The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter

  Since then, the Writers’ Conference has become a thriving domestic industry: sure enough, there have been no miracles. The effect has been to increase by the thousand the number of those who write, and there is almost no writer so bad (or so good!) that he cannot find a publisher. What the family magazines, regular publishers, literary reviews, cannot absorb, the paperback books and the anthologies can, and do. Processions of publishers’ scouts visit the “creative writing” courses in hundreds of universities and colleges. Strolling bands of older critics, poets, novelists yearly ride circuit on writers’ conferences in dozens of colleges and universities. I dare say prizes, grants, fellowships for every kind of writing there is number yearly into the hundreds. A brilliant young writer, William Styron, recently remarked in effect that this is not the Lost Generation, but the subsidized one. (There never was a lost generation of artists—that is only a cheerful myth, by the way.) I am happy to see four hundred and ninety-nine promising young writers comfortably provided for while they reach their level, for the sake of that one indispensable first-rater, even maybe a genius, we all look for and hope for. And don’t worry, he will come, he always does. Usually only one or two in a century, now and then in a cluster or galaxy, in a well spring of richness, but he does not fail. In the present fevered rush to publish just anything and anybody, and all the critics hailing all writing on his own level of understanding as great, with books and poets of the year, of the month, of the hour, of the minute, we can get a little confused. Be calm. The real poet, the real novelist, will emerge out of the uproar. He will be here, he is even now on his way.


  The Situation of the Writer


  Responses to questions asked by Partisan Review

  1. Are you conscious, in your own writing, of the existence of a “usable past”? Is this mostly American? What figures would you designate as elements in it? Would you say, for example, that Henry James’s work is more relevant to the present and future of American writing than Walt Whitman’s?

  All my past is “usable,” in the sense that my material consists of memory, legend, personal experience, and acquired knowledge. They combine in a constant process of re-creation. I am quite unable to separate the influence of literature or the history of literary figures from influences of background, upbringing, ancestry; or to say just what is American and what is not. On one level of experience and a very important one, I could write an autobiography based on my reading until I was twenty-five.

  Henry James and Walt Whitman are relevant to the past and present of American literature or of any other literature. They are world figures, they are both artists, it is better not to mortgage the future by excluding either. Be certain that if the present forces and influences bury either of them, the future will dig him up again. The James-minded and the Whitman-minded people have both the right to their own kind of nourishment.

  For myself I choose James, holding as I do with the conscious, disciplined artist, the serious expert against the expansive, indiscriminately “cosmic” sort. James, I believe, was the better workman, the more advanced craftsman, a better thinker, a man with a heavier load to carry than Whitman. His feelings are deeper and more complex than Whitman’s; he had more confusing choices to make, he faced and labored over harder problems. I am always thrown off by arm-waving and shouting, I am never convinced by breast-beating or huge shapeless statements of generalized emotion. In particular, I think the influence of Whitman on certain American writers has been disastrous, for he encourages them in the vices or self-love (often disguised as love of humanity, or the working classes, or God), the assumption of prophetic powers, of romantic superiority to the limitations of craftsmanship, inflated feeling and slovenly expression.

  Neither James nor Whitman is more relevant to the present and future of American literature than, say, Hawthorne or Melville, Stephen Crane or Emily Dickinson; or for that matter, any other first-rank poet or novelist or critic of any time or country. James or Whitman? The young writer will only confuse himself, neglect the natural sources of his education as artist, cramp the growth of his sympathies, by lining up in such a scrimmage. American literature belongs to the great body of world literature, it should be varied and free to flow into what channels the future shall open; all attempts to limit and exclude at this early day would be stupid, and I sincerely hope, futile. If a young artist must choose a master to admire and emulate, that choice should be made according to his own needs from the widest possible field and after a varied experience of study. By then perhaps he shall have seen the folly of choosing a master. One suggestion: artists are not political candidates; and art is not an arena for gladiatorial contests.

  2. Do you think of yourself as writing for a definite audience? If so, how would you describe this audience? Would you say that the audience for serious American writing has grown or contracted in the last ten years?

  In the beginning I was not writing for any audience, but spent a great while secretly and with great absorption trying to master a craft, to find a medium; my respect for this medium and the masters of it—no two of them alike—is very great. My search was all for the clearest and most arresting way to tell the things I wished to tell. I still do not write for any definite audience, though perhaps I have in mind a kind of composite reader.

  It appears to me that the audience for serious American writing has grown in the past ten years. This opinion is based on my own observation of an extended reputation, a widening sphere of influence, an increasing number of readers, among poets, novelists, and critics of our first rank.

