South by Southwest: Texas and the Deep South in the Stories of Katherine Anne Porter

JOHN BLAIR

When I first came to live in San Marcos, Texas, about ten miles or so south of Katherine Anne Porter's hometown of Kyle, I discovered I would be living on a kind of geographical cusp between what to all appearances was the Wild West and the Old South. To the west is the Texas Hill Country with its sere white limestone and its scrubby post oak and cedar, and to the east, just below where the university sits up on the edge of the Balcones Escarpment, begins the rich farmland of the Blackland prairie with its great southern-plantation-style stretches of cotton. It's easy to understand how someone brought up here could find herself torn and uneasy about where her allegiances lay.
Throughout her life, Katherine Anne Porter always seemed to be looking for someplace else by which to define herself, not as a denial of where she came from, but as a search for an identity that would fulfill for her the longings for aristocracy which were instilled in her by her hardscrabble upbringing. Joan Givner, Porter's biographer, tells us that
Her disgust with the haphazard mess of ordinary life began in her early childhood. Even then she could not reconcile herself to life as one of four motherless children, raised on the bare bones of privation by an ailing grandmother.... Later the fantasies about her family produced some of her most successful fiction, the stories which evoke a mythical Old South which she had never known, and which was, in fact, indigenous to the eastern states rather than Texas.1
Givner is fairly atypical among Porter scholars in recognizing how inappropriate Porter's Southernness in her fiction is to the realities of her origins. Most of the comment on Porter's work has noted the Old South flavor of certain of her stories, but it has tended to gloss over this as either appropriate because her far-flung ancestors were actually Kentuckians or has ignored the discrepancy altogether. The latter seem to imply by omission that the Southernness of her stories was appropriate to the part of Texas in which she was raised, but clearly, though there is cotton nearby, central Texas has little in common with the Deep South plantation culture Porter evokes in stories such as "Old Mortality" and "The Old Order."
There is little of the sense of the frontier or the West about Porter's stories, little of the sense of new world brashness that so often attends the work of Texas writers like Larry McMurtry or J. Frank Dobie. Don Graham suggests that Porter was motivated by the purely practical considerations of marketability, that she recognized that there was, as he puts it, "an advantage for a writer to be identified with the South." 2 But though Porter was surely conscious of the lack of respect for Texas fiction in general among the literary taste makers of her day, I think there was probably much more to it than this, and most of Porter's reasons for coloring her work with Southern image and ambiance are, I would hazard, a good deal less conscious than that.
The most southern of Porter's stories are always about the past, a time and a place, as Harry Mooney Jr. describes it, "splendidly romantic and always redolent of a promise that the present never seems to fulfill." 3 For Porter though, the past never even quite fulfilled itself, in that as much as she seemed to long for a "splendidly romantic" past of her own, only in her stories, in the avatar of herself she creates in the character of Miranda, can she actually possess one. But how she tried to pretend. In the essay "Portrait: Old South," Porter recalls with apocryphal wonder the "limitless depths of bitter memory" that supposedly held the members of her family in its thrall. "My elders," she writes, "all remained nobly unreconstructed to their last moments, and my feet rest firmly on this rock of their strength to this day." 4 Givner tells that "to even her closest friends she spoke of dining on the plantation in a room whose paneling had been copied from the original paneling brought from England, and she displayed as family heirlooms items she had purchased in antique shops." 5 That her family was in fact fairly undistinguished and possessed very little in the way of heirlooms seemed to pain her deeply, and this unhappiness with her own true origins finds its way into the stories. What Porter clearly was looking for in her fiction as well as in her life was the depth of identity that goes with family myth; she wanted the images like the massive silver dish of butter she describes in "Portrait: Old South" as part of a long-ago and probably imagined bridal banquet which she tells us she can't get over, all of it "as late-Roman and decadent as anything ever thought up in Hollywood." 6 What she longed for was the storied excesses of blood, inherited, refined, and cherished, and however specious her claims to it, the longing itself makes for a terribly sad sort of beauty in her fiction.
The Miranda stories are the most strongly southern of Porter's stories and, not coincidentally, the most overtly autobiographical as well; given her craving for an aristocratic heritage, it is not surprising that the stories in which her own childhood works itself out are the ones over which the misted and wishful patina of Southern gentility is draped most deeply. Of Miranda in "The Old Order" she writes, "she had vague stirrings of desire for luxury and a grand way of living which could not take precise form in her imagination but were founded on family legend of past wealth and leisure." This is certainly Porter describing herself, though the "family legend" she grew up with was thin indeed, and the evidence seems to be that she borrowed freely from the more general family romance that attends the image of Southern aristocracy. Porter paints a lovingly idyllic picture of the family romance as she knew it in the essay "Audubon's Happy Land," wherein she writes of the Southern folk who "pushed back the Louisiana jungle mile by mile, uncovered rich lands, and raised splendid crops. They built charming houses and filled them with furniture from France and England. Their silver and porcelain and linen were such as befitted their pride, which was high, and their tastes, which were delicate and expensive. Their daughters sang, danced, and played the harpsichord; their sons played the flute and fought duels; they collected libraries, they hunted and played chess, and spent the winter season in New Orleans." 7 This image of gentility braced with the iron demands of honor is the one that seems to thoroughly color the youth of Miranda as she grows up in Grandmother's home in Texas, a home that, in Porter's imagination at least, belongs as much on some moss-hung stretch of the Natchez Trace as deep in the heart of the Lone Star State.
