The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter

  Then there was always Mark Twain, so far as I knew, the only living author of the time. Friends of the family, persons I might actually touch and speak to, had seen him, more than once. We did not have Candide, or the works of Dr. Rabelais, but a fourteen-year-old girl could hear of them and find them and be allowed to borrow them from the public library in a small, West Texas city, San Antonio; moreover, to sit around reading them in the bosom of her family without a soul even troubling to look over her shoulder. In fact I read at home everything that I was not allowed to read in school. We had beside Dr. Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry and Arber English Reprints of Elizabethan poetry, the Confessions of St. Augustine; and Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary complete with notes by Smollett, which took me nine long years to work through from A to Z. I started at eleven years and wound up, a little staggered, the complete skeptic, at twenty. We had every line of verse ever published by Edgar Allan Poe, which we used to sing to tunes of our own. When I was thirteen years old, the beautiful German-born mother of my dearest childhood friend asked me what I was reading. It happened to be Dostoyevsky—The House of the Dead—from the public library. “Oh, my dear child, Dostoyevsky? Of course you must read the Russians, but I will give you something beautiful you will like better.” And she gave me Turgenev’s Torrents of Spring. I read it dutifully, and went back to Dostoyevsky, whose surfaces were easier to grasp, and certainly the surface was all I could grasp at that time. I had to grow up to Turgenev; but then I had to spend a lifetime growing up to the reading I did before I was sixteen. Yet, the transition, at about that time, to Flaubert, to Thomas Hardy, to Henry James, and from thence to James Joyce (Dubliners), W. B. Yeats, Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, T. S. Eliot, and so on, on, came gradually, easily, simply, all in good time, with no sense of shock. It may have been because I had not been told there was a modern movement in literature.

  I had begun to write early, at six years, and invented some fearfully bloodthirsty characters and carried them though interminable, improbable events, in deadly earnest. My family passed them around, reading the richest bits aloud, and laughing their heads off. They gave some of the “nobbles” to friends nearby, who laughed their heads off. Such were my beginnings in my predestined art.

  I will leave out nearly everything about the music, and the wonderful famous old actors and actresses on their last legs who trouped the country in those days in their private trains, playing Shakespeare, Schiller, Alexandre Dumas, Sardou, and Henry Arthur Jones. All the celebrated singers, violinists, and pianists of the world who visited this country stopped at least once in San Antonio, Texas, and even in Austin, and always in New Orleans. They played nobly straight through the wide land in every direction out of New York; there was really no excuse for anyone almost anywhere who could raise half a dollar for a balcony seat not hearing and seeing whatever was going in the regions of the sublime.

  Trainloads of audiences from all the small towns came in when Paderewski played, or Ada Rehan did The Taming of the Shrew, or Madame Modjeska appeared as Mary Stuart, and who would have missed Sarah Bernhardt playing Camille in a tent? I saw and heard all this when I was so young it was just a dazzling troubling dream, I knew nothing of it but the wonder. The wonder was enough. I would go dazed with my head a mere hive of honey-making bees for weeks, months, years. It unfitted me for living as a simple child should, it tormented me with feelings and thoughts beyond my capacity, it urged me to strain against the bonds of childhood and the rules and the limitations, and the company of other children.

  I do not believe that childhood is a happy time, it is a time of desperate cureless bitter griefs and pains, of shattering disillusionments, when everything good and evil alike is happening for the first time, and there is no answer to any question. . . . I was prematurely experienced in the mind, and yet brought up in such a way that I was not allowed even the normal advance in common experience suitable for a growing child. The whole effort of the elders around us was to keep us in total ignorance, so far as they were able, of the actual world we were to live in. But I remember best and most clearly and with love the things I am telling now; they are my true memories, and those experiences in books, in music, in the theater were the real events of my life, my recollections of them is the thin continuous line of consciousness by which I can trace myself, and recognize myself as the same being no matter how endless a series of changing situations.

  Patience, please. I still know where I am and where I am going, my aim being merely to set a very minor biographical error straight, but it looks as if in doing it, I too shall write an autobiography—all because I should like you to know, though you have never asked, just why Mexico City was not my Paris, and why, though I have lived of my own happy choice more than fourteen years out of this country, I was never, for one moment, anywhere, no, not even in the place where I was born, an Exile. And I have discovered, without looking for it, “The Land that is Nowhere—That is the true home.”








