and in June 1940 Porter went to live at Yaddo, the artists' colony in upstate New York. She had gained a reputation as one of the country's best writers following the publication of Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939), which included the title work, "Noon Wine," and "Old Mortality."
Porter enjoyed living in upstate New York so much that in late 1940 she bought South Hill, a house near Saratoga Springs. It required a great deal of money and work to make it habitable, so Porter was not able to move in until the fall of 1942, shortly after her June 1942 divorce from Erskine. Life at South Hill during World War II proved too isolating. In the winter of 1943, she retreated to the Harbor Hill Inn in Cold Spring, New York. The next several years saw many relocations, including to the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C., while she was a Fellow of Regional Literature at the Library of Congress, and to Hollywood to try her hand at screenwriting. The Leaning Tower and Other Stories was published in 1944 in the midst of these moves and was followed eight years later by The Days Before, a book of critical essays.
Porter's success with a summer class at Stanford University in 1947 resulted in several long teaching stints at universities: Stanford University (1948-1949); University of Michigan (1953-1954); University of Liege (Fulbright Fellow, 1954); University of Virginia (1958); and Washington and Lee University (1959). Porter supplemented her income by giving readings and lectures and by appearing on radio and television. When not in residence at an academic institution, she lived for extended periods in three places: New York City (1949-1953); Southbury, Connecticut (1955-1958); and Washington, D.C. (1959-1969). The three years in Connecticut, funded largely with an advance from Seymour Lawrence, her new publisher, allowed her time to work on her novel. It was completed after she received a grant from the Ford Foundation in 1959.
Financial security and popular fame came in 1962 with the publication of Ship of Fools, which became a bestseller and was filmed by Hollywood in 1965. The screenplay was written by Abby Mann and directed by Stanley Kramer; actors included Vivien Leigh as Mrs. Treadwell and Elizabeth Ashley as Jenny Brown. Her crowning achievement of the 1960s was the publication of The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter (1965), which received the National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize.
Porter's health gradually deteriorated after the publication of her Collected Stories, but she enjoyed the celebrity status she had attained. She accepted several honorary degrees, including one from the University of Maryland in 1966, and attended White House events during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. In December 1966, Porter announced that she would donate her papers, personal library, and other personal effects to the University of Maryland, where the Katherine Anne Porter Room was dedicated in McKeldin Library on May 15, 1968. She moved to College Park in 1969, in part to be closer to the university and her papers.
Though in declining health, Porter continued to publish during the last decade of her life. A compilation, Collected Essays and Occasional Writings, was published in 1970. Porter travelled to Florida in 1972 to write an essay on the Apollo 17 lunar landing for Playboy, although the piece was never written. In 1974, she named Isabel Bayley, a woman she had met at a Kansas University seminar in 1948, as her literary trustee. The Never-Ending Wrong, a book about the Sacco-Vanzetti affair, came out in 1977. Early that same year, Porter suffered several debilitating strokes, from which she never recovered; her nephew Paul Porter was appointed as legal guardian in the fall. After the strokes, Porter received nursing care around the clock until her long life ended on September 18, 1980.