This Day In Literary History
On May 15th, 1890, the famous American writer Katherine Anne Porter was born. She was born Callie Russell Porter in Indian Creek, Texas. The fourth of five children, she was a descendant of the legendary frontiersman Daniel Boone. The famous writer O. Henry (William Sydney Porter) was her father's second cousin.
When Callie was two years old, her mother died of complications following the birth of her last child. Callie's father sent his children to live with his mother, and the children, especially Callie, adored their grandmother.
Seven years later, Callie's grandmother died suddenly. She and her siblings lived with various relatives or in rented rooms paid for by their father. At the age of 16, Callie ran off to marry her boyfriend John Henry Koontz, the son of a wealthy rancher.
In order to marry Koontz, Callie, a Methodist, had to convert to Catholicism, which she did. Her devout Catholic husband turned out to be an abusive drunk who once threw her down the stairs, breaking her ankle.
After suffering for nine years in a rotten marriage, Callie divorced her husband - a shocking thing for a woman to do in 1915. As part of her divorce decree, Callie had the court legally change her name to Katherine Anne Porter, which was the name of her beloved grandmother.
From there, Katherine fled Texas for Chicago, where she tried her hand at acting and singing, but that was cut short when she was diagnosed with tuberculosis. She spent two years in a TB sanitarium before it was discovered that she'd been misdiagnosed; she actually had bronchitis.
During her stay at the sanitarium, Katherine decided to become a writer. She began her writing career as a newspaper drama critic and gossip columnist. Then, during the 1918 flu pandemic, she contracted the virus and nearly died from it.
She was left in a frail state; her hair turned white and would remain white for the rest of her life. After regaining her health, Katherine moved to New York City's Greenwich Village, where she made her living as a ghostwriter and movie company publicist. She also wrote children's stories.
By 1920, she met some Mexican revolutionary leaders, including legendary painter Diego Rivera, and traveled to Mexico to cover the leftist revolution. She would split her time between Mexico and New York City, where she continued to write short stories and would become a master of the form.
One of her best known stories was The Jilting of Granny Weatherall. In it, the sick, elderly Granny lies on her deathbed. Her daughter Cornelia has been serving as her caregiver, but Granny considers herself a better housekeeper than Cornelia.
The delirious Granny is still obsessed with George, the man who jilted her at the altar when they were a young couple. She married her late husband John, and it was a happy marriage, but Granny never got over George and still loves him.
Meanwhile, she's visited by her priest, Father Connolly, whom she chides for being more interested in drinking tea and gossiping than in the welfare of her soul. She's also visited by her son, Jimmy.
What she really wants is to see her daughter Hapsy, who never comes to visit. It's suggested, but not directly implied, that Hapsy died at birth. Granny has a vision of Hapsy visiting her and holding a baby, but it's really another daughter, Lydia, who has come to visit.
Realizing that she's dying, Granny doesn't want to go yet and worries what will happen if she can't find Hapsy. She looks for a sign from God. No sign comes, and Granny, believing that she's been jilted again, dies in despair.
Katherine married her second husband, Ernest Stock, in 1926. The marriage would only last a year, ending when the unfaithful Stock gave her venereal disease. During both her marriages, she had tried to conceive children, only to suffer miscarriages and at least one stillbirth.
After divorcing Stock, she had a hysterectomy. During the 1930s, Katherine spent several years in Europe, continued writing short stories, and endured two more disastrous marriages. She continued to receive acclaim for her short story collections.
In the 1940s and 50s, she taught at several universities, including Stanford, the University of Michigan, and the University of Texas. Her very unconventional method of teaching endeared her to her students.
As a short story writer, Katherine Anne Porter loved to delve into the dark side of human nature. Though she was best known for her short stories, she also wrote four novellas (she hated the term novella) and one full length novel, which would become a classic.
Ship of Fools, published on April 1st, 1962, (April Fool's Day) took Porter over twenty years to write. She was never really satisfied with it, calling it "unwieldy" and "enormous."
The novel received mixed reviews at the time of its publication, but has since been recognized for its brilliance and prescient insight into the human condition. It was an existentialist character study rather than a standard plot driven story.
It's the summer of 1931, and a cruise ship has left Mexico, bound for Germany. The ship contains a wide variety of passengers. Many are German expatriates, but there is also a drunken lawyer, an American divorcee, a Spanish noblewoman, two Mexican Catholic priests, and others.
In following these characters, Porter explores the nature of nationalism, racism, xenophobia, and human frailty in general as she examines the attitudes that would enable Hitler to come to power, maintain dictatorial control, and plunge Europe into a devastating war. The story is full of passion, duplicity, and treachery.
Ship of Fools became the best selling novel of 1962 and a Book of the Month Club selection. The movie rights were snapped up immediately for $500,000 - the equivalent of nearly four million dollars in today's money. It provided Katherine with financial security for the rest of her life.
The feature film adaptation of Ship of Fools premiered in July of 1965. It was directed by Stanley Kramer, best known for classic films such as The Defiant Ones (1958), On The Beach (1959), and Judgement At Nuremberg (1961).
Featuring a screenplay by Abby Mann, Ship of Fools starred Vivien Leigh in her last film role. The film won an Oscar for Best Cinematography and was nominated for several other Academy Awards. It is rightfully considered one of the most acclaimed films of the 1960s.
In 1965, The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter was published. It would win the author a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Twelve years later, in 1977, Porter, then 87 years old, published her last book, The Never-Ending Wrong.
The Never-Ending Wrong was a work of nonfiction - an account of the infamous trial and execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, which Porter had protested against when it took place fifty years earlier.
Sacco and Vanzetti were two Italian immigrant anarchists who had been tried, convicted, and executed for robbery and murder in Massachusetts. Their politically charged trial was tainted by racism and malicious prosecution, including coerced false testimony. It remains controversial to this day.
Katherine Anne Porter died in 1980 at the age of 90.
Quote Of The Day
“A story is like something you wind out of yourself. Like a spider, it is a web you weave, and you love your story like a child.” - Katherine Anne Porter
Today's video features Katherine Anne Porter being interviewed by James Day on the 1970s PBS TV show, Day At Night. Enjoy!