  Born Callie Russell Porter, May 15, in Indian Creek, Texas, the fourth child of Harrison Boone Porter (b. 1857, Hays County, Texas) and (Mary) Alice Jones Porter (b. 1859, Guadalupe County, Texas). (Alice Porter, a former schoolteacher, was the second of three children of prosperous farmer John Newton Jones, 1833–1886, and Caroline Lee Frost Jones, b. 1835; she met Harrison Porter, a graduate of the Texas Military Institute, at a family wedding in 1880. In 1883, when Alice’s mother was declared insane, John Jones placed her in private care and moved to Indian Creek, a frontier settlement in Brown County, North Central Texas, where he purchased a 640-acre farm. In 1885, he invited Alice and Harrison, married two years earlier, to join him and Alice’s brothers at the farm, offering them free tenancy on a small farming tract. Harrison Porter was the fourth of 11 children born to Asbury Duval Porter, 1814–1879, a veteran of the Confederate Army, and Catharine Ann Skaggs [“Cat”] Porter, b. 1827, a native of Warren County, Kentucky. Harrison and Alice’s first child, Anna Gay [called “Gay”], was born in 1885, and their second, Harry Ray, in 1887. Their third child, Johnnie, was born in 1889 and died shortly after his first birthday.)


  The Porters’ fifth child, a daughter, born January 25; Alice Porter, always frail, dies March 20. To honor her memory, Harrison christens the infant Mary Alice, but she will always be known as “Baby.” Harrison takes the children to Kyle, a town of 500 in Hays County, to live in the home of his widowed mother, Cat Skaggs Porter. Family divides time between Kyle and Cat’s small farm on nearby Plum Creek.


  Grieving and directionless, Harrison is a distracted and often-absent father. Cat takes charge of the children: she demands obedience, excellent schoolwork, attendance at the local Methodist Church, and good manners. She also instills in Callie the pleasures and powers of storytelling, spinning family tales in which her Skaggs ancestors are larger-than-life figures: her father, Abraham Moredock Skaggs, fought with distinction in the War of 1812; her mother, Rhoda Boone Smith Skaggs, was a descendant of Jonathan Boone, brother of Daniel; her grandfather James Skaggs served under General George Washington; and her great-grandfather Henry Skaggs was an intrepid explorer in the Kentucky territory. “I was fed from birth on myth and legend,” Porter will recall, “and a conviction of natural superiority bestowed by birth and tradition.”


  Educated at home by live-in governesses hired by Cat. Enters Kyle public school and precociously reads everything at hand—selections from McGuffey’s Readers (especially the lives of Cotton Mather and Joan of Arc), dime novels, and “trashy romances.” Attempts to write stories, the earliest an illustrated “nobbel” called “The Hermit of Halifax Cave.” Produces plays on grandmother’s porch. Sings duets with best friend, Erna Victoria Schlemmer, the daughter of prosperous German-immigrant merchants. Taken by
Cat to San Antonio to see traveling performers such as Ignace Paderewski and Helena Modjeska. Devours the 18th-century English classics, including Boswell’s Life of Johnson, Sterne’s Sentimental Journey, and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.


  Distraught by sudden death of Cat, October 2, 1901. Comforted by housekeeper Masella Daney (“Aunt Jane”), a former slave of Cat, and her husband, Squire Bunton. Completes school year in spring 1902, and spends summer at Plum Creek farm. Father disposes of Cat’s estate and takes family on round of visits to Texas and Louisiana relatives. Grows closer to brother and to sister Gay, but resents sister Baby, father’s favorite. Reads all of Shakespeare’s plays and memorizes many of his sonnets.


  Family stays for short period with father’s cousin Ellen Myers Thompson, who with her husband runs a dairy farm in Buda, Texas. Family settles in rented rooms near San Antonio, where Harrison takes a series of temporary jobs. Girls attend various Catholic day schools in San Antonio, and then board at a convent school in New Orleans. Visits Erna Schlemmer in Kyle and is introduced by her mother to works of Russian writers and European artists.


