The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter

  However, on getting this news straight, about twenty-five of us decided that under Baumes’ Law (some of us couldn’t believe such a monstrosity existed on our statute books; we thought someone was playing a low joke on our ignorance) we must surely be more than eligible for at least ninety-nine years each in the clink and decided to agitate for it. Our plan was to make a point of forcing them to observe that lunatic Baumes’ Law and overload their jails. For a number of us, writers and artists of all kinds particularly, it might so nicely have settled the problem of where we were to eat and sleep while writing that book or doing whatever it was we had in mind. In those days it was believed that political prisoners were not treated too badly; we learned our mistake later, that it was the big gangsters who were treated well, but at that time, in our innocence, it looked to some of us like the last broad highway to the practice of the arts.

  It was not to be; we should have known from the first. The prisoners who had records of more than three arrests were simply pushed back into a captive audience, while several celebrities from various walks were chosen as tokens to stand trial for all of us. I remember of them—a half-dozen—only Edna St. Vincent Millay and Paxton Hibben. It was worth going there to see our attorney, Arthur Garfield Hays, in confidential palaver with the judge, a little old gray man with pointed whiskers and the face of a smart, conspiratorial chipmunk. In a single rolling sentence the judge, not just with a straight face but portentously, as if pronouncing another death sentence, found us guilty of loitering and obstructing traffic, fined us five dollars each, and the tragic farce took its place in history.

  When two or three of our number tried to raise and demand separate trials on sterner grounds, they were squelched by everybody—the judge, our attorney, the policemen, and even their own neighbors—for a lot of them were after all home-keeping persons who had come out, as you might say, on borrowed time and now were anxious to get back home again. The judge, the lawyers, the police, the whole court, the whole city of Boston, and the State of Massachusetts desired nothing in the world so much as to be rid of us, to see the last of us forever, to hear the last of this scandal (though they have never, alas, and will never!), and all the slightest signs of dissent from any direction were so adroitly and quickly suppressed that even the most enthusiastic troublemaker never quite knew how it was done. Simply our representatives were tried in a group in about five minutes.

  A busy, abstracted woman wearing pinch-nose spectacles, whom I never saw before or since, pushed her way among us, pressing five dollars into every hand, instructing us one and all to pay our fines, then and there, which we did. I do not in the least remember how my note changed hands again, but no doubt I gave it to the right person as all of us did, and there we were, out on the sidewalk again, discredited once for all, it seemed, mere vagrants but in movement, no longer loitering and obstructing traffic. “Get on there,” yelled our policemen, “get going there, keep moving”; and their parting advice to us was that we all go back where we came from and stay there. It was their next-best repartee, but a poor, thin substitute for one good whack at our skulls with their truncheons.

  I returned to the hotel and found the temporary office already being dismantled. Another woman came up and said, “Are you packed and ready to go?” She pressed into my hand a railroad ticket to New York and ten dollars in cash. “Go straight to the station now and take the next train,” she said. I did this with no farewells and no looking back. I found several other persons, some of whom I had sat up with nearly all night more than once, also being banished from the scene of the crime. We greeted each other without surprise or pleasure and scattered out singly and separately with no desire for each other’s company. I do not even remember who many of them were, if I ever knew their names at all. I only remember our silence and the dazed melancholy in all the faces.

  In all this I should speak only for myself, for never in my life have I felt so isolated as I did in that host of people, all presumably moved in the same impulse, with the same or at least sympathetic motive; when one might think hearts would have opened, minds would respond with kindness we did not find it so, but precisely the contrary. I went through the time in a mist of unbelief, or the kind of unwillingness to believe what is passing before one’s eyes that comes often in nightmares. But before in my sleep I could always say, “It is only a dream and you will wake and wonder at yourself for being frightened.” But I was suffering, I know it now, from pure fright, from shock—I was not an inexperienced girl, I was thirty-seven years old; I knew a good deal about the evils and abuses and cruelties of the world; I had known victims of injustice, of crime. I was not ignorant of history, nor of literature; I had witnessed a revolution in Mexico, had in a way taken part in it, had seen it follow the classic trail of all revolutions. Besides all the moral force and irreproachable motives of so many, I knew the deviousness and wickedness of both sides, on all sides, and the mixed motives—plain love of making mischief, love of irresponsible power, unscrupulous ambition of many men who never stopped short of murder, if murder would advance their careers an inch. But this was something very different, unfamiliar.

