The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter
The many schools he attended, if that is the word, the children he knew there, are perfectly shown in terms of their looks and habits. He was terrorized by the superior talents of those boys who could learn arithmetic, apparently without effort, a branch of learning forever closed to him, as by decree of nature. A boy of his own age, who lived in Geneva, “opened vistas” to him by pronouncing Ohio and Iowa in the French manner: an act of courage as well as correctness which was impressive, surrounded as he was by tough little glaring New Yorkers with stout boots and fists, who were not prepared to be patronized in any such way. Was there anybody he ever thought stupid, he asked himself, if only they displayed some trick of information, some worldly sleight of hand of which he had hitherto been ignorant? On a sightseeing tour at Sing Sing he envied a famous criminal his self-possession, inhabiting as he did a world so perilous and so removed from daily experience. His sense of social distinctions was early in the bud: he recognized a Dowager on sight, at a very tender age. An elegant image of a “great Greek Temple shining over blue waters”—which seems to have been a hotel at New Brighton called the Pavilion—filled him with joy when he was still in his nurse’s arms. He had thought it a finer thing than he discovered it to be, and this habit of thought was to lead him far afield for a good number of years.
For his freedoms were so many, his instructions so splendid, and yet his father’s admirable, even blessed teachings failed to cover so many daily crises of the visible world. The visible world was the one he would have, all his being strained and struggled outward to meet it, to absorb it, to understand it, to be a part of it. The other children asked him to what church he belonged, and he had no answer; for the even more important question, “What does your father do?” or “What business is he in?” no reply had been furnished him for the terrible occasion. His father was no help there, though he tried to be. How could a son explain to his father that it did no good to reply that one had the freedom of all religion, being God’s child; or that one’s father was an author of books and a truth-seeker?
So his education went forward in all directions and on all surfaces and depths. He longed “to be somewhere—almost anywhere would do—and somehow to receive an impression or an accession, feel a relation or a vibration”; while all the time a performance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which gave him his first lesson in ironic appreciation of the dowdy, the overwrought and underdone; or Mrs. Cannon’s mystifyingly polite establishment full of scarfs, handkerchiefs, and colognes for gentlemen, with an impalpable something in the air which hinted at mysteries, and which turned out to be only that gentlemen, some of them cousins, from out of town took rooms there; or the gloomy show of Italian Primitives, all frauds, which was to give him a bad start with painting—such events were sinking into him as pure sensation to emerge from a thousand points in his memory as knowledge.
Knowledge—knowledge at the price of finally, utterly “seeing through” everything—even the fortunate, happy childhood; yet there remained to him, to the very end, a belief in that good which had been shown to him as good in his infancy, embodied in his father and mother. There was a great deal of physical beauty in his family, and it remained the kind that meant beauty to him: the memory of his cousin Minnie Temple, the face of his sister Alice in her last photograph, these were the living images of his best-loved heroines; the love he early understood as love never betrayed him and was love at the latest day; the extraordinarily sensitive, imaginative excitements of first admirations and friendships turned out to be not perhaps so much irreplaceable as incomparable. What I am trying to say is that so far as we are able to learn, nothing came to supplant or dislocate in any way those early affections and attachments and admirations.
This is not to say he never grew up with them, for they expanded with his growth, and as he grew his understanding gave fresh life to them; nor that he did not live to question them acutely, to inquire as to their nature and their meaning, for he did; but surely no one ever projected more lovingly and exactly the climate of youth, of budding imagination, the growth of the tender, perceptive mind, the particular freshness and keenness of feeling, the unconscious generosity and warmth of heart of the young brought up in the innocence which is their due, and the sweet illusion of safety, dangerous because it must be broken at great risk. He survived all, and made it his own, and used it with that fullness and boldness and tenderness and intent reverence which is the sum of his human qualities, indivisible from his sum as artist. For though no writer ever “grew up” more completely than Henry James, and “saw through” his own illusions with more sobriety and pure intelligence, still there lay in the depths of his being the memory of a lost paradise; it was in the long run the standard by which he measured the world he learned so thoroughly, accepted in certain ways—the ways of a civilized man with his own work to do—after such infinite pains: or pangs, as he would have called them, that delight in deep experience which at a certain point is excruciating, and by the uninstructed might be taken for pain itself. But the origin is different, it is not inflicted, not even invited, it comes under its own power and the end is different; and the pang is not suffering, it is delight.
Henry James knew about this, almost from the beginning. Here is his testimony: “I foresee moreover how little I shall be able to resist, throughout these notes, the force of persuasion expressed in the individual vivid image of the past wherever encountered, these images having always such terms of their own, such subtle secrets and insidious arts for keeping us in relation with them, for bribing us by the beauty, the authority, the wonder of their saved intensity. They have saved it, they seem to say to us, from such a welter of death and darkness and ruin that this alone makes a value and a light and a dignity for them. . . . Not to be denied also, over and above this, is the downright pleasure of the illusion yet again created, the apparent transfer from the past to the present of the particular combination of things that did at its hour ever so directly operate and that isn’t after all then drained of virtue, wholly wasted and lost, for sensation, for participation in the act of life, in the attesting sights, sounds, smells, the illusion, as I say, of the recording senses.”
