Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Katherine Anne Porter: The Glories and Errors of Her Ways

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Katherine Anne Porter: The Glories and Errors of Her Ways

Article excerpt

If, as we are often told, a writer is as good as his best work, then truly Katherine Anne Porter is a master of the art of short fiction. Critics may dispute over what she does best--the story, the novella--or argue which among her finest pieces is the very finest of all, but it is generally agreed that her long and careful career has produced a handful of artistic triumphs. Some of the best criticism of her work has been brought together by Lodwick Hartley and George Core who are themselves astute commentators on the fruits of Miss Porter's genius; and one need not go beyond the table of contents to be reminded of the lavish praise that Miss Porter's work has received from some of our most perceptive and demanding practitioners. Think, for example, of Robert Penn Warren's "Irony With a Center," which Hartley and Core refer to as a "classic of criticism." More than that, it is a classic of the New Criticism, and for me, at least, it demonstrates anew how very much that now belabored method can disclose to us about a work of literature.

I have no wish to go over ground that must be familiar to anyone who has read anything at all about Miss Porter's achievement, but Warren's piece, which is now almost thirty years old, retains an astonishing freshness. This is not only a tribute to his skill as critic, but testimony too of the sound structure and clean technical accomplishment of such stories as "Flowering Judas" and "Noon Wine." For it is true, as Warren tells us, that Braggioni's corpulence, his clothes, his scarred flesh convey a sense of the man that leads us toward the meaning of the whole story, and perhaps to the heart of the common motive behind all Miss Porter's work: that "tissue of contradictions" which is mankind. Warren is superb at disclosing the meaning of every slight detail, the nuances of what appears to be casual conversation--for nothing can be really casual in a properly executed story--and the emotions that produce a gesture of the hand or a flick of the eye. He has few peers at this sort of practice, but one of them is certainly Cleanth Brooks, who is represented in the Hartley-Core volume by a short essay on "The Grave."

Brooks thinks that this story, perhaps better than any other, "illustrates [Miss Porter's] genius as a writer," and though other critics lean toward longer works such as "Pale Horse, Pale Rider" or "Old Mortality," Brooks' selection of "The Grave" is difficult to fault. For one thing, the story successfully carries a great weight of symbolism for so short a work. In the course of less than a dozen pages, Miss Porter encompasses the inexorable progress of all life--from birth to love and on to death, from ignorance to self discovery, from alienation to sympathy with the rest of the doomed and suffering world. She uses some graves, a wedding ring, a silver dove, a dead, pregnant rabbit, and at the end, sweets made in the shapes of animals, to convey her theme in its complexity, and the story sustains all this because characteristically, Miss Porter has paid careful attention to the smallest details of her craft. Who else could get away with such an ending? With the indentation that starts a new paragraph, she transcends, at the very close of the narrative, more than twenty years. As Brooks is able to demonstrate, such a sudden shift in time is made possible by the consummate success of all that has gone before. And the symbols are enhanced in "richness and subtlety" by the later, foreign context in which they are finally seen.

I could go on cataloguing, for the most part admiringly, the essays included in A Critical Symposium. There are, for example, George Core's own excellent reading of "Holiday" and Ray West's famous analysis of "Flowering Judas," and pieces by Sarah Youngblood and Joseph Wiesenfarth on "Pale Horse, Pale Rider" and "The Cracked Looking-Glass." Nor do all of Miss Porter's admirers employ the methods of the New Criticism. Eudora Welty is concerned with the metaphysics of the stories, and she cannot discover in Miss Porter's fiction the sharp clarity of image and detail that Warren and Brooks celebrate as the keystone of her success. …

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