  Now, through all this distance of time, I remember most vividly Mrs. Harriman’s horsehair lace and flower garden party hats; Lola Ridge standing in the half darkness before Charlestown Prison under the rearing horse’s hoofs; the gentle young girl striding and drinking gin from the bottle and singing her wake-dirges; Luigia Vanzetti’s face as she stared in horror down into the crowd howling like beasts; and Rosa Baron’s little pinpoints of eyes glittering through her spectacles at me and her shrill, accusing voice: “Saved? Who wants them saved? What earthly good would they do us alive?”

  I cannot even now decide by my own evidence whether or not they were guilty of the crime for which they were put to death. They expressed in their letters many thoughts, if not always noble, at least elevated, exalted even. Their fervor and human feelings gave the glow of life to the weary stock phrases of those writing about them, and we do know now, all of us, that the most appalling cruelties are committed by apparently virtuous governments in expectation of a great good to come, never learning that the evil done now is the sure destroyer of the expected good. Yet, no matter what, it was a terrible miscarriage of justice; it was a most reprehensible abuse of legal power, in their attempt to prove that the law is something to be inflicted—not enforced—and that it is above the judgment of the people.


  I have, for my own reasons, refused to read any book or any article on the Sacco-Vanzetti trial before I had revised or arranged my notes on this trial. Since I have finished, I have read the book by Herbert B. Ehrmann, the “last surviving lawyer involved in the substance of the case on either side,” who, I feel, tells the full story of the case. Also, I have read since I finished my story “The Never-Ending Wrong,” the article by Francis Russell in the National Review, page 887 of August 17, 1973, which was discovered among my magazines early last year and which I have decided should be the epigraph to this story. Mr. Russell believes that the fact that Dante Sacco, Nicola Sacco’s son, kept his superhuman or subhuman silence on the whole history of his father proves that Nicola Sacco was guilty; that he refused to confess and so implicated Vanzetti, who died innocent. Sacco, therefore, proved himself doubly, triply, a murderer, an instinctive killer. Maybe.

  Another maybe—Vanzetti’s speech at the electric chair was the final word of an honest man. It is proven by testimony that he was innocent of murder. He was selling eels on that day, for Christmas. The Italian tradition of eating eels on Christmas Eve occupied his time all that day. He called on all the families he knew who were his friends, to deliver their orders for eels, and during the trial these people, when questioned, told exactly the same story, even to each housewife remembering the hour he delivered the eels, and some of them even went so far as to say how they had prepared them. Their testimonies were ignored when the real trial was begun. Mr. Russell has, I think, overlooked one point in hi
s argument. Vanzetti was comrade-in-arms and in mind and heart with Sacco. They were Anarchists foresworn, committed for life to death, for death was the known fate of all who were brought to trial for the crime, as it was considered. My point is this: Sacco was guilty if you like; some minor points make it reasonable, though barely reasonable, to believe it. Vanzetti knew his will and he believed in the cause which he knew contained death for him unless he was very lucky indeed. Anarchy is a strange belief to die for, but my good friend in Mexico, Felipe Carillo, the Governor of Yucatan, explained to me why the revolutionists in his country who were robbing trains, wrecking haciendas, burning houses, destroying crops and even whole villages of helpless people, were right. In their utter misery, they gathered money with violence, seized the materials built with their blood, to create their idea of a good society. It was right to destroy material evil and to take its loot for their cause.