Brother William remained Big Brother to the end, though Henry learned to stand up to him manfully when the philosopher invaded the artist’s territory. But William could not help being impatient with all this reminiscence, and tried to discourage Henry when he began rummaging through his precious scrapbags of bright fragments, patching them into the patterns before his mind’s eye. William James was fond of a phrase of his philosopher friend Benjamin Paul Blood: “There is no conclusion. What has concluded, that we might conclude in regard to it?”
That is all very well for philosophy, and it has within finite limits the sound of truth as well as simple fact—no man has ever seen any relations concluded. Maybe that is why art is so endlessly satisfactory: the artist can choose his relations, and “draw, by a geometry of his own, the circle within which they shall happily appear to do so.” While accomplishing this, one has the illusion that destiny is not absolute, it can be arranged, temporized with, persuaded, a little here and there. And once the circle is truly drawn around its contents, it too becomes truth.
First version: July, 1943
Revised: 27 February 1952
Reflections on Willa Cather
I NEVER knew her at all, nor anyone who did know her; do not to this day. When I was a young writer in New York I knew she was there, and sometimes wished that by some charming chance I might meet up with her; but I never did, and it did not occur to me to seek her out. I had never felt that my condition of beginning authorship gave me a natural claim on the attention of writers I admired, such as Henry James and W. B. Yeats. Some proper instinct told me that all of any importance they had to say to me was in their printed pages, mine to use as I could. Still it would have been nice to have seen them, just to remember how they looked. There are three or four great ones, gone now, that I feel, too late, I should not have missed. Willa
There exist large numbers of critical estimates of her work, appreciations; perhaps even a memoir or two, giving glimpses of her personal history—I have never read one. She was not, in the popular crutch-word to describe almost any kind of sensation, “exciting”; so far as I know, nobody, not even one of the Freudian school of critics, ever sat up nights with a textbook in one hand and her works in the other, reading between the lines to discover how much sexual autobiography could be mined out of her stories. I remember only one photograph—Steichen’s—made in middle life, showing a plain smiling woman, hers arms crossed easily over a girl scout sort of white blouse, with a ragged part in her hair. She seemed, as the French say, “well seated” and not very outgoing. Even the earnestly amiable, finely shaped eyes, the left one faintly askew, were in some mysterious way not expressive, lacking as they did altogether that look of strangeness which a strange vision is supposed to give to the eye of any real artist, and very often does. One doesn’t have to be a genius absolutely to get this look, it is often quite enough merely to believe one is a genius; and to have had the wild vision only once is enough—the afterlight stays, even if, in such case, it is phosphorescence instead of living fire.
Well, Miss Cather looks awfully like somebody’s big sister, or maiden aunt, both of which she was. No genius ever looked less like one, according to the romantic popular view, unless it was her idol, Flaubert, whose photographs could pass easily for those of any paunchy country squire indifferent to his appearance. Like him, none of her genius was in her looks, only in her works. Flaubert was a good son, adoring uncle of a niece, devoted to his friends, contemptuous of the mediocre, obstinate in his preferences, fiercely jealous of his privacy, unyielding to the death in his literary principles and not in the slightest concerned with what was fashionable. No wonder she loved him. She had been rebuffed a little at first, not by his astronomical standards in art—none could be too high for her—but by a certain coldness of heart in him. She soon got over that; it became for her only another facet of his nobility of mind.
Very early she had learned to reverence that indispensable faculty of aspiration of the human mind toward perfection called, in morals and the arts, nobility. She was born to the idea and brought up in it: first in a comfortable farmhouse in Virginia, and later, the eldest of seven children, in a little crowded ranch house in Nebraska. She had, as many American country people did have in those times and places, literate parents and grandparents, soundly educated and deeply read, educated, if not always at schools, always at their own firesides. Two such, her grandmothers, taught her from her infancy. Her sister, Mrs. Auld, in Palo Alto, California, told it like this:
“She mothered us all, took care of us, and there was a lot to do in such a big family. She learned Greek and Latin from our grandmothers before she ever got to go to school. She used to go, after we lived in Red Cloud, to read Latin and Greek with a little old man who kept a general store down the road. In the evenings for entertainment—there was nowhere to go, you know, almost nothing to see or hear—she entertained us, it was good as a theater for us! She told us long stories, some she made up herself, and some were her versions of legends and fairy tales she had read; she taught us Greek mythology this way, Homer, and tales from the Old Testament. We were all story tellers,” said her sister, “all of us wanted to be the one to tell the stories, but she was the one who told them. And we loved to listen all of us to her, when maybe we would not have listened to each other.”
