The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter
Keeping these things well in mind, Miss Brenner has written a rather light sketch of the whole period, hitting the high spots only but choosing the spots so tactfully that the plot is never lost; and though I have known the story, and for many years, so well it is possible I fill in the gaps as I go, yet I like to feel that the reader who knows little can find here a clear statement, a logical exposition, that will serve safely as a starting point if he wishes to pursue this history further. The facts are straight so far as they go, the deep, underlying motives of the whole restless and aspiring period are understood and explained, but I think Miss Brenner yields again to her old temptation to give too pretty and simple a picture—for, mind you, this terrible little story she tells is a mere bedtime lullaby beside the reality—and in general, to treat individual villains, whom she really knows to be such, too gently. A few scorching lines it seems to me might have been devoted to, for example, Alberto Pani’s career as Foreign Minister. I think the deeds of some of the oil companies could have been exposed with somewhat more vigor. The betrayal of Felipe Carillo-Puerto might have been clarified to the great benefit of the story. Yet, within the limitations of space—the story is only 100 pages long—the author has performed prodigies of condensation, and within the more multiple and complicated limitations of the present international political situation, she has perhaps ventured as far as she might and still have her book published at all.
The best thing is, she realizes the importance of easy relations between Mexico and the United States just now, and the dangers, too; for, as she says frankly, this being the point of the book, that as the diplomatic and other understandings between the United States and the Mexican governments grow amiable, the Mexican people grow uneasy for their own prospects of freedom; and they may well do so, for Lavals and Pétains do not grow only in France. The Mexican people have been handed over to the invaders by their own leaders before, and they are not so childish as to think it cannot happen again. Invasion takes many forms, and they have experienced most of them.
Mr. Leighton’s collection of pictures is distinguished, realistic; with extracts from Miss Brenner’s texts, they could stand as a book by themselves. . . . They tell the story all over again and in some ways more boldly, of a whole race disinherited in its own country and fighting against desperate odds. Besides being superior photography, chosen with a fine sense of form and progression, these pictures lack entirely the slickness, the made-to-order look, of too much of the photography in this present war, which gives the impression that the man with the camera has instructions to shoot from only certain angles and no others: “A little,” wrote a friend not long ago, “as if this war were something being produced by M.G.M.” Happily, these Mexican pictures were made before that period set in. They have a wonderfully casual air; the man with the camera took what he saw before him, whatever it happened to be, not thinking, apparently, whether it would be good propaganda or not. . . . It turns out that he made the most convincing, most moving kind of straight narrative; and, oh, the faces. . . . It seems to me one need not be partisan; one need only to be human in the most average way, not to see what was bound to happen, comparing, let’s say, just the face of Zapata (in Tina Modotti’s masterly working out of an old negative) with that of Archbishop Pascual Diaz; or of Hearst with that of Obregon, taken when his shattered arm was healing, and not to be able to know at once which side one is on, now and forever. . . .
About the Author
Autobiographical sketch for
Authors Today and Yesterday, edited by Stanley J. Kunitz
with Howard Haycraft and Wilbur C. Hadden.
New York: The H. W. Wilson Co., 1933.
I WAS born May 15, 1894, at Indian Creek, Texas, brought up in Texas and Louisiana, and educated in small southern schools for girls. I was precocious, nervous, rebellious, unteachable, and made life very uncomfortable for myself, and I suppose for those around me. In fact, simply a certain type of child. As soon as I learned to form letters on paper, at about three years, I began to write stories, and this has been the basic and absorbing occupation, the intact line of my life which directs my actions, determines my point of view, profoundly affects my character and personality, my social beliefs and economic status, and the kind of friendships I form. I did not choose this vocation, and if I had had any say in the matter, I would not have chosen it. I made no attempt to publish anything until about ten years ago, but I have written and destroyed manuscripts quite literally by the trunkful. I say trunkful because I have spent fifteen years wandering about, weighted horribly with masses of paper and little else. Yet for this vocation I was and am willing to live and die, and I consider very few other things of the slightest importance.
All my intense growing years were lived completely outside of literary centers; I knew no other writers and had no one to consult with on the single vital issue of my life. This self-imposed isolation, which seems to have been almost unconscious on my part, a natural way of living, prolonged and made more difficult my discipline as artist. But it saved me from discipleship, personal influences, and membership in groups. I began to read at about five years and have read ever since, but my reading until my twenty-fifth year was the most important, being a grand sweep of all English and translated classics from the beginning up to about 1800. And then I began with the newcomers, and found new incitements.
Within the past dozen years I have lived in New Orleans, Chicago, Denver, Mexico City, New York, Bermuda, Berlin, Basel, and now live in Paris, and in all these places I have done book-reviewing, political articles, hack writing of all kinds for newspapers, editing, re-writing other people’s manuscripts, by way of earning a living, and a sorry living it was, too. Without the help of devoted friends I should have perished many times over.