  This is the doctrine of desperation, the last murderous rage before utter despair. They were wrong, but not more wrong than the thing they themselves were trying to destroy. The powerful society they opposed gained its power and grew up on the same methods they were taking. Vanzetti kept a sacred pact, not just with his comrade Sacco but with the whole great solemn oath of his life, to the cause of freedom. He fasted, kept his silence, and went to his death with his fellow, a sacrifice to his faith. As he was being strapped into the electric chair, he said, “I wish to tell you that I am an innocent man. I never committed any crime but sometimes some sin. I wish to forgive some people for what they are now doing to me.” They both spoke nobly at the end, they kept faith with their vows for each other. They left a great heritage of love, devotion, faith, and courage—all done with the sure intention that holy Anarchy should be glorified through their sacrifice and that the time would come that no human being should be humiliated or be made abject. Near the end of their ordeal Vanzetti said that if it had not been for “these thing” he might have lived out his life talking at street corners to scorning men. He might have died unmarked, unknown, a failure. “Now, we are not a failure. This is our career and our triumph. Never in our full life could we hope to do such work for tolerance, for justice, for man’s understanding of man as now we do by accident. Our words—our lives—our pains—nothing! The taking of our lives—lives of a good shoemaker and a poor fish peddler—all! That last moment belongs to us—that agony is our triumph.”

  This is not new—all the history of our world is pocked with it. It is very grand and noble in words and grand, noble souls have died for it—it is worth weeping for. But it doesn’t work out so well. In order to annihilate the criminal State, they have become criminals. The State goes on without end in one form or another, built securely on the base of destruction. Nietzsche said: “The State is the coldest of all cold monsters,” and the revolutions which destroy or weaken at least one monster bring to birth and growth another.

  Far away and long ago, I read Emma Goldman’s story of her life, her first book in which she told the grim, deeply touching narrative of her young life during which she worked in a scrubby sweatshop making corsets by the bundle. At the same time, I was reading Prince Kropotkin’s memoirs, his account of the long step he took from his early princely living to his membership in the union of the outcast, the poor, the depressed, and it was a most marvelous thing to have two splendid, courageous, really noble human beings speaking together, telling the same tale. It was like a duet of two great voices telling a tragic story. I believed in both of them at once. The two of them joined together left me no answerable argument; their dream was a grand one but it was exactly that—a dream. They both lived to know this and I learned it from them, but it has not changed my love for them or my lifelong sympathy for the cause to which they devoted their lives—to ameliorate the anguish that human beings inflict on each other—the never-ending wrong, forever incurable.

  In 1935 in Paris, living in that thin upper surface of comfort and joy and freedom in a limited way, I met this most touching and interesting person, Emma Goldman, sitting at a table reserved for her at the Select, where she could receive her friends and carry on her conversations and sociabilities over an occasional refreshing drink. She was half blind (although she was only sixty-six years old), wore heavy spectacles, a shawl, and carpet slippers. She lived in her past and her devotions, which seemed to her glorious and unarguably right in every purpose. She accepted the failure of that great dream as a matter of course. She finally came to admit sadly that the human race in its weakness demanded government and all government was evil because human nature was basically weak and weakness is evil. She was a wise, sweet old thing, grandmotherly, or like a great-aunt. I said to her, “It’s a pity you had to spend your whole life in such unhappiness when you could have had such a nice life in a good government, with a home and children.” She turned on me and said severely: “What have I just said? There is no such thing as a good government. There never was. There can’t be.”

  I closed my eyes and watched Nietzsche’s skull nodding.



  Why I Write About Mexico

  A Letter to the Editor of The Century

  I WRITE about Mexico because that is my familiar country. I was born near San Antonio, Texas. My father lived part of his youth in Mexico, and told me enchanting stories of his life there; therefore the land did not seem strange to me even at my first sight of it. During the Madero revolution I watched a street battle between Maderistas and Federal troops from the window of a cathedral; a grape-vine heavy with tiny black grapes formed a screen, and a very old Indian woman stood near me, perfectly silent, holding my sleeve. Later she said to me, when the dead were being piled for burning in the public square, “It is all a great trouble now, but it is for the sake of happiness to come.” She crossed herself, and I mistook her meaning.

