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'This Strange, Old World' and Other Book Reviews by Katherine Ann Porter.

Roland Barthes suggests an interesting game to play with a third-person narration: Try to change the point of view by systematically substituting first- for third-person nouns or pronouns. In the following passage from Katherine Anne Porter's "The Grave," for instance, "I/my" has been appropriately substituted for each "Miranda/she/her":

[1] leaped into the pit that had held [my] grandfather's bones. Scratching around

aimlessly and pleasurably as any young animal,[I] scooped up a lump of earth and

weighed it in [my] palm. It had a pleasantly sweet, corrupt smell, being mixed with

cedar needles and small leaves, and as the crumbs fell apart, [I) saw a silver dove

no larger than a hazel nut, with spread wings and a neat fan-shaped tail. The breast

had a deep round hollow in it. Turning it up to the fierce sunlight, [I] saw that

the inside of the hollow was cut in little whorls. [I] scrambled out, over the pile

of loose earth that had fallen back into one end of the grave, calling to Paul that

[I] had found something, he must guess what ... His head appeared smiling over

the rim of another grave.(1)

This version of the story, told from Miranda's perspective, reads perfectly sensibly.

But told from Paul's perspective, "I/me/my" substituted for each "Paul/his," the narrative would be rather muddled:

Miranda scrambled out, over the pile of loose earth that had fallen back into one

end of the grave, calling to [me] that she had found something, [I] must guess what

... [My] head appeared smiling over the rim of another grave.

The last sentence has Paul rather oddly looking at himself from the outside. And the entire text works this way: "I" can replace Miranda but not Paul. Such a simple game suggests that "The Grave" is what Barthes calls a "personal system," - that is, a first-person narration (Miranda's) masquerading as a third-person one.(2)

One of Porter's short stories with which such a rewriting exercise doesn't work is "Rope." That text's indirect narration resists easy substitutions:

Well, in that case, he wanted to know what the hammer and nails were doing

up there? And why had she put them there when she knew very well he needed that

hammer and those nails upstairs to fix the window sashes? She simply slowed down

everything and made double work on the place with her insane habit of changing

things around and hiding them.

She was sure she begged his pardon, and if she had had any reason to believe

he was going to fix the sashes this summer she would have left the hammer and

nails right where he put them; in the middle of the bedroom floor where they could

step on them in the dark. And now if he didn't clear the whole mess out of there

she would throw them down the well. (p. 44)

Such indirectness, among other things, leads Irvin Ehrenpreis to identify "Rope" as representative of Porter's achievement. He especially praises two "crafty features" in its construction: "One is that the author takes neither side, for both partners to the quarrel are childish and abrasive. The other secret is that while the story is almost entirely in dialogue, the speech is all indirect, with penetrating touches of description and narrative. The consequence is to make the action seem impartially reported, typical of human behavior, almost the enactment of a fable."(3)

What Ehrenpreis praises, in other words, is Porter's modernism, that is, her aestheticizing of a naturalistic attitude: This is just the way things are, "Rope" seems to say, and I'm just recording, objectively, what happens. The easy rewriting of "The Grave," however, vexes such an asserted transparency. The simple exercise opens up the text, suggesting that Porter's "The Grave" is only one not-inevitable version of a story. Thus the original third-person narration can be seen as a sort of disguise, a mask of pseudo-objectivity which can be penetrated (Scholes, p. 39). Such substitution begins to demystify the "secrets" of Porter's "craft," thus perhaps raising questions, which I'll return to later, about " enactments of fables" and "impartial reporting," questions, in other words, about truth and style.

Such a foregrounding of Porter's modernist aesthetic provides, I hope, a useful framework for a review of "This Strange, Old World" and Other Book Reviews by Katherine Anne Porter, edited by Darlene Harbour Unrue, and a revised edition of Katherine Anne Porter: A Life (first published in 1982), by Joan Givner, both issued by the University of Georgia Press.

All sixty-seven of Porter's book reviews were written between 1920 and 1958, mostly out of the need to make money, especially early on, but also to promote the work of friends (such as Glenway Wescott and Josephine Herbst), to advocate deeply held views (such as women's rights), or to present a case for art (such as Diego Rivera's paintings or her own aesthetic views). Porter herself thought enough of these reviews to publish seven of them in The Collected Essays and Occasional Writings (1970) to accompany the twelve already collected in The Days Before (1952), where she said, speaking of her fiction and her nonfiction, "It is all one thing. The two ways of working helped and supported each other. I needed both."(4) Thus we should be glad for the forty-eight reviews Unrue has gathered, with a helpful descriptive introduction, into "This Strange, Old World."

