Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1966, The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter is one of only a handful of such collections to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, which generally is awarded to a novel. (Before 1947, the work of fiction category was even called the novel category, making the inclusion of short stories literally an afterthought).
Other collections of short stories to win include Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge (2009), Robert Olen Butler’s A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain (1993), The Stories of John Cheever (1979), and Jean Stafford s Collected Stories (1970).
Katherine Anne Porter was born in 1890 and died in 1980. Remarkably, she was seventy-two years old when she published her one and only novel, Ship of Fools. She won the Pulitzer in her seventy-sixth year, and published an account of the infamous Sacco-Vanzetti trial and execution in her eighty-seventh year, 1977. Several of her unpublished and uncollected works continued to be published through the nineteen nineties, past the centennial of her birth.
While this fascinating woman never wrote an autobiography, a quick look at her biography reveals many similar characteristics and circumstances between herself and the protagonists in her short stories. The Collected Short Stories of Katherine Porter contains various female characters who, like herself, fled to Mexico to escape a strict Catholic upbringing, were raised in the South by a strong grandmother after the death of their mother, who worked as ‘hack’ writers doing book reviews and such for small local newspapers, divorced (as Porter did repeatedly) and lived in richly narrated inner world full of Jamesian perceptions about human nature.
What separates Ms. Porter from other writers is the combination of deep, perspicacious insight into the inner truth of her characters and the painstakingly crafted attention to detail; to dialect; to narrative; to language itself. You can’t read these stories too fast or too slow, only with a breathless awe. To immerse oneself in Ms. Porter’s many lives, many selves, that populate this book is to travel many of the bridges she must have traveled, between rural and urban, nineteenth and twentieth century America, between freedom and devotion, society and the individual. Her nuanced appreciation of these myriad dualism’s signifies genius.
The stories include Noon Wine, about a mentally ill Swede who works as a laborer for a family who pay the ultimate price for the dark secret he tried to escape; Flowering Judas, about a young American virgin in Mexico who is haunted by her failure to stop a revolutionary from suicide; and shorter works such as He, about an impoverished family who must slowly accept that they can no longer care for their disabled son. Themes such as the undercurrent of violence in romantic love (a couple who waste an entire day arguing pointnlessly in Rope), the responsibility or failure of society care for the weak (such as the alcoholic uncle who ruins himself in Old Mortality, among others), the price of vanity (The Cracked Looking Glass), and the complicated co-dependence of slaves and their masters (The Old Order) all remain, even today, remarkably progressive in their compassion without sentimentality or compromise, and entirely humanitarian in scope.
Katherine Anne Porter is like no other writer. While her output was sparse, her mastery was total. If you’re traveling over the holiday season, this is a great book to book up to read on an airplane.
(c) 2010, The Hollywood Sentinel.