  It is true that I place great value on certain kinds of perceptive criticism but neither praise nor blame affects my actual work, for I am under a compulsion to write as I do; when I am working I forget who approved and who dispraised, and why. The worker in an art is dyed in his own color, it is useless to ask him to change his faults or his virtues; he must, rather more literally than most men, work out his own salvation. No novelist or poet could possibly ask himself, while working: “What will a certain critic think of this? Will this be acceptable to my publisher? Will this do for a certain magazine? Will my family and friends approve of this?” Imagine what that would lead to. . . . And how much worse, if he must be thinking, “What will my political cell or block think of this? Am I hewing to the party line? Do I stand to lose my job, or head, on this?” This is really the road by which the artist perishes.

  3. Do you place much value on the criticism your work has received? Would you agree that the corruption of the literary supplements by advertising—in the case of the newspapers—and political pressures—in the case of the liberal weeklies—has made serious literary criticism an isolated cult?

  As to criticism being an isolated cult, for the causes you suggest or any other, serious literary criticism was never a crowded field; it cannot be produced by a formula or in bulk any more than can good poetry or fiction. It is not, any more than it ever was, the impassioned concern of a huge public. Proportionately to number, both of readers and publishers, there are as many good critics who have a normal audience as ever. We are discussing the art of literature and the art of criticism, and this has nothing to do with the vast industry of copious publishing, and hasty reviewing, under pressure from the advertising departments, or political pressure. It is a pernicious system: but I surmise the same kind of threat to freedom in a recently organized group of revolutionary artists who are out to fight and suppress if they can, all “reactionary” artists—that is, all artists who do not subscribe to their particular political faith.

  4. Have you found it possible to make a living by writing the sort of thing you want to, and without the aid of such crutches as teaching and editorial work? Do you think there is any place in our present economic system for literature as a profession?

  No, there has not been a living in it, so far. The history of literature, musical composition, painting shows there has never been a living in art, e
xcept by flukes of fortune; by weight of long, cumulative reputation, or generosity of a patron; a prize, a subsidy, a commission of some kind; or (in the American style) anonymous and shamefaced hackwork; in the English style, a tradition of hackwork, openly acknowledged if deplored. The grand old English hack is a melancholy spectacle perhaps, but a figure not without dignity. He is a man who sticks by his trade, does the best he can with it on its own terms, and abides by the consequences of his choice, with a kind of confidence in his way of life that has some merit, certainly.

  Literature as a profession? It is a profession, and the professional literary man is on his own as any other professional man is.

  If you mean, is there any place in our present economic system for the practice of literature as a source of steady income and economic security, I should say, no. There never has been, in any system, any guarantee of economic security for the artist, unless he took a job and worked under orders as other men do for a steady living. In the arts, you simply cannot secure your bread and your freedom of action too. You cannot be a hostile critic of society and expect society to feed you regularly. The artist of the present day is demanding (I think childishly) that he be given, free, a great many irreconcilable rights and privileges. He wants as a right freedoms which the great spirits of all time have had to fight and often to die for. If he wants freedom, let him fight and die for it too, if he must, and not expect it to be handed to him on a silver plate.

  5. Do you find, in retrospect, that your writing reveals any allegiance to any group, class, organization, region, religion, or system of thought, or do you conceive of it as mainly the expression of yourself as an individual?

  I find my writing reveals all sorts of sympathies and interests which I had not formulated exactly to myself; “the expression of myself as an individual” has never been my aim. My whole attempt has been to discover and understand human motives, human feelings, to make a distillation of what human relations and experiences my mind has been able to absorb. I have never known an uninteresting human being, and I have never known two alike; there are broad classifications and deep similarities, but I am interested in the thumbprint. I am passionately involved with these individuals who populate all these enormous migrations, calamities; who fight wars and furnish life for the future; these beings without which, one by one, all the “broad movements of history” could never take place. One by one—as they were born.

  6. How would you describe the political tendency of American writing as a whole since 1930? How do you feel about it yourself? Are you sympathetic to the current tendency toward what may be called “literary nationalism”—a renewed emphasis, largely uncritical, on the specifically “American” elements in our culture?

  Political tendency since 1930 has been to the last degree a confused, struggling, drowning-man-and-straw sort of thing, stampede of panicked crowd, each man trying to save himself—one at a time trying to work out his horrible confusions. How do I feel about it? I suffer from it, and I try to work my way out to some firm ground of personal belief, as the others do. I have times of terror and doubt and indecision, I am confused in all the uproar of shouting maddened voices and the flourishing of death-giving weapons. . . . I should like to save myself, but I have no assurance that I can, for if the victory goes as it threatens, I am not on that side.* The third clause of this question I find biased. Let me not be led away by your phrase “largely uncritical” in regard to the “emphasis on specifically American” elements in our culture. If we become completely uncritical and nationalistic, it will be the most European state of mind we could have. I hope we may not. I hope we shall have balance enough to see ourselves plainly, and choose what we shall keep and what discard according to our own needs; not be rushed into fanatic self-love and self-praise as a defensive measure against assaults from abroad. I think the “specifically American” things might not be the worst things for us to cultivate, since this is America, and we are Americans, and our history is not altogether disgraceful. The parent stock is European, but this climate has its own way with transplantations, and I see no cause for grievance in that.