This volume is predictably mixed, filling out, as it does, the complete book reviews of Porter, especially since Porter's two collections contained her reviews of such heavyweights as Lawrence, Stein, Cather, Woolf, and so on. What remained for Unrue was to bring together more or less weighty reviews of fiction, poetry, biography, travel, history, anthropology, sociology, and philosophy, most of it by second- or third-rate writers.

Collectively, however, even the lesser reviews are suggestive in ways they would not be alone and perhaps imply the sort of oneness Porter spoke of. Read from beginning to end, for example, "This Strange, Old World" seems remarkably of a piece, both stylistically and intellectually, the first review (1924) almost indistinguishable from the last (1951), as Unrue notes. Moreover, as Unrue states (but unfortunately doesn't elaborate), the reviews collectively, and consistently, "define, implicitly and explicitly, the critical apparatus that Porter applied to others' works and that underlies the aesthetic assumptions of her own fiction" (p. xi).

Thus, interestingly, the reviews don't seem to answer the penetrating question, raised by Julian Symons, for example, of how a "little-educated neurotic Texas housewife-turned-journalist became the woman who wrote stories which are often romantic in feeling but always calmly classical in tone, and charmed her own generation of American writers with her manners and education."(5) What did she read, Symons wonders, and when did she read it? Even the reviews, however, are little help in answering. For although they tell us something of what she read, when she read it, and even what she thought about it, the reviews strangely lack any sense of "becoming." With the reviews as with the fiction, Porter's style and intellect seem not forming, not developing, but somehow, mysteriously, just there - pure, fluid, intense, precise, graceful, impersonal, almost untroubled, all those adjectives which have been used to characterize her work. Despite this collection Porter's origins as a writer and aesthetician remain teasingly, suggestively mystified. We're back, it seems, to impartial reporting of typical human behavior, the enactment of fables. Which leads, of course, to Porter's biography.

"Since Katherine Anne Porter: A Life was finished ten years ago," Joan Givner begins her revised edition, "some new information has become available and, more importantly, material that was for various reasons under embargo, is now accessible. Accordingly, this year, the hundredth anniversary of Porter's birth, is a fitting time for revision and reassessment" (p. 1). Disappointingly, however, the volume is essentially a reissue of the original, and the "revision and reassessment" are limited to a thirteen-page "Preface to the Revised Edition" and a three-page "Epilogue to the Revised Edition."

The "new information" Givner includes derives from the recently surfaced scrapbook of a former patient at the Carlsbad sanatorium, where Porter was herself a patient for some months in 1916. The scrapbook suggests that Porter's battle with tuberculosis was more serious and affecting than had been previously believed and that tuberculosis, of influenza, brought about the near-death experience which changed Porter's life and eventually supplied some of the autobiographical background to "Pale Horse, Pale Rider."

The previously embargoed information concerns "one of the murkiest episodes" (p. 3) of Porter's life and raises a number of interesting questions: In 1942 Porter apparently falsely informed to the FBI on her friend Josephine Herbst. This episode was first reconstructed by Herbst's biographer, Elinor Langer, from materials obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. In rejecting Langer's conclusion that Porter acted out of malice, enjoying the knowledge that she was doing a foul deed, Givner turns "to the fiction," she says, "to make sense" of Porter's betrayal of Herbst (p. 4).

The short story Holiday," says Givner, is "emblematic" of Porter's life and helps to explain the Herbst affair. The situation of the first-person female narrator "images that of the woman writer in the larger world" (p. 5). A stranger visiting in a patriarchal world which speaks a language she doesn't understand (German), the narrator occupies an attic, plans to write letters to which she expects no answer, and plans to read women's books left in the attic by a former occupant. Ironically, however, the narrator recoils from her one contact with a real, human female, the servant girl, Ottilie, a mute cripple, an outcast daughter of the family, whose situation mirrors the narrator's own. When a brief and vaguely sexual intimacy develops on a springtime outing, the narrator grows alarmed: "My sense of her realness, her humanity ... was so shocking to me that a howl as doglike as her own rose in me unuttered and died again" (p. 434). Ultimately the narrator too denies Ottilie.

Givner rightly states "that something more is at stake" in the Herbst affair "than merely an attempt partially to exonerate Porter" (p. 10). Specifically, she says, the "unhappy outcome" of Porter and Herbst's relationship is "a powerful illustration of the difficulty of female friendship and loyalty under patriarchy" (p. 10). Holiday," says Givner, is the "purest expression of Porter's equal discomfort in the world of men and the world of women and of her ambivalence as she wavered between the two" (p. 6). The story embodies three powerful tensions which Porter likely never completely resolved: the ambiguous role of the woman writer, the lure of lesbianism, and the fear of pariahdom. These unresolved tensions, Givner plausibly concludes, obliquely comment on the Herbst affair and, along with simple loneliness, help to explain Porter's actions.

