Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Why She Wrote about Mexico: Katherine Anne Porter and the Literature of Experience

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Why She Wrote about Mexico: Katherine Anne Porter and the Literature of Experience

Article excerpt

In July of 1923, Century Magazine published a contributor's note by Katherine Anne Porter to accompany her short story "The Martyr," one of a series of texts she wrote about Mexico that appeared in the magazine in the early 1920s. In many respects this note, which Porter later republished under the title "Why I Write about Mexico," offers a criticism of prevailing attitudes toward Latin America in the interwar US cultural imaginary. Amid rising nativism and a general hostility toward foreignness--the note underscores that the author herself "ha[d] been accused by Americans of a taste for the exotic"--Porter justifies her Mexico writings by insisting on a more capacious, hemispheric definition of Americanness: "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" (2008, 870). (1) At a time when the United States had not yet granted diplomatic recognition to the Mexican government because of lingering skepticism toward the most progressive aims of the recently concluded Mexican Revolution, Porter defends the "straight, undeviating purpose [that] guided the working of the plan" (869). And in a cultural milieu almost categorically dismissive of Latin American artistic achievement, Porter champions the "renascence of Mexican art" in the postrevolutionary period as "a veritable rebirth, very conscious, very powerful."

Yet Porter's most audacious rhetorical move in "Why I Write about Mexico" may not be to claim that her writing represents Mexican people and places marginal to what she calls at one point the "ways of the dominant race" (870) but rather to ratify that claim by maintaining she had experienced this entire phase of Mexican historical life firsthand. She begins by stating that she had seen the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution on the US-Mexico border with her own eyes: "During the Madero revolution I watched a street battle between Maderistas and Federal troops from the window of a cathedral" (869). She then proceeds to say that this act of witnessing afforded her a privileged vantage point on the decade-long revolutionary process: "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." The note's last line finally clinches this testimonial authority in literary terms, as Porter stakes the very validity of her writings about Mexico on her personal experience of the country: "All the things I write of I have first known, and they are real to me" (870).

The concluding sentence of "Why I Write about Mexico," with its declaration of an absolute fusion of life and art, writing and experience, has held an almost talismanic power over Porter criticism for the past forty years. Even as readings of Porter's work have gradually shifted focus--from formalist to feminist, from regional to transnational--scholars have continued to debate the relationship between what Porter wrote and what she knew, particularly with respect to her four extended stays in Mexico from 1920 to 1931. As more biographical information has become available about Porter's activities in Mexico, scholars have shown that she not only invented her "eyewitness account" of the outbreak of the Revolution but also omitted from the written record several real-life events--including a political intrigue involving Mexican president Alvaro Obregon--that were at least as dramatic as the fictional stories she published. (2) Her art did not always imitate her life, or vice versa, as perhaps we already could have guessed.

The existing scholarship on Porter has tended to view her strategic deployment of the language of experience as the particular sign of her genius, an idiosyncratic if no less integral element of her personal style. Thus, Janis Stout has spoken of Porter's "characteristic mode" as one of "highly indirect, deeply mediated autobiography" (1995, 14), and Darlene Unrue has cited the 1923 note to claim that Porter's body of work "reflected the most important experiences of her long life devoted to the artistic search for truth" ([1985] 2009, vii). …

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