"Unable to Imagine Getting on without Each Other": Porter's Fictions of Interracial Female Friendship
Wells, Chandra, The Mississippi Quarterly
THE OLD ORDER, A SEQUENCE OF SEVEN INTERRELATED SHORT STORIES first published intermittently from 1935 to 1941, represents a significant turning point in Katherine Anne Porter's development as an artist. (1) According to Robert Brinkmeyer, Porter's early fiction from the 1920s is colored by an anti-historicism typical of her modernist contemporaries. (2) However, the 1930s saw Porter revisiting and revising her Southern origins; along with other writers of the Southern Renaissance, who were collectively engaged in an effort to analyze their Southern heritage beyond the facile mythology of "moonlight and magnolias," Porter redirected her artistic gaze to the histories of both her region and her family, and struggled to articulate a complex, ambivalent vision of the past. (3)
A particular focus of Porter's retrospective gaze is women and the lives they led in the traditional "old order" of the antebellum South. The ambivalence in Porter's representation of the past crystallizes when she considers the perspectives of such women; her female characters identify with the repressive social codes of a fading era even as they chafe under the burden of maintaining them. Porter centers their complex, multiple experiences in The Old Order, which traces the story of the declining fortunes of the once wealthy and respectable Gay family through the eyes of its rebellious youngest granddaughter, Miranda. Porter emphasizes the woman-centered core of her narrative by minimizing the roles played by male characters and instead foregrounding the subjectivity of her female characters and these characters' relationships to one another.
While critics have devoted much attention to the intergenerational connections shared by Porter's women, (4) The Old Order also highlights another kind of female relationship, one that has elicited far less commentary: women's friendships. Significantly, the most developed female friendship that Porter presents is the one shared by her character Sophia Jane, matriarch of the Gay family, and Sophia Jane's former slave Nannie. This interracial friendship between her two fictional characters serves as a vehicle for Porter's re-examination of the Southern past. Her representations of Nannie and Sophia Jane become central to the revisionist dimension of her fiction; her complex and often ironic vision of women's interracial relationships undermines the myth of harmonious and untroubled coexistence between the races that was endemic to the domestic fiction, proslavery propaganda, and postbellum "lost cause" literature of generations before. In The Old Order, Porter rejects any simple appropriation of this mythology, with its facile images of benign masters, saintly mistresses, and childlike slaves. Her characters cannot be reduced to stereotypes; Nannie is not an endlessly giving mammy figure and Sophia Jane is not ensconced on a pedestal. Instead, Porter attempts to imagine the emotional experiences of her foremothers in conjunction with the social and political realities of their time and place, including the slave system and its legacy of racism, the restriction of women to the household, and the intimate terms on which prosperous whites and their black servants lived in nineteenth-century Southern households.
In addition to this published account of interracial female friendship, in which Porter skillfully draws a complex relationship defined primarily by love and hard-won community, Porter experimented with at least three other stories featuring women's interracial friendships. These three texts, "Celestine," "Lila," and "The Man in the Tree," were never completed or published, but their existence suggests Porter's fascination with the subject of the complicated emotional and social dynamics of interaction between African American and white women. (5) This raw, unpolished material provides an important contrast to the depiction of Nannie and Sophia Jane in The Old Order, as it reveals dimensions of interracial female friendship that Porter found problematic and, as evidenced by her struggles with and ultimate abandonment of these narratives, could not finally resolve. …