Darlene Harbour Unrue, Katherine Anne Porter Remembered
Publisher: The University of Alabama Press
2010, 313 pages, hardcover, $45
IN THE INTRODUCTION to Katherine Anne Porter Remembered, Darlene Harbour Unrue states her objective: to provide her reader with “a composite portrait” of Porter, who led an explosive life and posthumously became even more intriguing because of the mysterious holes in her biography. Although Porter was seldom outright mendacious—except about her age, which she clipped by several years, and about her marriages, of which she claimed only three (of five)—Porter had a tendency towards dissembling. She let assumptions stand. Her friend Glenway Wescott, a writer, said “she seems to like to simplify a part of the record of her existence for any sort of questioner [. . .] For some reason I never like to question or cross-question her about things.” Even today, many questions remain regarding what’s “true” about Katherine Anne Porter.
And so it is fascinating, even gripping, to read through the documents collected in Katherine Anne Porter Remembered. Each selection in the book is a firsthand account of life with Porter. Unrue has included sixty-three pieces by fifty-two authors. Nearly half the selections have never before been published; they were written specifically for inclusion in Katherine Anne Porter Remembered or were transcribed from the interviews Unrue conducted while researching Porter in the 1980s and 90s. As such, much of the material is candid, and the reminiscences, while often moving, are not elegiac to the point of being soft. The reader is left with a strong sense of Porter’s complicated personality.
Because they are often contradictory, the personal accounts included in Katherine Anne Porter Remembered are especially delicious, giving us Miss Porter in all her dimensions. However, what’s similar throughout is that Katherine Anne Porter clearly made a strong impression, be it through her charms or her demands, on nearly everyone she met. She commanded—and devoured—attention. And she was fiercely loved by many, although she may not have always felt secure in this.
Most of those who knew her when they were children remembered her fondly, but not without an edge of intimidation. Robert Plunkett, whose parents were close friends with Porter, notes she “didn’t seem to me to have much of a sense of humor, especially when it was directed at her.” Her devoted nephew Paul Porter echoes the same sentiment but also notes his aunt’s conviviality:
Aunt Katherine had very little sense of humor about herself, and
you teased her at the risk of your life, or at least psychic maiming;
but she had a great talent for fun. She could be difficult,
unreasonable, touchy, often just plain impossible [. . .] but she was
always fascinating, and more often than not, a joy to be with [. . .]
She generated a kind of infectious excitement which she imparted
to those around her, making life seem more vivid, brighter, more
completely felt than usual.
Women in the literary establishment held mixed views. Elizabeth Anderson, Sherwood Anderson’s third wife, wrote that Porter “had a dark prettiness and was a strange, complicated girl who could be perfectly charming or perfectly horrible with no apparent reason for either extreme.” (Anderson also complained that Porter was a useless cook; this opinion was reversed by those who knew her later in life, perhaps due to a year Porter spent at Le Cordon Bleu.) Eudora Welty considered her a great friend and mentor, and took solace in learning that Porter struggled with writing even as she worked on Ship of Fools at Yaddo. “To me it came as no shock the writing itself, the act, might always be hard,” Welty wrote. “The better the writer, the harder writing knew how to be. [. . .] Katherine Anne was helping me to recognize living with difficulty as a form of passion.”
She could be generous of spirit, but she could also be cruel, and until suffering multiple strokes late in life, she was always sharp-witted and quick. James Ruoff, one of her students, said, “She was a superb teacher. There was a candid affection in her eyes and voice, and every word seemed to arrange itself behind the other with compelling force and accuracy.” William R. Wilkins, her assistant and friend, remembers Porter as
merry, fun-loving, and witty. She had a great sense of humor,
although sometimes barbed and aimed at one of her acquaintances
or a former friend. At one of the events in her honor at the
University of Maryland, her then current physician showed up in a
tuxedo with a bright yellow cummerbund and bowtie. “He looks
like a five-hundred-pound canary,” Katherine Anne whispered to
me. After one of her dinner parties, Fern asked whether she could
help Katherine Anne clear the table. “No,” Katherine Anne replied,
“that’s what that wretch does in the mornings,” referring to a maid
who found it impossible to please her.
But the recollections that are the most resonant in Katherine Anne Porter Remembered recall her artistic perceptiveness and incredible mind. E. Barrett Prettyman, Porter’s friend and lawyer, remarked that “There was often a sadness in her, which was endearing, and one never knew whether she was living primarily in the real world or in that wonderful world of her imagination.” And Clark Dobson, who knew Porter when he was a young academic, gives us what is perhaps the most touching anecdote in Unrue’s collection. In an essay that was written specifically for the book, he writes about attending Prokofiev’s opera War and Peace with Porter:
I also learned a great lesson about Katherine Anne that night, and
perhaps about great artists in general. I can remember her
touching my arm and pointing upwards. In the rafters of the Wolf
Trap auditorium were a large number of technicians I had never
realized were there. They were all silhouetted against a blue sky
that reminded me of a bottle of “Evening in Paris” perfume, a rich
dark cobalt blue. In an interesting and perceptive way, she had
captured the uniqueness and beauty of the moment. I realized
that, even in her eighties, she missed very little in the world
around her. I think that storing up impressions like this one was
an important habit for her. She simply saw everything, and she
saw it differently than I did.
Despite all the contradictions in Porter’s life—and even those she encouraged others to believe—as an admirer of Porter’s work, I’d have to say that this last remembrance rings absolutely true.