Wednesday, July 27, 2011

"This Strange, Old World," Katherine Anne Porter: "utopias are steadily on the decline"

The writing of Katherine Anne Porter has slipped out of literary fashion these days -- her sharply-drawn observations and difficult, flawed characters aren't the easy stuff of today's contemporary fiction. Her one major novel,
Ship of Fools, was published more than 45 years ago and was the best-selling novel of 1962. Her short stories are seldom anthologized, but they are gems of beauty and precision. The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter won her a Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1966.

She was a guest at the writer's colony Yaddo in upstate New York often in the 1940s, and completed
Ship of Fools there. Ms. Porter -- who once declared "my life has been incredible, I don't believe a word of it" -- was a prolific letter writer throughout her life, and the brief, sharp book reviews written from the '20's through the ''50s's, collected here by Darlene Harbour Unrue, are written in a familiar, just-between-us style of a personal letter between writer and reader. The result is a witty and unique literary salon-of-one.

This collection of published reviews shows Miss Porter, not surprisingly, was just as conscientious and thoughtful about the craft of her fellow authors as she was of her own writing. Although many of the books Miss Porter reviews in
This Strange, Old World (University of Georgia Press, 2008) were not considered major works at the time, their issues were of obvious interest to her as a writer: history, travel, culture (especially of Mexico), independent women discovering their growing social and economic equality. She finds contemporary parallels of this burgeoning freedom in surprising literary places:

"... Mary Wollstoncraft must have found her world a singularly dreadful one: she was a woman cursed with deep emotions, a quick argumentative mind, a frustrated religious conscience, and a rigid set of moral scruples. She had picked up the pedantic social theories which heralded the nineteenth century, and J.J. Rousseau's sentimental humanistic libertarianism now bore fruit in some horrid schemes to right all social wrong. Her radical feminism seemed monstrous to her times. Her delicate high beauty did not save her from a life of hardships incident to the disaster of having been born with an inquiring mind. She was thirty-five before she had a lover, and then a basely inferior one. She bore her child out of wedlock and was deserted.

... She stuck to her principles and her pride
(and lived to be) the wife of William Godwin, a pedant and charlatan, and the mother of Mary Shelley. Her Vindication of the Rights of Women remains a monument to her boldness, her anger, and her frustration. Her luck was the worst of them all."

It's a rare treat to read criticism that enhances and illuminates its subjects with such grace and style. There are nice touches of wit, too, without being cruel, even with authors that may undoubtedly deserve it. "Utopias are steadily on the decline," Miss Porter comments on one author's conclusion that the solution to the rise of feminist ideas is a return to "good, old-fashioned, romantic, hearty masculinity."

She finds an equal target in Catherine the Great of Russia: "Female despots in the making do not suffer from a mother fixation," she writes in a witty review emphasizing Catherine's political -- and marriage -- ambitions.

These brief reviews, written mainly on deadline, still echo the finely crafted style of Miss Porter's short stories. They also require the reader to read between the lines; much is implied. But they manage to be entertaining and worthwhile, years later, and anyone interested in Katherine Anne Porter should not miss reading them.

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