Magazine article Humanities

A Writer's Writer

Magazine article Humanities

A Writer's Writer

Article excerpt

I DON'T IMAGINE I'll ever be a popular writer," wrote Katherine Anne Porter to her father in 1931. "I simply want to be free to say what I feel and think exactly as I am ableleave my testament, if you like, offer my evidence of what I found in this life and how it seemed to me, and what I was able to make of it." Porter wrote these words towards the beginring of a writing career that spanned nearly six decades, beginning with the appearance of her first short story in 1922 and ending with The NeverEnding Wrong, published in 1977. She offered her evidence of how life seemed, not only in published works, but also in thousands of letters she wrote to family, friends, business associates, students, and acquaintances. In her published works, voluminous correspondence, working papers, notes and drafts, Katherine Anne Porter achieved her early ambition to leave a testament of her life.

An attempt to preserve this legacy is currently under way at the University of Maryland, where 120 linear feet of Porter's papers are stored. The Archives and Manuscripts Department is currently microfilming about 100,000 pages of the collection, which was donated to the university by Porter in the late 1960s. The goal is twofold: to protect the original materials and to make the collection more accessible to researchers.

Beth Alvarez, curator of literary manuscripts at the University of Maryland, and Rachel Vagts, the project archivist, have been going through Porter's papers to select items for microfilming. They are also preparing a finding aid so inquirers can search for materials on specific aspects of Porter's life or search for letters to or from any one of the more than one thousand correspondents.

The Katherine Anne Porter Collection is important not only to scholars, but also to aspiring writers. Porter claimed to have written her first short story, "Maria Concepcion," in one sitting and described herself as a one-draft writer, but her papers belie that assertion.

"These papers are an inspiration for working writers," explains Alvarez, "because they can use Porter's working papers and drafts to see how she developed her stories." In addition, Porter worked out ideas for stories in her letters, so fiction writers can learn important aspects of the craft of writing from Porter's correspondence.

The writer Malcolm Cowley, a contemporary of Porter, once said that Porter's letters were her real masterpieces. But Alvarez says, "Miss Porter resented that remark because it reminded her of what people told her from childhood-that she shouldn't try to be a writer but that if she wanted to write, she should just write letters." Porter did not take that advice to heart, but she did write an enormous number of letters throughout her life in addition to her published fiction, essays, and reviews.

Born Callie Russell Porter in Indian Creek, Texas, in 1890, Porter's childhood was a difficult one. When her mother died in 1892, her father, Harrison, moved the family to Kyle, Texas, to live with his mother, Catherine. When her grandmother died in 1901, Callie Porter suffered another loss. Harrison Porter packed up the family again and moved, first to San Antonio and then to Victoria, Texas. It was in San Antonio that Porter, about fourteen, received the last of her schooling.

"Katherine Anne Porter was one of the most important short story writers in the world," says Alvarez. Incredibly, the woman who earned that reputation had little formal education beyond grammar school. In a 1941 letter to her nephew, Paul Porter, she explained this secret of her success: "I began to read with excitement and interest, when I was very little, and I read far beyond my years, and only got my education, the kind of education able to use later, in just that way."

Porter married at sixteen and moved several more times with her husband, John Koonz. Her marriage was unhappy, and in 1913, when she was twenty-three years old, she left Koonz. …

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