Katherine Anne Porter, Politics, and Another Reading of "Theft."

By Unrue, Darlene Harbour | Studies in Short Fiction, Spring 1993 | Go to article overview

Katherine Anne Porter, Politics, and Another Reading of "Theft."


Unrue, Darlene Harbour, Studies in Short Fiction


When Katherine Anne Porter accepted the National Book Award in 1966 for her Collected Stories, she characterized herself as a "disappointed idealist." Porter's habit of mind in assessing her life or in creating her art was to look through a lens of memory and see a harmonious whole,(1) and that phrase, as well as any, summarizes Porter's political stances. At the age of 76, Porter was looking back on a life that had included numerous attachments to political movements, but attachments inevitably followed by disillusionment and rejection of the movements while still cherishing the underlying ideals. The phrase also points to an important theme in her fiction and thus underscores the link between Porter's politics and her art. In order to understand fully the place that politics has in Porter's fiction, we have to examine her political activities and statements in their social and historical context, her concept of the relationship between politics and art, and finally the political themes in the fiction itself.

Porter's earliest political activities were feminist and socialist. She reportedly told Malcolm Cowley that she published a defense of woman suffrage when she was 14, converted to socialism at the age of 15, and took on all social and political problems when she was 18. Her brother, Paul, confirmed her suffragist sympathies in a letter he wrote to her in 1909, but she declared in a 1925 review of W. L. George's book The Story, of Women that she had been a suffragist since adolescence ("Mr. George on the Woman Problem," Unrue 35). If Porter also had early socialist leanings, she would not have been all that unusual in her time and place, for there was a healthy socialist movement in the upper and border South during the first two decades of the twentieth century. The social and political problems she claims to have taken on by 1908 were probably reflected in small charitable gestures and states of mind, but she did reveal an early interest in social causes that aimed to alleviate human suffering and promote individual freedom. There is ample evidence that by the time she arrived in New York in 1919, by way of Chicago and Denver, having finally fled Texas and her first husband, she had substantial leftist leanings.

Porter's political views found encouragement and nourishment in the bohemianism of Greenwich Village, where she briefly settled in 1919. Soon among her friends and acquaintances were many left-wlng writers and intellectuals, including Kenneth Durant, who was editor of ROSTA (later TASS). In The Never-Ending Wrong, Porter says she was Durant's assistant for a time and later wrote propagandistic news releases for him (22). Porter also met at this time Mexican artists who were in the United States hoping to g t support for the cultural and social revolution gaining intensity, in Mexico. Through such friends Porter-secured a magazine assignment that took her to Mexico and the revolution she described to Barbara Thompson as having run "smack into" (97). Although she would say that her participation in the revolution was "modest," it is relatively safe to assume that most of Laura's revolutionary activity described in "Flowering Judas" was comparable to Porter's own experiences. She became friends with many of the revolutionaries, Mexican and expatriate, and was enough of a threat to the aristocratic establishment to be put on a deportation list in 1921. She in fact claimed on several occasions to have been a communist in the early twenties.(2)

Whatever Porter was--however idealistic she was--in 1920 and 1921 when she arrived in Mexico from New York, she remarkably soon became disappointed in the revolution and its leaders. By the spring of 1921 she was able to write an incisive article for the Freeman on the complicated forces at work and often at cross-purposes in the likely doomed Mexican revolution. Letters to friends reveal the same spirit of encroaching disillusionment (e.g., KAP to Paul Hanna).

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