The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter

  It is an absurd but rather touching little human weakness, but any number of people would rather see and hear a live author than read his works.

  2. Are more opportunities for exchange of writers needed?

  Yes, I do think nations should exchange writers and all artists more than they do; but not officially, not with any political affiliations. Several years ago when I was in Washington there was some vague talk of sending me as “cultural attaché” to a Spanish-speaking American country. Our Ambassador or Minister to that country turned the entire idea down saying: “I don’t want any culture mixed with my politics.” This delighted me, and I sent him a message through the proper channels: “And I don’t want any politics mixed with my culture!” And I still don’t like the mixture.

  3. Should an attempt be made to lift the “iron curtain” through the exchange of writers?

  This is a bear trap of a question. Within my memory, before World War I, we had in effect an open world; no passports needed anywhere in Europe, or in the Americas. Russia, then as now, was closed. It was considered a barbarous government (and it was barbarous in other ways too) because passports were required, and Russian subjects could not leave the country without permission; and the Tsar’s secret police and Siberian prison camps were the scandals of the world. (The world itself had quite a few horrors in every country, but Russia was then as now considered the worst.) Writers and artists came and went, even to Russia; they were free as birds at other international frontiers; their books were translated into all languages, and so far as peace, understanding, freedom, between nations is concerned, they might all as well never have left their own back yards. I daresay there is not at this moment a single government in this world which really trusts another government, and we know too well that last year’s enemy can be this year’s friend, and the other way around; but we can’t blame this state of affairs on the writers, and we can’t quite expect them to remedy it, either.

  4. What role can or should the U.S. government play in sending writers abroad and bringing writers here?

  The U.S. government might appoint good, well-proved poets and novelists to consular or other foreign posts as the French do, and certain Latin American countries: or appoint first-rate writers for a certain length of time—one, two, three years—as cultural attachés at a salary commensurate with the dignity of the place, to be awarded as an honor. Even the Consular or other foreign service jobs would not be any harder work or take more time than teaching, which is what so many of our best writers do to make a living.

  But any political strings attached to any of this would quite simply be fatal, and no honest artist could survive in such a situation.

  5. What are the writer’s personal objectives in going abroad? Do these differ from the objectives of most sponsoring organizations?

  I think most writers probably have the same motives as other people—for going abroad. They love to see the world, hear and maybe learn other languages; unfamiliar habits and customs, other peoples’ lives and ways of feeling, are so fascinating and exciting and, if one lives there long enough, as I did in Mexico and France, one loves the place and the people; I may never see them again, but I shall never outlive my tenderness and sympathy for those glorious beautiful countries. I suppose the “objective” of a writer is just to live and do his work as well as he can, in his own way and time—his lifetime—and most sponsoring organizations want “production” right now!

  6. What kinds of writers should be selected to go abroad? (Criteria) Who should do the selecting? (Mechanisms)

  a) Good ones. The standard cannot be too high. The Library of Congress has a Chair of Poetry, and I don’t know exactly what method they have of choosing but they haven’t had a bad poet there yet! The National Institute of Arts and Letters has a pretty good system of choosing their Gold Medalists, and their speakers at the annual wing-ding in May: I have seen an impressive row of talent sitting there waiting to be handed that thousand-dollar grant.

  b) For judges, I should look over the committee lists of such organizations. Second-rate judges will not know how to pick first-rate writers.

  7. What should a writer do, if anything, to prepare for a sojourn abroad? Does the writer need assistance or can he do it for himself?

  The only assistance any writer worth his salt needs is enough money to take him where he wants to go and keep him there for as long as he needs to stay. Sometimes he can save up money—if he teaches, for example—and go on a sabbatical year; sometimes he can support himself with free-lance writing, but it is very risky; almost the only hope is a grant or fellowship of some sort, though at this time there are very few that give enough for anyone to live on. Also the grants to what I believe are called “creative” writers, which I suppose means poets, novelists, as distinct from critics, essayists, and journalists, have been cut down to a mere token number in nearly all the foundations; yet I feel that our best poets and novelists are the ones we should send if we are going to send anybody to other countries.

  8. How can the sojourns of visiting writers be made more profitable to themselves and to their sponsors? What obligations does the writer have to a sponsor?

  a) If they are going to a country for the first time, they should have entirely practical advice and information about housing, cost of living, and local conditions. It is better if he knows the language, even slightly. If not he should set himself to speak at once.

  b) As to the obligation of the writer to the sponsor, let me again cite my personal experience with the Guggenheim Foundation; their grant took me to Europe for a year, and I managed to stay for five in all. I was worried because the change was a tremendous one for me, full of violent reactions and intense feelings—not unhappy ones, simply unsettling to the last degree. It took me better than a year to settle to work, though I kept enormous notebooks. I wrote to Mr. Henry Allen Moe full of contrition that I hadn’t turned out a book in that year. And Mr. Moe wrote that nobody had expected me to! That the grant was not just for the work of that year, but was meant to help me go on for all my life. And this has been true—without that grant, I might have just stayed in Mexico, or here at home; I should certainly not have gone to Europe when I did; and so in the most absolute sense, that Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship has helped to nourish my life as a writer to this day; I am today unable to imagine even faintly what I should have done without my wonderful years in Europe.