"Old Mortality," the first of the Miranda stories, begins with a portrayal of Miranda's fabled Aunt Amy, who is held up by the rest of the family as the epitome of young womanhood, and who is, in her sedate perfections, the distilled and perfected image of the Southern myth of woman. Miranda sums her up for the reader as "a sad, pretty story from old times" who "had been beautiful, much loved, unhappy, and she had died young." 8 As a memory she is ethereal and ever-present as a compelling composite of feminine virtue, and she preys upon Miranda's young imagination as challenge and as reproach.
As Robert Penn Warren points out, "Old Mortality" is about the search for self-definition,9 and, like Porter herself, Miranda is compelled by a need to find an identity, some image of self, which will sustain her. Though Miranda––unlike Porter––has already been granted aristocratic blood and upbringing, she still searches for someone in particular to be; her options are to emulate the Southern belles she grows up admiring or to define herself through some Willed act of self-determination by becoming a wife or a race jockey or even a writer. Like Porter, Miranda's first act of self-determination outside her family was to marry, though she does seem to realize almost immediately, as Porter did in her own life, the futility of this.
Watching her father and her Aunt Eva share the memories of their common past as the story draws to an end, Miranda thinks to herself, "'It is I who have no place.... Where are my own people and my own time?"' And she resents them, resents the power of inherited memory over her, resents
in profound silence, the presence of these aliens who lectured and admonished her, who loved her with bitterness and denied her the right to look at the world with her own eyes, who demanded that she accept their version of life and yet could not tell her the truth, not in the smallest thing. "I hate them both," her most inner and secret mind said plainly, "I will be free of them, I shall not even remember them." 10
This is the voice of youth in its deepest naiveté, and when she tells us that "her mind closed stubbornly against remembering, not the past but the legend of the past, other people's memory of the past, at which she had spent her life peering in wonder like a child at a magic-lantern show," 11 we identify with how childish and futile that gesture is. And we feel, I think, the undertone of Porter's own somewhat peevish irony, suggesting to us that Miranda is too self-absorbed to realize how fortunate she really is to have these things so that she might resent them. Miranda does realize, at least, how foolish her resistance is as the story closes with her thinking desperately that "at least I can know the truth about what happens to me ... making a promise to herself, in her hopefulness, her ignorance." 12 The voice is older, looking back and recognizing how little she really knew about what knowledge is, how little of it really amounts to truth in its purest form. As Ray West puts it, this last line of the story is about "the dilemma of all who seek understanding," about, that is, the fact that you can never truly know who you are apart from others, that truth becomes memory and therefore mutable. With Miranda's resistance to memory and the past in mind, Eudora Welty writes that
Miss Porter's stories are not so much a stand against the romantic as such, as a repudiation of the false. What alone can instruct the heart is the experience of living, experience which can be vile; but what can never do it any good, what harms it more than vileness, are those tales, those legends of more than any South, those universal false dreams, the hopes sentimental and ubiquitous, which are not on any account to be gone by.13
But as much as Miranda might seem to resist, Welty is wrong about her, and wrong about Porter as well. The seductiveness of pride of place is part of Miranda as it was part of Porter, and the underpinnings of this pride are the very mythologizing Ms. Welty felt that Porter undermines in her stories, but which in fact held her fascinated and helpless before its promise of stability and genteel compass. Whatever landscape she identifies with and whatever she might intend, Porter is a Southern Romanticist of the sort Welty herself most often is, not blindly laudatory, to be sure, but hopefully impressionistic in her portrayal of a people and a place. Those "legends of more than any South" are how she wished her Texas landscape to be, and Miranda's rejection of them is not Porter's, and not even, finally, we realize, Miranda's either.
Unlike Welty, though, Porter is prone to letting Southern color seep into the corners of her stories with its old-home nostalgia and easy stereotypes, and this is probably because for her, unlike Welty, the landscape and its social nuances come less from knowledge and more from wishfulness. Porter seems especially given to this with the black characters in "The Old Order," who often seem cut to the old apocryphal patterns of wily Negro shiftlessness, needing a guiding white hand to keep them on the straight and narrow. The character of the grandmother provides this paternalistic guidance, performing her inspections and giving instructions with "Dicy and Hinry and Bumper and Keg following" trying to explain that things was just a little out of shape right now because they'd had so much outside work they hadn't just been able to straighten out the way they meant to; but they were going to get at it right away." 14 This is annoying, but understandable, since these black family servants never actually existed in the Porter household.
