Katherine Anne Porter

Katherine Anne Porter is an award-winning author from Texas. She is well known for her short story collections that explore Christian symbolism and themes such as human nature and motivation, death, the role of women, the individual versus society, and the Adam figure. She wrote one novel titled Ship of Fools (1962). 

Katherine Anne Porter Katherine Anne Porter

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    A Biography of Katherine Anne Porter

    Katherine Anne Porter (Born Callie Russell Porter) was born on the 15th of May 1890 in Indian Creek, Texas. Porter moved with her father and three siblings to live with her paternal grandmother after her mother's death. After her grandmother's death, Porter moved around often. Porter's education ended at the age of fourteen in 1904.

    Katerine Anne Porter, Texas Desert, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Katherine Anne Porter was born in Texas.

    By 1906, Porter was married to John Henry Koontz and went to live with him in Lufkin, Texas. He was abusive and an alcoholic, so Porter divorced him in 1915 after escaping to Chicago briefly in 1914 to be a movie extra. In 1915, she fell ill with tuberculosis, and while in a sanatorium, she decided she would become a writer. Her first job was writing for the Fort Worth Critic, but by 1918 she was writing for the Rocky Mountain News.

    Porter moved to Greenwich Village, New York City, in 1919 to work as a ghostwriter. She mostly wrote children's stories and motion picture publicity work. She became involved with the leftist movement in Mexico in 1920 and moved to Mexico to work for a magazine publisher.

    She eventually became unhappy with the revolutionary movement and became skeptical of religion. She would move between Mexico and New York many times between 1920 and 1930. It was during this time she began to write short stories. Her first story was called "Maria Concepción" in The Century Magazine. Her first short story collection, Flowering Judas and Other Stories, was published in 1930. In 1935, an expanded edition was released and received much critical acclaim.

    Katherine Anne Porter, New York City Street, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Katherine Anne Porter traveled between New York City between 1920 and 1930.

    This launched her writing career, and over two decades, Porter wrote many literary pieces and was a distinguished writer in America. In 1943, she was elected to become a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. She was also a writer-in-residence at the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan, and the University of Virginia. She taught at various universities such as Stanford University and the University of Texas between 1948 and 1958.

    In 1962, Porter published Ship of Fools (1962), her only novel. It was this novel that finally gave Porter the financial security she was lacking her entire career.

    Ship of Fools was adapted into a film by Abby Man and produced by Stanley Kramer. Porter sold the rights to her novel for approximately $500,000, which today would be worth over 3 million dollars.

    In 1966, Porter was awarded The Pulitzer Prize and the U.S. National Book Award for The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter (1965). In 1977, Porter published The Never-Ending Wrong. On the 18th of September 1980, Porter died from old age. She was 90 years old.

    The Short Stories of Katherine Anne Porter

    Katherine Anne Porter was well known for her short stories. She wrote many short story collections over her lifetime and received critical acclaim for her work. There are a few key characteristics that make Porter's work stand out. Porter was not in favor of creating a writing style and preferred to write in whatever way came naturally and simply.

    Katherine Anne Porter, Antique Paper Writing, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Porter wrote many short stories.

    Her work heavily relies on the use of symbolism, the use of memory to build characters, and intertwining the personal lives of her characters with politics. Let's look at one of her most famous short stories: "Flowering Judas" and "Noon Wine."

    "Flowering Judas" from Flowering Judas and Other Stories (1930)

    "Flowering Judas" centers on Laura, a young woman who ventures to Mexico. There, she meets Braggioni, a leader in the Mexican Revolution. The two clash as Laura is more traditional than Braggioni, who is a fierce and charismatic socialist. Laura finds herself falling deeper and deeper into isolation. She even begins to question her faith. The story relies heavily on Christian symbolism and themes such as class, revolution, and idealism.

    …and from the Judas tree he stripped the warm bleeding flowers, and held them to her lips. She saw that his hand was fleshless, a cluster of small white petrified branches, and his eye sockets were without light, but she ate the flowers greedily for they satisfied both hunger and thirst. Murderer! said Eugenio, and Cannibal! This is my body and my blood," ("Flowering Judas").

    This excerpt, a dream scene, is rich in Christian symbolism. The Judas Tree references the tree Judas hanged himself from when he betrayed Jesus in the New Testament. The flower represents the Eucharist, an act of worship in which worshipers symbolically eat and drink the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. Here, Laura eats flowers from the Judas tree greedily. But Laura is condemned for her action. This scene is symbolic of Laura's betrayal of her Christian faith by distancing herself from it.

    "Noon Wine" in Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939)

    "Noon Wine" centers on Royal Earle Thompson, a farmer who is married to a Sunday school teacher and father to two children. The story is set in Texas between 1896-1905 and mirrors Porter's childhood. Olaf Eric Helton, a swede, arrives in the town, and Homer T. Hatch, an unlikeable, greedy man.

    From that point on, all chaos breaks loose, including a murder. The short story contains themes of guilt, human motivation, human nature, and the conflict between good and evil. "Noon Wife" plays on the Christian concept of Original Sin, which indicates all human beings are born into sin because Adam falls from Eden. The story of Adam and Eve as well as the story of Cain and Abel can also be found subtly throughout the text.

