Exceptional fiction, lackluster essays
Katherine Anne Porter was one of the best American writers of short stories between the World Wars. Though she achieved her fame through fiction, and rightfully so, she also published a great deal of journalistic essays, literary criticism, and brief memoirs. This volume from the Library of America, the most complete one-volume collection of her work, includes roughly 500 pages of fiction and 500 pages of nonfiction.
Porter published three collections of short stories during her career, all of which are included here. The first collection, Flowering Judas and Other Stories, is also the best. It consists of twelve stories, most of which take place in Mexico, where Porter lived for several years. Among the standouts in this group are the excellent title piece, “Maria Concepción,” “The Cracked Looking Glass,” and “He.” The second volume included here, Pale Horse, Pale Rider: Three Short Novels, is also very good. It contains the excellent novella “Noon Wine,” possibly Porter’s best piece of work, in which a tragic event takes place on a farm in southern Texas. The third volume of short fiction included here, The Leaning Tower and Other Stories, is weaker than the other two, with the only real standout piece being “A Day's Work.” The overall impression given by Porter’s fiction is that she is a first-class writer, but she doesn’t hit it out of the park every time. She likes to experiment with style and structure, striving to push the envelope with each story. Even when she fails in her experiments, one can appreciate the inkling of genius in her failures.
Her nonfiction, on the other hand, does not inspire the same degree of admiration. The numerous essays in this volume are divided into three main categories: Criticism, Personal and Particular, and Mexican. The Criticism section, which covers a who’s who of modern authors, is painful to get through. Her style could charitably be called impressionistic, but for the most part these pieces are rambling and disjointed. She’s far more interested in crafting a clever turn of phrase than she is in educating her audience about the book or author in question. The second section, Personal and Particular, is a mixed bag of writing about writing, autobiographical stories, and miscellaneous journalism and criticism. Porter doesn’t have anything particularly interesting to say about the writer’s craft. She proclaims no allegiance to any school, but advocates originality and creativity in general, praising the likes of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. The best piece in this section is “The Never-Ending Wrong,” about the trial of the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti. Porter took part in the protests against their unjust trial and execution. The third section, Mexican, I enjoyed much more than the rest of the nonfiction, simply because I happen to have a personal interest in Mexican history and culture. Porter shows herself very knowledgeable in Mexican culture and politics, and has a knack for vividly capturing the atmosphere and mind set of the nation and its people.
Usually I praise the editing of the Library of America books, but here the editorial strategy seems to be to throw in everything she ever wrote, with the notable exception of her only published novel, Ship of Fools, which would have been preferable to most of the nonfiction included here. Like all books in the Library of America series, this one provides an extensively detailed chronology of the author’s life, which reveals far more about Porter than her own autobiographical writings. Porter was an excellent writer, so you really can’t go wrong in buying this book, but I must admit that I expected to like it much more than I did. Even Porter admits that much of her nonfiction was written out of financial necessity. It’s a shame she didn’t have the means or the time to leave us with more of her superb fiction.
Fiction: Short story collections included in this volume
Flowering Judas and Other Stories
Pale Horse, Pale Rider: Three Short Novels
The Leaning Tower and Other Stories
Personal and Particular