  The writer owes to his sponsor to write, as well as he is able, in his own time and his own way, exactly what he wishes to write insofar as anyone has ever done that! In fact, he owes to his sponsor exactly what he owes to himself, no more, no less, except thanks!

  9. What can the writer do, if anything, to maintain contact with the country visited after his return home?

  One finds friends anywhere; my way of keeping up is to subscribe to a magazine or newspaper in the languages I can read—French, German, Spanish—and writing and getting letters from friends in those countries I have visited. Isn’t this enough, and very pleasant, too? One wouldn’t want to make work of it!


  The Author on Her Work


  Response to the question “How does talent grow?”

  asked by Don M. Wolfe, editor,

  New Voices 2: American Writing Today.

  New York: Hendricks House, 1955.

  TO begin with, I did not know I had talent. My little stories and drawings to go with them were regarded by the grownups and the other children around me as another pastime to keep me busy and contented. All of us danced, sang, drew, modelled in clay: were taught to recite poetry when asked and no nonsense. Our elders liked bright children, but not showoffs. So nobody tampered with my talent, if I had any: this kept me from being self-conscious, and I think now it slowed down a great deal of my own realization of just what I was headed for. I began reading very early, and as the house was full of good books gathered for several generations, by people who really liked good rea
ding, I had read an almost unbelievable amount of great literature before I knew what I was reading.

  I was a very bad writer to begin with, and I knew it, because I knew what the standard was—and is, so far as I have been able to learn. But write I would, it was a passion and a compulsion and a long ordeal, but I had no choice. Many times I gave up, and tried very hard to turn to something else. It was no good. Besides my reading, I had no masters or teachers. I never even read a book on how to write, I’m not sure there were any, when I was sixteen. And I got no encouragement from my environment; on the contrary, a bitter and furious opposition from family and the society around me; entirely irrational and personal, it was deep enough to lead to the breakup and shattering of the life I felt hardening around me. I got out of that place as if I were leaving a falling house in an earthquake. And then I faced my little private destiny and took on my work: wrote three novels and burned them; wrote dozens of stories and destroyed them. Worked at various jobs to support myself—not very good at it, but I lived. Finally, one day—I was just back from Mexico, when I was about twenty-eight years old, I sat down in a room in an old house in Washington Square South, now disappeared, and decided that I would finish a certain short story, no matter what. It took seventeen days and nights, quite literally: I kept no hours, but ate when I could, and slept a little when I was exhausted. But I finished it, and that battle was fought for good: writing will never be anything but hard work, but I crossed my deepest river then and there. The story was María Concepción, and it was published almost at once by the old Century magazine, and they paid me six hundred dollars for it.

  (I mention this because it was of the greatest importance. I was, as the saying is, by that time “on starvation.”) You might think this was a great how-do-you-do for just a little story, but it was exhilarating, illuminating, one of the profoundly happy moments of my life. I’ve had some tussles since, and I have loved them. The great good I have had from writing has been just exactly the writing itself. Nobody promised me anything for it; I never expected to have a “career.” I never showed a manuscript to anybody in my life except to the editor I sent it to when it was finished, with one exception. I had written a story in one evening, but I did not trust it. It threw around among my papers for about a year, then I asked a friend whose judgement I trusted to read it. She advised me to send it away at once. It was The Jilting of Granny Weatherall. I am still not really capable of judging my own stories. I write them, and I have to trust myself without question; if by now I cannot rely upon my power, such as it is whatever it is, why then, what was my life for?

  Of course now I feel my work was not enough, not as good as I hoped it would be, and it is only half-finished, if that. Once I lived as if I had a thousand years to squander, now, I pray for time. I’ve got four books to do yet.


  Introduction to a contribution to

  This Is My Best, edited by Clifton Fadiman.

  New York: The Dial Press, 1943.

  “Flowering Judas” was written between seven o’clock and midnight of a very cold December, 1929, in Brooklyn. The experiences from which it was made occurred several years before, in Mexico, just after the Obregon revolution.

  All the characters and episodes are based on real persons and events, but naturally, as my memory worked upon them and time passed, all assumed different shapes and colors, formed gradually around a central idea, that of self-delusion, the order and meaning of the episodes changed, and became in a word fiction.