Porter dips particularly deeply into stereotype with "Old Nanny" and "Uncle Jimbilly," the oldest and most traditional of the various Negro retainers on Grandmother's place. Uncle Jimbilly, Old Nanny's husband, is a typical Negro layabout who, when Old Nanny moves out of the big house into her own cabin, tries to insinuate himself into her new-found independence by the simple expedient of sitting down on the porch, where he "sunned himself like a weary dog." Old Nanny declares she has served her time and she will have none of it; rebuked, Uncle Jimbilly "crept back up the hill and into his smoke-house attic, and never went near her again." This is caricature of the basic, humorous sort Mark Twain was fond of in books like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Porter, however, seems unaware of the ironic humor implicit in this characterization, and it undercuts the otherwise thoughtful tone of the depiction. But the portrayal of the character of Nanny rises somewhat above this, in that she is given the additional dimensions of dignity and inflexible will. The description Porter gives us of Nanny in her old age borders on familiarity but manages to transcend it, I think, in its well-wrought detail:
She had always worn black wool dresses, or black and white figured calico with starchy white aprons and a white ruffled mobcap, or a black taffety cap for Sundays. She had been finicking precise and neat in her ways, and she still was of independent means, sitting on the steps, breathing the free air. She began wearing a blue bandanna wrapped around her head, and at the age of eighty-five she took to smoking a corncob pipe.15
Even taking into account the colorful stereotyping in which she sometimes indulges, I don't mean to imply that Porter would not have had firsthand knowledge of some of the details that give these stories their flavor of Southernness. Part of the reason that Porter's particularly Southern mise en scene strikes one as out of place is that this obsession with the past and with gentility and a lapsarian sense of loss has become since the onset of the Southern Renaissance keyed to the Deep South, particularly to Faulkner's Mississippi. Western or Texan means new in the popular imagination; it means unpolished and ungenteel, and it can mean melancholy and nostalgic though rarely does it mean regretful. But slavery and defeat were in fact part of Texas history, though for most Texans, including Porter's family, all that was at something of a remove. For Texans as well as for Tidewater Virginians and the sons and daughters of Mississippi Delta planters, the Southern myth of gentility and moneyed grace was a cultural institution that over generations worked its legends into the general ethos. Margaret Mitchell delivered this image as nostalgia to the nation at large, but long before that it was the signal fantasy of an entire region, including the state of Texas, which of course saw little of the reality of plantation aristocracy. The romantic impulse toward the "love of legend" Miranda attributes to her father's family in "Old Mortality" is classically as much as it is Deep Southern; this is the state, after all, of "Remember the Alamo," of a pride in the past and its glorious defeats as profound as any to be found east of the Mississippi. When Miranda declares of her family that "their hearts and imaginations were captivated by the past, a past in which worldly considerations had played a very minor role," we think in a knee-jerk way of the so-called "Southern Cult of Memory," associated as it is with writers of the Deep South; but we might just as properly think of a correspondingly compulsive Texan penchant for glorying in a mythologlized past.
Still, it's clear that Porter longed for a personal past that was more Southern in the Delta plantation sense than Southern in the somewhat less refined Texan sense. Givner suggests that "since she lacked any effective parental model during her formative years, it might be expected that Porter's sense of identity would be weak, her image of herself a tremulous and uncertain one." 16 That, perhaps, is the root of her longing for a storied and established heritage, one that would be colorful and immutable and undeniably her own. She longed, that is, for the security and respect that goes with blood. "Western," in Porter's mind, must have suggested much the same thing as "common," and one suspects that despite her often liberated ways, she agreed with Miranda's grandmother, who insisted that Miranda's mother had been "altogether too Western, too modern, something like the 'new' woman who was begin- ning to run wild." 17
In the end, I don't think it too much to suggest that Porter felt as Eudora Welty's Laurel Hand does in her novel The Optimist's Daughter that the past with its weight of memory and disappointment should be "vulnerable to the living moment," that it should, in other words, be kept sacrosanct and pure only so far as it makes living possible in the present. Miranda asks of her grandmother and her grandmother's body servant, "Who knows why they loved the past?" But Porter certainly knew, and she cherished that same past, the icons and the relics over which tears were shed, the stories of suffering and grace and old gentility, as if it were her own, because in a way, through the power of her imagination, it was.

FOOTNOTES

  1. Katherine Anne Porter: A Life (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982), p. 18.
  2. "A Southern Writer in Texas: Porter and the Texas Literary Tradition." In Katherine Anne Porter and Texas: An Uneasy Relationship (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 1990), p. 58.
  3. The Fiction and Criticism of Katherine Anne Porter (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1962), p. 31.
  4. The Days Before (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1926), p. 156.
  5. A Life, p. 20.
  6. The Days Before, p. 157.
  7. Ibid., p. 163.
  8. The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972), p. 173.
  9. "Irony with a Center." In Katherine Anne Porter: A Collection of Critical Essays(Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1979), p. 7.
  10. Collected Stories, p. 219.
  11. Ibid., p. 219.
  12. Ibid., p. 219.
  13. "The Eye of the Story. "In Katherine Anne Porter: A Collection of Critical Essays.
  14. Collected Stories, p. 323.
  15. Ibid., p. 349.
  16. A Life, p. 51.
  17. Collected Stories, p. 333.