  “In heaven?” I asked. Her scorn was splendid.

  “No, on earth. Happiness for men, not for angels!”

  She seemed to me then to have caught the whole meaning of revolution, and to have said it in a phrase. From that day I watched Mexico, and all the apparently unrelated events that grew out of that first struggle never seemed false or alien or aimless to me. A straight, undeviating purpose guided the working of the plan. And it permitted many fine things to grow out of the national soil, only faintly surmised during the last two or three centuries even by the Mexicans themselves. It was as if an old field had been watered, and all the long-buried seeds flourished.

  About three years ago I returned to Mexico, after a long absence, to study the renascence of Mexican art—a veritable rebirth, very conscious, very powerful, of a deeply racial and personal art. I was not won to it by any artificial influence; I recognized it at once as something very natural and acceptable, a feeling for art consanguine with my own, unfolding in a revolution which returned to find its freedoms in profound and honorable sources. It would be difficult to explain in a very few words how the Mexicans have enriched their national life through the medium of their native arts. It is in everything they do and are. I cannot say, “I gathered material” for it; there was nothing so mechanical as that, but the process of absorption went on almost unconsciously, and my impressions remain not merely as of places visited and people known, but as of a moving experience in my own life that is now a part of me.

  My stories are fragments, each one touching some phase of a versatile national temperament, which is a complication of simplicities: but I like best the quality of aesthetic magnificence, and, above all, the passion for individual expression without hypocrisy, which is the true genius of the race.

  I have been accused by Americans of a taste for the exotic, for foreign flavors. Maybe so, for New York is the most foreign place I know, and I like it very much. But in my childhood I knew the French-Spanish people in New Orleans and the strange “Cajans” in small Louisiana towns, with their curious songs and customs and blurred patois; the German colonists in Texas and the Mexicans of the San Antonio countr
y, until it seemed to me that all my life I had lived among people who spoke broken, laboring tongues, who put on with terrible difficulty, yet with such good faith, the ways of the dominant race about them. This is true here in New York also, I know: but I have never thought of these people as any other than American. Literally speaking, I have never been out of America; but my America has been a borderland of strange tongues and commingled races, and if they are not American, I am fearfully mistaken. The artist can do no more than deal with familiar and beloved things, from which he could not, and, above all, would not escape. So I claim that I write of things native to me, that part of America to which I belong by birth and association and temperament, which is as much the province of our native literature as Chicago or New York or San Francisco. All the things I write of I have first known, and they are real to me.


  Reports from Mexico City, 1920–1922


  December 1920

  IT would be useless to deny that a man throws dice with death when he becomes president of Mexico. “He plays blind man’s buff with La Muerte” says a Mexican writer. It is a high adventure, not to be undertaken lightly. Tremendous inner compulsion forces a man into the presidency of the Mexican Republic. In the past, this official has been infallibly one of these things—an egoist without horizons, an adventurer who loves danger, an idealist with a self sacrifice complex, a steel nerved dictator sure of his butchering strength. Once or twice it has been a fantastic combination of these qualities. But in all of them, the flair for personal magnificence, has made one-half of the formula. All things considered Mexico has borne with her presidents leniently, a divine patience has marked her dealings with her chance-appointed Chiefs. Some of them were aristocrats and all of them were opportunists. There was a dreamer once, hands raised in ineffectual blessings, dictators more than once, and the beautiful gold laced seekers of glory were the most numerous of all. But they shared ineluctably one glittering assortment of qualities—a baffling self sufficiency that blinded them to the importance of pacific international relations; a racial arrogance that made them not fusible with their neighbors; a personal pride that forbade them to learn the practical problems of their country; a startling ignorance of the conditions of labor and commerce and economics and industry that are the very life fluid of a nation.

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