  The idea first came to me one evening when going to visit the girl I call Laura in the story, I passed the open window of her living room on my way to the door, through the small patio which is one of the scenes in the story. I had a brief glimpse of her sitting with an open book in her lap, but not reading, with a fixed look of pained melancholy and confusion in her face. The fat man I call Braggioni was playing the guitar and singing to her.

  In that glimpse, no more than a flash, I thought I understood, or perceived, for the first time, the desperate complications of her mind and feelings, and I knew a story; perhaps not her true story, not even the real story of the whole situation, but all the same a story that seemed symbolic truth to me. If I had not seen her face at that very moment, I should never have written just this story because I should not have known it to write.

  The editor has asked for my favorite story. I have no favorites though there is perhaps one, a short novel, for which now and then I do feel a preference, for extremely personal reasons. I offer this story which falls within the stipulated length because it comes very near to being what I meant for it to be, and I suppose an author’s choice of his own work must always be decided by such private knowledge of the margin between intention and the accomplished fact.

  Boulder, Colo.

  July 13, 1942


  Introduction to

  Flowering Judas and Other Stories,

  by Katherine Anne Porter.

  New York: The Modern Library, 1940.*

  It is just ten years since this collection of short stories first appeared. They are literally first fruits, for they were written and published in order of their present arrangement in this volume, which contains the first story I ever finished. Looking at them again, it is possible still to say that I do not repent of them; if they were not yet written, I should have to write them still. They were done with intention and in firm faith, though I had no plan for their future and no notion of what their meaning might be to such readers as they would find. To any speculations from interested sources as to why there were not more of them, I can answer simply and truthfully that I was not one of those who could flourish in the conditions of the past two decades. They are fragments of a much larger plan which I am still engaged in carrying out, and they are what I was then able to achieve in the way of order and form and statement in a period of grotesque dislocations in a whole society when the world was heaving in the sickness of a millennial change. They were first published by what seems still merely a lucky accident, and their survival through this crowded and slowly darkening decade is the sort of fate no one, least of all myself, could be expected to predict or even to hope for.

  We none of us flourished in those times, artists or not, for art, like the human life of which it is the truest voice, thrives best by daylight in a green and growing world. For myself, and I was not alone, all the conscious and recollected years of my life have been lived to this day under the heavy threat of world catastrophe, and most of the energies of my mind and spirit have been spent in the effort to grasp the meaning of those threats, to trace them to their sources and to understand the logic of this majestic and terrible failure of the life of man in the Western world. In the face of such shape and weight of present misfortune, the voice of the individual artist may seem perhaps of no more consequence than the whirring of a cricket in the grass; but the arts do live continuously, and they live literally by faith; their names and their shapes and their uses and their basic meanings survive unchanged in all that matters through times of interruption, diminishment, neglect; they outlive governments and creeds and the societies, even the very civilizations that produced them. They cannot be destroyed altogether because they represent the substance of faith and the only reality. They are what we find again when the ruins are cleared away. And even the smallest and most incomplete offering at this time can be a proud act in defense of that faith.


  By the time a writer has reached the end of a story, he has lived it at least three times over—first in the series of actual events that, directly or indirectly, have combined to set up that commotion in his mind and senses that causes him to write the story; second, in memory; and third, in recreation of this chaotic stuff. One might think this is enough; but no, the writer now finds himself challenged to trace his clues to their sources and to expose the roots of his work in his own most secret and private life; and is aske
d to live again this sometimes exhausting experience for the fourth time! There was a time when critics of literature seemed quite happy to try digging out the author’s meanings without help; or, failing to find any, to invent meanings of their own, often just as satisfactory to everybody—except perhaps to the author, whose feelings or opinion traditionally do not count much, anyway.

  The private reader too has always been welcome to his own notions of what he is reading, free to remark upon it to his heart’s content, with no cramping obligation to be “right” in his conclusions, such as weighs upon the professionals or paid critics; it is enough for him to be moved and stimulated to speak his thoughts freely; the author will not mind even harshness, if only he can be sure he is being read! But it is, I think, a relatively late thing for authors to be asked to explain themselves, though some have done it in self-defense against their hardier critics. Flaubert occurs to me as, if not the earliest, one of the most lucid and painstaking; Henry James as the most prodigally, triumphantly eloquent, and thorough. Yet they held closely to the work as a finished piece of literature, and made almost no attempt—perhaps they knew better—to trace its history to its sources in their blood and bones, the subterranean labyrinths of infancy and childhood, family histories, memories, visions, daydreams, and nightmares—or to connect these gauzy fantasies to the solid tissues of their adult professional lives.

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