My short stories have been published by Century, transition, the New Masses, the Second American Caravan, the Gyroscope, Scribner’s, and the Hound and Horn; poems in Measure and Pagany. A small collection of short stories was published in 1930 under the title of Flowering Judas. In 1931 I received a Guggenheim Fellowship for writing abroad and as this is written I am still working on my novel Many Redeemers which I began in Mexico years ago. A book of old French songs which I translated last year will be published in Paris this summer. I have also resumed work on a study of Cotton Mather, which I began in 1927, got half way thru, and had to give up for other work.
Politically my bent is to the Left. As for esthetic bias, my one aim is to tell a straight story and to give true testimony. My personal life has been the jumbled and apparently irrelevant mass of experiences which can only happen, I think, to a woman who goes with her mind permanently absent from the place where she is. My physical eye is unnaturally far-sighted, and I have no doubt this affects my temperament in some way. I have very little time sense and almost no sense of distance. I have no sense of direction and have seen a great deal of the world by getting completely lost and simply taking in the scenery as I roamed about getting my bearings. I lack entirely a respect for money values, and for caste of any kind, social or intellectual or whatever. I have a personal and instant interest in every human being that comes within ten feet of me, and I have never seen any two alike, but I discover the most marvelous differences. It is the same with furred animals. I love best remembered landscapes two or three countries away. I should like to settle to live in a place where I might swim in the sea, sail a cat boat, and ride horseback. These are the only recreations I really care for, and they all take a good deal of elbow room. Not for nothing am I the great-great-great-grand daughter of Daniel Boone.
This spring in Paris I married Eugene Pressly, originally from Pennsylvania, and we plan to live here for several years.
The Land That Is Nowhere
FINALLY, after some meditation, I have made up my mind to be a good Christian for once and forgive a certain critic with whom I have had a friendly if somewhat random acquaintance for, as the
Let me begin again. This is difficult. I forgive that critic here and now, and forever, for calling me a “newspaper woman,” in the public prints. I consider it actionable libel, but, as is too often the case in these incidents, he has a small patch of solid ground under him, which I am going to make a cheerful roundabout attempt to cut away. Fifty-odd years ago, for eight short months of my ever-lengthening (or shortening?) life, I did have a kind of job on a newspaper, the Rocky Mountain News, in Denver, Colorado. On the advice of a doctor, I had gone there as to a climate suitable for my lungs, which had been misdiagnosed as tubercular. Naturally while taking the cure and doing my apprentice writing I had also to find a job of some sort; the city editor recklessly hired me, and though he was much too good-tempered a man to say so, it is fairly certain he lived to regret it. I too regret it, if the fame of it is to stick to me for the rest of my days. It was the first of quite dozens of temporary low-salaried breathing spaces between one crisis and another. But never a second newspaper job. For though now I recollect in what, for me, is comparative tranquillity, life, on the whole, has consisted mostly of crises, never two alike, resolved by whatever means were handiest, which led inevitably to another crisis which was resolved, which led. . . .
The critic’s second error is more serious. He shares, with his literary contemporaries and fellow pilgrims of that strange American migration to Europe during the 1920’s, a passion for the too-early autobiography, the premature summing up, the pronouncing of verdicts and passing of sentences before the evidence is all in: the cropping of living histories to fit them into a pattern. We none of us know each other’s stories well enough to venture conclusions about them. We do not even each of us know our own, because we do not know the end.
In the epilogue to his republished memoirs, first written when he was a tired Old Master of thirty-three, more or less, our critic, nevertheless, attempts to set all American writers or painters or critics who happened to travel during that ill-starred decade into a careful theory of motive: self-willed exile in search of life; flight, pursuit, return. Sometime later, as an afterthought, he accounts for my absence, hitherto unnoticed, from the crowded European scene of that hour by concluding: “Mexico City was her Paris, and Taxco her South of France.”
After trying at length and in vain to chase this mad logic from its untenable conclusion back, back to the lair of its fantastic premise, I am able only to say: No. Mexico City was my well-loved Mexico City, and Taxco was my abomination. I never saw that town until my last year in Mexico; it was already neatly divided in three, among an American lady (Natalie Scott) speculating in real estate, an American gentleman (William Spratling) who ran an art silverworks factory with Indian workmen, and a few charming Mexican high-career politicians such as Moises Saenz, Minister of Public Charities, who decreed some very rococo pleasure domes in the most picturesque locations. Paris for me is the city I did not arrive at until January, 1932, because until then I had no occasion to be there, and I have yet to see the South of France, though I have heard a great deal about it, from Ford Madox Ford and Janice Biala. I was never one for viewing scenery as such, or for visiting around among friends; if I traveled extensively, it was only on lawful occasions, for I was ever under the necessity of earning, if not exactly a living, a subsistence. Descendant as I am of a vast tribe of nomads who in the course of less than a century, from 1648 to 1720, according to family records, migrated in swarms from England to America, from Virginia and Pennsylvania to the South in 1774 and on to the Southwest around 1850, the field farthest from me always looked the greenest and still does. I am sure my own temperament is in some way to blame for the curious fact that people have so often been willing to pay me to go away on an errand, or having gone, they have often paid me to come back on another. So when I bought a ticket for any place, it was for a sound reason, and I always knew where I was going, and why. The one thing never certain was how or when I should get back, the least disturbing of all questions to me—I like going onward. Being a writer by vocation and by fate, a fate I had no chance of escaping by any sort of strategy—I carried my breathing life with me wherever I went, and that is an indestructible hearthstone.