    Ship of Fools: a Novel by Katherine Anne Porter

    Katherine Anne Porter only wrote one novel in her lifetime, Ship of Fools. Aboard a German passenger ship named "Vera," a group of characters is sailing from Mexico to Europe. Different nationalities are on board, including Swiss, Germans, Cubans, Americans, and Spaniards. Each has been torn from their original residences and lacks their roots. They start as acquaintances, but as time drags on, differences in ideology, religion, and belief begin to cause conflicts. Hatred burns through the ship, but people try to maintain appearances. Suddenly, as the passengers reach their destination and disembark the ship, life seemingly goes back to normal.

    Katherine Anne Porter, Ships at Sea, StudySmarterFig. 4 - Ships of Fools is set on a ship heading to Europe from Mexico.

    The novel is a complex depiction of the world. Porter manages to create an entirely new world on the ship. Each character plays into archetypes of their country and background. In essence, the novel explores worldly conflicts. The novel delves into themes such as self-delusion, a condemnation of Antisemitism, the persistence of evil in good, and the belief that there is never a happy ever after.

    Themes in Katherine Anne Porter's Writing

    Katherine Anne Porter wrote about many important themes in her writing. The key themes are freedom in the face of conventional society, female American Adam figures, the constraints on women by society and tradition, and human motivation and nature in the face of tradition and myth. Many of the themes intertwine within her novels.

    Miranda, the protagonist in "Pale Horse, Pale Rider," comes to represent three of these themes: freedoms in the face of conventional society, the female American Adam figure, and the constraints on women by society and tradition. Miranda is conscious of the role women play in society and what society expects of them: to be beautiful and bear many children. The whole female identity is wrapped in that and any woman who speaks out against it is an outcast.

    Much like Adam is cast out of the Garden of Eden for his sin, Miranda begins to recognize the unfairness of the role of women. She is conflicted. She understands her expected role, but this would biologically trap her. She wants to reject traditional expectations and live as a man might, with the ability to have land and money and be politically active.

    Quotes by Katherine Anne Porter

    Here are a few quotes by Katherine Anne Porter that will give you a better sense of her writing style.

    'It is not very good. Her hair and her smile were her chief beauties, and they aren’t shown at all. She was much slimmer than that, too. There were never any fat women in the family, thank God.'" ("Pale Horse, Pale Rider")

    In this quote from "Pale Horse, Pale Rider," Porter emphasizes the societal expectation of women. Women, especially in the early to mid 20th century when Porter was writing, were valued especially for their beauty. Here, the character Harry is remarking that his late sister was beautiful and that is the only thing he has to comment on. He does not mention her intellect or talents, only her beauty.

    I would do this for them: I would put them all in a big oven and turn on the gas," (Ship of Fools, Part 1)

    In this quote spoken by Herr Rieber in Ship of Fools, the racism is blatant. He is speaking about the poor Spanish passengers on the ship. Herr Rieber, who represents pre-war German ideals, is a white supremacist and racist who would rather have people he looks down upon dead than have to spend time around them. Porter intentionally wrote Herr Rieber's character in such a way to portray the racist, white supremacist, and antisemitic sentiments felt by many in Pre-War Germany.

    While she was rummaging around she found death in her mind and it felt clammy and unfamiliar. She had spent so much time preparing for death there was no need for bringing it up again," (The Jilting of Granny Weatherall).

    In the short story "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall," death is all around Granny Weatherall. She is nearing her death but finds it uncomfortable and unfamiliar, despite how much time she has spent preparing for it. Rather than reject these feelings of discomfort and unfamiliarity, Granny Weatherall simply allows it to happen and does not mention death often.

    Katherine Anne Porter - Key takeaways

    • Katherine Anne Porter was born in Texas in 1890.
    • After moving frequently and falling ill, Porter decided to become a writer and moved back and forth between New York City and Mexico.
    • Over her lifetime, Porter wrote many short story collections, such as Flowering Judas and Other Stories, and Porter wrote one novel titled Ship of Fools.
    • The key themes in Porter's writing include freedoms in the face of conventional society, female American Adam figures, the constraints on women by society and tradition, and human motivation and nature in the face of tradition and myth.
    • Porter often used symbolism, particularly Christian symbolism, politics, and the use of memory, to build characters in her work.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Katherine Anne Porter

    How did Katherine Anne Porter die? 

    On the 18th of September 1980, Porter died from old age 

    What short story is Katherine Anne Porter known for? 

    Katherine Anne Porter is most well known for her short story collections Pale Horse, Pale Rider, and Flowering Judas and Other Stories

    What was Katherine Anne Porter's writing style? 

    Porter was not in favor of creating a writing style and preferred to write in whatever way came naturally and simply 

    Why is Katherine Anne Porter important? 

    Katherine Anne Porter is an important author who has won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

    When was Katherine Anne Porter born? 

    Katherine Anne Porter was born on the 15th of May 1890. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Ship of Fools takes place during August _________. 

    In Ship of Fools, the passengers are onboard a German vessel named _______. 

    Which genre best describes Ship of Fools? 

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