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Katherine Anne Porter

May 15 celebrates the birthday of short story writer and novelist Katherine Anne Porter.  Born Callie Russell Porter in Indian Creek, Texas, in 1890, she often told people later in her life that she had come from an aristocratic southern family.  In fact, she was of poor stock, a descendant of Daniel Boon, and grew up in a small log house on the edge of a dirt farm.  Her mother died when she was two years old, and her father was so stricken by grief that he couldn't provide for his family.  They eventually moved in with Porter's grandmother, a harsh, domineering woman who treated Porter's father like a helpless child.  Porter's grandmother taught her that women could be as strong as or stronger than men.

After her grandmother's death in 1901, Porter was sent by a very stern father to a New Orleans Catholic convent to be educated.  The rebellious, wild spirit in her appeared early.  Allowed into town on Saturdays, she and her sister would sneak off to the horse races.  As she remembered later, "I have always had a penchant for long odds and black horses with poetic names, no matter what their past records indicated."

She next spent two years in a drama school and briefly ran a small school of her own devoted to singing and dramatic arts. 

Upon her sixteenth birthday, she married a twenty-one-year old railway clerk.  But she was unhappy with the marriage and ran away to Chicago in 1914.  There, she hoped to succeed as a movie actress.  She changed her name, Callie Russell, to her grandmother's name, Katherine Anne, and took a job in a song-and-dance show.  She moved to Greenwich village for a short time, leaving Texas far behind her.  She said, "I didn't want to be regarded as a freak.  That's what they all thought about women who wanted to write.  So I had to revolt and rebel; there was no other way."

She moved to Denver and took a job writing for a variety of newspapers before coming down with tuberculosis.  Once the disease was diagnosed, she was sent to a sick house for the poor, where there was almost no food for the patients and women were dying all around her.  She might have died, as well, except for the fact that her brother paid for her to move to a private sanatorium in Texas.

Porter spent two years recovering, surrounded by a group of intelligent young women, including some journalists and writers, who inspired her to begin writing.  She covered the entertainment beat and social events for various newspapers while adapting myths and fairytales for children.  She wrote to her sister that she eventually planned to write fiction as well as anyone in the United States, but for years she struggled to write anything that she was proud of.

In 1919, she met a group of Mexican revolutionaries, and they persuaded her to go to Mexico to write about the coming revolution there.  At the time, it was an extraordinary thing for a woman to travel alone to a foreign country, and especially to a country that was so politically unstable as Mexico. South of the border, she found herself associating with revolutionaries, artists, anthropologists, and politicians, and it was there that she began to write the first of her serious short stories.  She became a lover to Diego Rivera and befriended other revolutionaries, with whom she would frequently party and smoke marijuana.  Her time in Mexico gave her material for some of her earliest published stories, including "Maria Concepción" and "The Martyr" in 1922 and 1923. 

In the late 1920s, back in the states, she joined other luminaries in protesting the Sacco and Vanzetti trial and was jailed briefly in Boston.  She continued her writing, but she wrote extremely slowly, starting stories that she sometimes would not finish for years. 

In 1929, she found some notes for a possible novel she had made while she was in Mexico, and she used them to write the story, Flowering Judas, about a young American woman living in Mexico just before the revolution.  The story made her famous, and it became the title piece of her first collection, Flowering Judas and Other Stories (1930).  She was forty years old.

Porter went on to publish many more short stories and a few short novels.  She often wrote about her difficult childhood in rural Texas.  Since she told everyone she'd had an aristocratic upbringing and always wore the fanciest clothes she could afford, critics were even more impressed at her ability to invent gritty, realistic stories about down-but-not-out characters.

Her books and stories received good reviews, and critics compared her to some of the greatest writers in American history, but she didn't make much money from her fiction and had to support herself with journalism for most of her life.  She once said, "I think I've only spent about ten percent of my energies on writing.  The other ninety percent went to keeping my head above water."

She worked for more than twenty years trying to write a big novel called Ship of Fools.  When it was finally published in 1962, it made her rich, but it received mixed reviews.  Most critics consider her best work to be her short stories.  Her Collected Stories came out in 1964 and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.  Her work influenced many American writers, especially southern women writers like Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor. 

Katherine Anne Porter, who once said, "My life has been incredible, I don't believe a word of it," died in 1980.

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