She was not the first nor the last American writer to be formed in this system of home education; at one time it was the customary education for daughters, many of them never got to school at all or expected to; but they were capable of educating their grandchildren, as this little history shows. To her last day Willa Cather was the true child of her plain-living, provincial farming people, with their aristocratic ways of feeling and thinking; poor, but not poverty-stricken for a moment; rock-based in character, a character shaped in an old school of good manners, good morals, and the unchallenged assumption that classic culture was their birthright; the belief that knowledge of great art and great thought was a good in itself not to be missed for anything; she subscribed to it all with her whole heart, and in herself there was the vein of iron she had inherited from a long line of people who had helped to break wildernesses and to found a new nation in such faiths. When you think of the whole unbelievable history, how did anything like this survive? Yet it did, and this life is one of the proofs.
I have not much interest in anyone’s personal history after the tenth year, not even my own. Whatever one was going to be was all prepared for before that. The rest is merely confirmation, extension, development. Childhood is the fiery furnace in which we are melted down to essentials and that essential shaped for good. While I have been reading again Willa Cather’s essays and occasional papers, and thinking about her, I remembered a sentence from the diaries of Anne Frank, who died in the concentration camp in Bergen-Belsen just before she was sixteen years old. At less than fifteen, she wrote: “I have had a lot of sorrow, but who hasn’t, at my age?”
In Miss Cather’s superb little essay on Katherine Mansfield, she speaks of childhood and family life: “I doubt whether any contemporary writer has made one feel more keenly the many kinds of personal relations which exist in an everyday ‘happy family’ who are merely going on with their daily lives, with no crises or shocks or bewildering complications. . . . Yet every individual in that household (even the children) is clinging passionately to his individual soul, is in terror of losing it in the general family flavor. . . the mere struggle to have anything of one’s own, to be oneself at all, creates an element of strain which keeps everybody almost at breaking point.
“. . . Even in harmonious families there is this double life. . . the one we can observe in our neighbor’s household, and, underneath, another—secret and passionate and intense —which is the real life that stamps the faces and gives character to the voices of our friends. Always in his mind each member is escaping, running away, trying to break the net which circumstances and his own affections have woven about him. One realizes that human relationships are the tragic necessity of human life; that they can never be wholly satisfactory, that every ego is half the time greedily seeking them, and half the time pulling away from them.”
This is masterly and water-clear and autobiography enough for me: my mind goes with tenderness to the lonely slow-moving girl who happened to be an artist coming back from reading Latin and Greek with the old storekeeper, helping with the housework, then sitting by the fireplace to talk down an assertive brood of brothers and sisters, practicing her art on them, refusing to be lost among them—the longest-winged one who would fly free at last.
I am not much given to reading about authors, or not until I have read what they have to say for themselves. I found Willa Cather’s books for myself, early, and felt no need for intermediaries between me and them. My reading went on for a good many years, one by one as they appeared: O Pioneers!; The Song of the Lark; My Ántonia; Youth and the Bright Medusa; Death Comes for the Archbishop; Obscure Destinies; just these, and no others, I do not know why, and never anything since, until I read her notebooks about two years ago. Those early readings began in Texas, just before World War I, before ever I left home; they ended in Paris, twenty years later, after the longest kind of journey.
With her first book I was reading also Henry James, W. B. Yeats, Joseph Conrad, my introduction to “modern” literature, for I was brought up on solid reading, too, well aged. About the same time I read Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, for sale at a little bookshop with a shoeshine stand outside; inside you could find magazines, books, newspapers in half-a-dozen languages, avant-garde and radical and experimental; this in a Texas coast town of less than ten thousand population but very polyglot and full of world travelers. I could make little headway with Miss Stein beyond the title. It was plain that she meant “tender buds” and I wondered w
By the time I reached Paris, I had done my long apprenticeship, published a small book of my own, and had gone like a house afire through everything “new”—that word meant something peculiar to the times—absolutely everything “new” that was being published; also in music; also painting. I considered almost any painting with the varnish still wet, the artist standing by, so to speak, as more interesting than anything done even the year before. But some of the painters were Klee, Juan Gris, Modigliani. . . . I couldn’t listen to music happily if it wasn’t hot from the composer’s brain, preferably conducted or played by himself. Still, some of the music was Stravinsky’s and Béla Bartók’s and Poulenc’s. I was converted to the harpsichord by the first New York recital of Wanda Landowska. In the theater I preferred dress rehearsals, or even just rehearsals, to the finished performance; I was mad about the ballet and took lessons off and on with a Russian for two years; I even wrote a ballet libretto way back in 1920 for a young Mexican painter and scene designer who gave the whole thing to Pavlova, who danced it in many countries but not in New York, because the scenery was done on paper, was inflammable and she was not allowed to use it in New York. I saw photographs, however, and I must say they did not look in the least like anything I had provided for in the libretto. It was most unsatisfactory.