An Essay: Charlie Chaplin

Katherine Anne Porter (15 May 1890 – 18 September 1980)

Katherine Anne Porter was born in Indian Creek, Texas the fourth of
five children of Harrison Boone Porter and Alice (Jones) Porter. Her
family tree can be traced back to American frontiersman Daniel Boone, a
heritage of which she was proud.

In 1892, when Porter was two years old, her mother died two months after
giving birth to her last child. Her father took his four surviving
children (an older brother had died in infancy) to live with his mother,
Catherine Ann Porter, in Kyle, Texas. The depth of her grandmother’s
influence can be inferred from Porter’s later adoption of her name. Her
grandmother died while taking 11 year-old Callie to visit relatives in
Marfa, Texas.

After her grandmother’s death, the family lived in several towns in
Texas and Louisiana, staying with relatives or living in rented rooms.
She was enrolled in free schools wherever the family was living, and for
a year in 1904 she attended the Thomas School, a private Methodist
school in San Antonio, Texas. This was her only formal education beyond
grammar school.

In 1906, at age 16, she ran off and married John Henry Koontz, the son
of a wealthy Texas ranching family, and subsequently converted to their
religion, Roman Catholicism. Her husband was physically abusive; once
while drunk, he threw her down the stairs, breaking her ankle. On
another drunken occasion, he beat her to unconsciousness with a
hairbrush.

In 1914 she escaped to Chicago, where she worked briefly as an extra in
movies. She then returned to Texas and worked the small town circuit as
an actress and singer, divorcing Koontz in 1915. As part of her divorce
decree, she asked that her name be changed to Katherine Anne Porter.

Also in 1915, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis and spent the
following two years in sanatoriums, where she decided to become a
writer. It was discovered during that time, however, that she had
bronchitis, not TB. In 1917, she began writing for the Fort Worth
Critic, critiquing dramas, and writing society gossip. In 1918, she
wrote for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, Colorado. She almost died
there that year during the influenza pandemic (the Spanish flu). When
she was discharged from the hospital months later, she was frail and
completely bald. When her hair finally grew back, it was white, and
remained that color for the rest of her life. Her experiences during
treatment provided the background for her novella Pale Horse, Pale
Rider.

In 1919, she moved to Greenwich Village in New York City and made her
living ghost writing, writing children’s stories and doing publicity
work for a motion picture company. The year in New York City had a
politically radicalizing effect on her, and in 1920, she went to work
for a magazine publisher in Mexico, where she became acquainted with
members of the Mexican leftist movement, including Diego Rivera.

Eventually, however, she became disillusioned with the revolutionary
movement and its leaders. During this period, she also became intensely
critical of religion and remained so until the last decade of her life
when she again embraced the Roman Catholic Church.

Between 1920 and 1930, she traveled back and forth between Mexico and
New York City and began publishing short stories and essays. In 1930,
she published her first short story collection, Flowering Judas and
Other Stories. An expanded edition of this collection was published in
1935 and received such critical acclaim that it alone virtually assured
her place in American literature.

In 1926, she married Ernest Stock and lived briefly in Connecticut
before divorcing him in 1927. Although biographers have disagreed on the
verity of Porter’s conflicting statements regarding her reproductive
abilities, the number of such reports and their incongruities indicate
Porter’s interest in female sexuality and reproduction and, at the very
least, suggest that some biographers’ research may be well-founded. For
example, some suggest that Porter suffered several miscarriages, at
least one stillbirth between 1910 and 1926, and an abortion, and after
contracting gonorrhea from Stock, that she had a hysterectomy in 1927,
ending her hopes of ever having a child. Yet, Porter’s letters to her
lovers suggest that she still intimated her menstruation after this
supposed hysterectomy in 1927. As she once confided to a friend, «I have
lost children in all the ways one can.»

During the 1930s, she spent several years in Europe during which she
continued to publish short stories. In 1930, she married Eugene
Pressley, a writer 13 years her junior. In 1938, upon returning from
Europe, she divorced Pressley and married Albert Russel Erskine, Jr., a
graduate student who was 20 years younger. He reportedly divorced her
(in 1942) after discovering her real age. She never remarried.

Between 1948 and 1958, Porter taught at Stanford University, the
University of Michigan and the University of Texas, where her
unconventional manner of teaching made her popular with students. In
1962, she published her only novel, Ship of Fools, which was the
best-selling novel in America for that year; its success finally gave
her financial security (she reportedly sold the film rights for
$400,000).

Despite Porter’s claim that after the publication of Ship of Fools she
would not win any more prizes in America, in 1966 she was awarded the
Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for The Collected Stories of
Katherine Anne Porter, and that year was also appointed to the American
Academy of Arts and Letters.

In 1977, Porter published The Never-Ending Wrong, an account of the
notorious trial and execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, which she had
protested fifty years earlier.

She died in Silver Spring, Maryland on September 18, 1980, at the age of
90, and was buried next to her mother in the Indian Creek Cemetery in
Texas.

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