  7. Have you considered the question of your attitude toward the possible entry of the United States into the next world war? What do you think the responsibilities of writers in general are when and if war comes?

  I am a pacifist. I should like to say now, while there is still time and place to speak, without inviting immediate disaster (for I love life), to my mind the responsibility of the artist toward society is the plain and simple responsibility of any other human being, for I refuse to separate the artist from the human race: his prime responsibility “when and if war comes” is not to go mad. Madness takes many subtle forms, it is the old deceiver. I would say, don’t be betrayed into all the old outdated mistakes. If you are promised something new and blissful at the mere price of present violence under a new master, first examine these terms carefully. New ideas call for new methods, the old flaying, drawing, and quartering for the love of God and the King will not do. If the method is the same, trust yourself, the idea is old, too. If you are required to kill someone today, on the promise of a political leader that someone else shall live in peace tomorrow, believe me, you are not only a double murderer, you are a suicide, too.



  Response to a question asked by Books Abroad

  One of the most disquieting by-products of the world disorders of the past few years has been the displacement of the most influential writers. The ablest German authors and journalists, for example, are no longer in Berlin and Leipzig, but in London and New York. The most articulate of the Spanish intelligentsia are not in Madrid but in Mexico City and Buenos Aires. This paradoxical situation must have far-reaching consequences, not only for the intellectuals themselves but for Germany, England and the United States, Spain, Mexico, and the Argentine. What, in your opinion, may these consequences be, immediate and remote, desirable and unfortunate?

  The deepest harm in forced flight lies in the incurable wound to human pride and self-respect, the complete dislocation of the spiritual center of gravity. To be beaten and driven out of one’s own place is the gravest disaster that can occur to a human being, for in such an act he finds his very humanity denied, his person dismissed with contempt, and this is a shock very few natures can bear and recover any measure of equilibrium.

  Artists and writers, I think, do not suffer more than other people under such treatment, but they are apt to be more aware of the causes of their sufferings, they are better able to perceive what is happening, not only to them, but to all their fellow beings. I would not attempt to prophesy what the consequences of all this world displacement by violence of so many people might be; but I can only hope they will have learned something by it, and will leave in the grave of Europe their old quarrels and the old prejudices that have brought this catastrophe upon all of us. We have here enough of those things to fight without that added weight.

  Americans are not going anywhere, and I am glad of it. Here we stay, for good or ill, for life or death; and my hope is that all those articulate intelligences who have been driven here will consent to stand with us, and help us put an end to this stampede of human beings driven like sheep over one frontier after another; I hope they will make an effort to understand what this place means in terms of the final battlefield. For the present, they must live here or nowhere, and they must share the responsibility for helping to make this a place where man can live as man and not as victim, pawn, a lower order of animal driven out to die beside the road or to survive in stealth and cunning.

  The force at work in the world now is the oldest evil with a new name and new mechanisms and more complicated strategies; if the intelligent do not help to clarify the issues, maintain at least internal order, understand themselves and help others to understand the nature of what is happening, they hardly deserve the name. I agree with Mr. E. M. Forster that there are only two possibilities for any real orde
r: in art and in religion. All political history is a vile mess, varying only in degrees of vileness from one epoch to another, and only the work of saints and artists gives us any reason to believe that the human race is worth belonging to.

  Let these scattered, uprooted men remember this, and remember that their one function is to labor at preserving the humanities and the dignity of the human spirit. Otherwise they are lost and we are lost with them and whether they stay here or go yonder will not much matter.



  Remarks on the Agenda of the Institute of International Education’s Conference on Arts and Exchange of Persons, New York City

  1. Is foreign experience valuable for the writer, or does it deprive him of his “roots”? Why not just send his written works?

  A human being carries his “roots” in his blood, his nervous system, the brain cells; no man can get rid of them. Even his attempts to disguise them will betray his origins and true nature. I think foreign travel and experience are good for every-body—not just writers, but for writers they are an invaluable, irreplaceable education in life. Yes, I know; Dante never left Italy and Shakespeare never left England. We call to mind a few house-bound women—geniuses too—Jane Austen, Emily Brontë, Emily Dickinson—but we are not talking now about geniuses, but writers. One thing fourteen years of travel and living in six foreign countries did for me besides giving me a wonderful time is, I am delighted to stay at home!

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