  Family moves to rented house near West End Lake in San Antonio. Girls attend the Thomas School (Methodist) for full academic year. In September 1904, Callie asks family and classmates to call her by new name, “Katherine,” adopted in honor of grandmother Cat. (Harry Ray simultaneously changes his name to “Harrison Paul” and asks that he be called “Paul.”) Reads Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience, and the works of Chaucer and Voltaire. Writes school essay defending woman suffrage. Accompanies father to hear stump speech by Eugene Debs, the Socialist Party candidate for U.S. president. Takes singing lessons at Our Lady of the Lake Convent. Performs dramatic reading of “Lasca,” a ballad about a Texas cowboy and his Mexican sweetheart, in Thomas School commencement program. Urged by drama teacher to consider stage career. Performs with Gay in summer-stock theater at Electric Park in San Antonio. Moves with family to Victoria, Texas, near the Gulf of Mexico, and advertises lessons in “music, dramatic reading, and physical culture” in the Victoria Advocate. Writes stories and sends them to Paul, now a Navy recruit. At Christmas dance, meets John Henry Koontz, the 19-year-old son of a wealthy rancher in nearby Inez.


  Family moves to Lufkin, in East Texas; there, in a double ceremony on June 20, Gay, age 21, marries Thomas H. Holloway, and Katherine, 16, marries John Henry Koontz. Moves to Lafayette, Louisiana, where Koontz works for Southern Pacific Railway. Begins “one long orgy of reading” including works “from the beginning until about 1800,” Nietzsche and Freud, and a dozen re-readings of Wuthering Heights.


  Publicizes herself in the Lafayette Daily Advertiser as “Mrs. J. H. Koontz, Teacher of Elocution, Physical Culture, and English.” Disillusioned in relationship with Koontz, who is tightfisted, verbally and physically abusive, often drunk. Attempts to write stories in the styles of Samuel Johnson and Laurence Sterne and sonnets in the styles of Petrarch and Shakespeare.


  Moves to Houston with Koontz when he is offered a position with a wholesale grocery and cotton-factoring company. Yearns for a child of her own and becomes attached to Koontz’s little niece Mary Koontz.


  Knocked unconscious and thrown down stairs by Koontz; suffers broken bones. Temporarily escapes to home of uncle Asbury M. Porter, in Marfa, Texas.


  Converts to Roman Catholicism, her husband’s faith, in effort to stabilize marriage. Reads and rereads The Confessions of St. Augustine and the lives of the saints, especially Joan, Ursula, Teresa of Ávila, Anne, and Catherine of Siena. Distressed by unabated physical abuse by Koontz. Suffers a miscarriage at end of year.


  Moves to Corpus Christi with Koontz when he takes a job as a traveling salesman. Writes stories and poems during Koontz’s absences. Discovers in a local book and stationery store Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons and James Joyce’s Dubliners.


  In January, poem “Texas: By the Gulf of Mexico,” her first known publication, appears on the cover of Gulf Coast Citrus Fruit Grower and Southern Nurseryman, a trade magazine. Visits Gay in Dallas after Gay’s daughter, Mary Alice, is born in December.


  Undergoes surgery for ovarian cyst. Recuperates at Spring Branch, near Houston, with family friends, the Heinrich von Hillendahls. Weighs the social and financial consequences of leaving Koontz; decides to stay married but instructs Koontz to “take his pleasures elsewhere.” Spends long days with childhood friend Erna Schlemmer, now living in Corpus Christi. Depressed that she has found neither marital happiness nor artistic success.


  In February buys one-way train ticket to Chicago and flees marriage. Works as extra in movies The Song in the Dark and From Out the Wreck. Prose sketch, “How Brother Spoiled a Romance,” published in the Chicago Tribune. Attends performance of J. M. Synge’s Playboy of the Western World by the Abbey Players (“the only memorable artistic experience I had in Chicago”). Returns to Texas to help her widowed sister Baby after the birth of a son, then moves to Gibsland, Louisiana, to help Gay, temporarily abandoned by her philandering husband during a difficult pregnancy. Works the Lyceum circuit in a three-state area as a singer of ballads such as “Bonny Barbara Allen” and “Lord Randall.” Unaware of death of maternal grandmother, Caroline Lee Frost Jones, November 14, at the Southwestern Lunatic Asylum, San Antonio.