Since I had to support my writing by working at other things, my main concern was always to allow myself as much margin of time and energy as was available between my succession of weird chores. On the day enough money had been saved to sit down and work for a while, I dropped whatever I was doing and disappeared. Yet the margins were narrow, the energy unstable. All my early work up to the publishing of my first book was done in these conditions, and a great deal of it since. If they were sometimes dismaying, yet they seemed inevitable, for I had not regarded writing either as career or profession—it was the thing I did, the stipulated work of my life. Nobody had promised me anything for it, and it is inexplicable how little, in a worldly way, I expected from it. Yet I worked as well as I was able, in a constant, irrational, mystical state of hope that in the end, by some grace from whatever source, or some faculty not yet revealed in me, I might become a good artist. That is still my hope.
The appearance of my first book in 1930 led to the grant of a Guggenheim Fellowship in literature. In those days it was good form on receiving this fellowship to leave wherever you were and go somewhere else, the farther away the better. It gave Americans specializing in many fields a modest version of the classic Grand Tour, or a partial substitute for a year or two in a foreign school or university—a good idea. I was in Mexico at the time, where in several visits, from late 1920, I had spent altogether more than five years. Happy to go, I dismembered my lightly assembled household, sold the scraps of furniture I had bought from the National Pawnshop, rendered up the remaining livestock (two ducks and one infant goat) as burnt offerings in farewell feasts to friends, and left the dear country of my predilection and childhood associations once and for all, as it seems now, for I did not go back for thirty years, and had no reason to believe that I should ever (I have twice since, short visits, tours of duty, culturally speaking, for the State Department). At last I had the perfect reason for being in Europe. I went first to Berlin, to Paris, then to Madrid, then to Basel, then back to Paris, where I stopped short for five years; three of them were lived in “the pavillon or summer house, that stood in the courtyard of 70 bis rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs, near the Luxembourg Gardens,” where Ezra Pound lived in 1923 when young men-of-letters eagerly went to call on him.
My husband and I were merely looking for a house; after a long search we found this delightful place, and learned only after we had moved in that it was simply stiff with literary history. Our concierge did not remember Mr. Pound, I daresay the only person who ever saw him who didn’t, but she did recall an unfortunate American monsieur who had committed suicide very untidily, not to say inconsiderately, in one of the back ateliers; she remembered him gratefully, though, because he had left a cat who had proved to be ever since the joy of her days.
From my earliest recollection I had known that some day I should live in Paris; it was not even a daydream, merely one of the splendid things I was certain would happen when I grew up. Well, there I was, living in Paris, and it was splendid, though my definition of splendor had changed almost right about face with time. Also the ’twenties in Paris, about which everyone had read so much, were safely past, or so I believed. What a mistake that was.
E. M. Forster once wrote about Conrad: “He has no respect for adventure, unless it comes incidentally. If pursued for its own sake it leads to ‘red noses and watery eyes,’ and ‘lays a man under no obligation of faithfulness to an idea’.”
One thing is certain, I never had any notion of looking for adventure; just plain daily experience was more than I could handle. All I wanted was to live pleasantly with a good, long work table and a bright light over it. All sorts of people kept getting in the way of this plan, too simple and reasonable to carry through. And another thing I know well, wherever
I was nourished almost incidentally on good literature, good music, and good art without ever being told it was great, or even good. It was what one read and heard and looked at to the exclusion of everything else. If one pulled out a battered, spine-broken, gotch-eared book, from any shelf or secretary or old cedar chest, it was inevitably an early translation of Dante’s complete works, or one of half a dozen volumes of Shakespeare’s plays, or the sonnets with marginal notes in twenty different handwritings, or Marlowe’s plays, or Erasmus’s The Praise of Folly, or the Letters of Madame de Sévigné, or the poems of Alexander Pope, or Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, or Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson, or Gulliver’s Travels (not the one rewritten for children), or the Essays of Montaigne, or novels, such as Tristram Shandy. Laurence Sterne was the first author I ever read who made me feel that I, too, might some day become a real author, such is the incredible two-facedness of that man. Wuthering Heights, and Anna Karenina, for some reason, together with the letters of Heloise and Abelard, gave me my first inklings of the nature of love—mainly it was painfully disturbing and caused troubles of an extremely serious nature, and was not to be invited lightly, though it was clear that almost no one declined the gambit.