I question, though, Givner's turn to "pure expression" in a formal fiction, in "literature." Such a move is at odds with the sort of feminist cultural critique she seems to be calling for. I would suggest that these three ambivalences appear more suggestively in one of Porter's other fictions, a non-"literary" one: the FBI report on Herbst herself. We might look, for example, at the following episode, three of the report's fourteen paragraphs:

Informant 1 [Porter] further advised that during most of 1935, except for intermittent

trips to Moscow, HERBST was in Berlin, Germany, endeavoring to get German

Communists out of Germany and into the United States. During this year,

ANDRE HENRI BARBUSSE, famous French writer, died in Russia. His body was

shipped to Paris, France, for burial. At this time HERBST traveled from Moscow

to Paris for the subsequently admitted purpose of transmitting a message from the

Moscow Government to a French Communist leader named LOUIS ARAGON.

HERBST stated that she and ARAGON chose a public cafe for their meeting place

on the day of BARBUSSE'S funeral procession through the streets of Paris. HERBST

stated that this day was chosen for the meeting since the cafes would be practically

empty due to BARBUSSE'S funeral. HERBST and ARAGON had not met prior to

this time. So that they could identify one another, each wore a red carnation and

carried a newspaper under his arm.

It was further advised that in speaking of the above meeting, HERBST informed

she was very indignant over the way ARAGON had treated her. She stated that ARAGON

did not seem interested in receiving the message she had brought but rather

spent most of the time rebuffing her for conduct he termed "indiscrete" in arranging

for their meeting place. She also advised that ARAGON had told her she was

not a "good" courier and agent for Moscow.

It was at this time, while speaking indig[n]antly concerning her treatment at

the hands of ARAGON, that HERBST implied by her conversation that she had

been acting as courier for the Moscow Government for some time.(6)

It's not difficult to read "Aragon" as Porter's projection of herself into this self-consciously fictive melodrama. (The red carnation and newspaper especially call attention to themselves, since biographical texts indicate Herbst and Aragon were well acquainted.) And it's not difficult to see how radically the gender shift effected by such a projection, from female to male, simplifies and clarifies Porter's relationship with Josephine Herbst by fitting, it into an established and accepted patriarchal framework. Aragon, the man, clearly dominates this encounter and its aftermath. His disinterest and concern with technique mark his professionalism and distinguish him from Herbst, the amateurishly indiscrete and emotional woman. (Do Aragon's professional qualities also characterize the modern writer?) He seems sure of his craft and of his position within the institutional structures defining and enabling that craft; she, though, is not "good" at what she does and, Aragon suggests, has not pleased "Moscow." One "crafty feature" in the final paragraph especially reveals the projection: The third-person character and the indirect first-person narrator tend to merge. Herbst's indiscrete, emotional confession to Informant 1 both reenacts and confirms her earlier indiscretion with Aragon; and Informant 1's report to the FBI both reenacts and confirms Aragon's earlier rejection of Herbst.

Thus in the centenary of her birth, "This Strange, Old World" and Katherine Anne Porter: A Life suggest the need for new studies of the relationships among Porter's life, her various fictions, and her guiding aesthetic. Specifically, Givner calls in her "Epilogue" for lengthy studies of Porter's friendships with Eudora Welty and Herbst. In so doing she seems to acknowledge the limitations of her own biography of Porter and to call, implicitly, for a new one, one which systematically undertakes the sort of feminist cultural critique Givner only suggests the appendages of this revised edition.

Also needed is a systematic critique of Porter's modernist aesthetic. For at stake too in the Herbst affair is Porter's modernism. This particular fiction, the FBI report, like Porter's published fictions, seems to aspire both to be a work of art and to rewrite life. It seems an aestheticized projection of the self into an aestheticized world under the pretense that this is, inevitably, just the way things are. But such an objectification of her relationship with Herbst had social repercussions: Porter's false charges probably contributed to Herbst's being fired from her government job with the OCI and had the potential to destroy Herbst's career completely. Even enacted fables, it seems, can have real consequences.

(1) The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter (New York: Harcourt, Brace, World, 1965), p. 363. (2) Quoted in Robert Scholes, "Decoding Papa: |A Very Short Story'as Work and Text," in J. Benson, ed., New Critical Approaches to the Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1990), p. 39. My critique of Porter's aesthetic generally follows Scholes's of Hemingway. (3) Irvin Ehrenpreis, "Whose Life Is It Anyway?" New York Review of Books, January 20, 1983, p. 13. (4) The Days Before (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1952), p. vii. (5) Julian Symons, "Surviving the Happy Day," Times Literary Supplement, June 10, 1983, p. 593. (6) Eilnor Langer, Josephine Herbst (Boston: Little, Brown, 1984), pp. 252-253.
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Author:Cheatham, George
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1992
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