  Moves to boarding house at 1520 Ross Avenue, Dallas, and addresses envelopes for $2.50 a day. Divorces Koontz, June 21, and legalizes name as “Katherine Porter.” Marries and soon divorces T. Otto Taskett, a business acquaintance of Koontz. Works as sales clerk at Neiman Marcus. Begins to call herself “Katherine Anne Porter,” completing her identification with grandmother Catharine Ann Skaggs Porter. In November contracts tuberculosis and, destitute and afraid, enters a Dallas County charity hospital.


  With financial assistance from Paul, relocates to the J. B. McKnight sanatorium in Carlsbad, Texas. Finds friend in fellow patient Kitty Barry Crawford, society columnist for the Fort Worth Critic. Transfers to Woodlawn Sanatorium, Dallas, where she teaches tubercular children in exchange for medical care. After discharge from hospital, marries acquaintance Carl von Pless, whom she will divorce within the year.


  Children’s story, “How Baby Talked to the Fairies,” published in the Dallas Morning News. Lives briefly with Gay and her children in Dubach, Louisiana, and is enchanted with niece Mary Alice. At invitation of Kitty Crawford, moves into Fort Worth home of Kitty and her husband, Garfield, and assumes Kitty’s duties as Critic society columnist. Does volunteer publicity work for the Red Cross Corps.


  With financial help from Paul, travels to Denver, Colorado, to strengthen lungs at private sanatorium The Oaks. In summer joins Kitty Crawford in Colorado Springs, where they share a cabin with Kitty’s friends, the writers Jane Anderson and Gilbert Seldes. In September, hired as reporter for the Rocky Mountain News at $15 a week. In early October, nearly dies in hospital during the Spanish flu pandemic; claims near-death experience of euphoria, “what the Christians call the ‘beatific vision,’ and the Greeks called the ‘happy day.’” Recovers in Dubach under Gay’s care, and enjoys Christmas with five-year-old Mary Alice.


  Returns to work at the News, weak and permanently white-haired, and is promoted to drama critic and feature writer; publishes more than 80 signed pieces between February and August. Joins the Denver Players, performs in several of its productions, and is briefly engaged to company manager Park French. In July is grief-stricken at sudden death of niece Mary Alice. Arrives in New York, October 19, determined to write fiction and poetry. Rents studio apartment on Grove Street, in Greenwich Village. Joins sta
ff of Arthur Kane Agency and writes publicity releases for movies. Meets writers Genevieve Taggard, Gertrude Emerson, Rose Wilder Lane, Edmund Wilson, and Edna St. Vincent Millay; radical journalists Kenneth Durant, Mike Gold, and Helen Black; and editors Ernestine Evans, Bessie Beatty, Floyd Dell, and Harold E. Stearns. Enjoys company of several Mexican expatriates—painter Adolfo Best-Maugard, pianist Ignacio Fernández Esperón (Tata Nacho), and poet and critic José Juan Tablada among them—who encourage her to live and work in Mexico.


  Publishes re-told fairy tales in Everyland, a magazine for children, and Asia, a magazine promoting world trade and global understanding. Signs contract with Asia to ghost-write “My Chinese Marriage,” the memoirs of a young midwestern woman, Mae Franking, who in 1912 married an American-educated lawyer from Shanghai and later settled in China. In October, takes train to Mexico City with reporting assignments from the Christian Science Monitor and the prospective Magazine of Mexico. Befriended by American journalist Thorberg Haberman, editor of the English-language section of the daily Heraldo de México, and her husband, Robert, a labor organizer and a speechwriter for Mexican president Alvaro Obregón. Writes articles, reviews, and editorials for the left-wing Heraldo and soon comes under surveillance by U.S. Military Intelligence Division, Bureau of Investigation. Writes public letters and sends money in support of Italian anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, convicted of murdering two payroll clerks during a Massachusetts holdup. Becomes acquainted with President Obregón, cabinet members José Vasconcelos, Plutarco Elías Calles, and Antonio Villarreal, and labor leader Luis Morones, as well as archaeologist William Niven, artist Gerardo Murillo (Dr. Atl), and anthropologist and archaeologist Manuel Gamio. Joins the Mexican Feminist Council. Has brief love affair with Felipe Carillo Puerto, governor of Yucatán.

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