Katherine Anne Porter was one of the most noted of Texas novelists. Her career spanned decades, and though her output was limited, it had a profound impact on many aspiring writers from the 1930s through the 1970s.
She was born Callie Russel Porter in May 1890 in Indian Creek, a small, unincorporated community in Brown County in Central Texas. Her father was a cousin to Texas writer William Sydney Porter, better known by his pen name O. Henry. Brown County also happened to be the home of noted western and horror novelist Robert E. Howard. Porter was the fourth of five children, but tragedy followed her for much of her early life. An older brother had died while still an infant. When she was two, her mother died shortly after giving birth to her youngest sister.
Distraught and left with four young children to raise, Harrison Porter took his children and moved in with his mother, Catherine Anne Porter. The family spent the next few years living in the modest house in Kyle, a small community just south of Austin. From a young age in Kyle, she began writing stories. The future writer became very close to her grandmother in those years. But in 1901, her grandmother died while taking her on a trip to see relatives in West Texas. Afterward, her father moved the family sporadically across Texas and Louisiana. Porter’s education became increasingly sporadic, and she never attended high school.
In 1906, she married John Henry Koontz, a Lufkin-area rancher. It would be the first of five marriages for Porter. The marriage was a disaster from the beginning, wrecked by Koontz’s alcoholism. Porter reported later that he flew into horrible rages fueled by his drinking. She alleged at one point that he threw her down a flight of stairs, resulting in a broken ankle.
She left for Chicago in 1914 and filed for divorce, asking that her name be legally changed to Katherine Anne Porter in the process. She also picked up a writing job at the Chicago Tribune. She even began appearing a few silent film roles as extras while writing a story for Chicago film companies, with one company paying her $12 per day. After her divorce was finalized, she married Otto Taskett, a marriage that fell apart within months.
At that same time in 1915, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis and sent to a sanatorium. While hospitalized, she began writing stories full time. Her fortune changed when she learned she had been misdiagnosed, and she returned to Texas in 1917 as a society writer for the Fort Worth Critic.
The next year, she moved to Denver to write for the Rocky Mountain News. But 1918 was also the year of the Spanish Flu Epidemic. More than 500,000 Americans died from the flu that year. Porter nearly died herself but survived. After her recovery, she spent most of the next decade travelling, living mostly in Mexico and New York City. Her first published short story, “Maria Concepcion,” (1922) was inspired by her experiences in Mexico.
She married three and divorced three more times between 1926 and 1942. As talented as she was, she found writing very frustrating. She once said, “I have written and destroyed manuscripts quite literally by the trunkful. I spent fifteen years wandering about, weighted horribly by masses of paper and little else.” She published a widely acclaimed and influential collection of short stories in 1930, “Flowering Judas and Other Stories.”
Among her most famous story was the award-winning “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” (1939). This was a collection of three novellas which took place during the 1918 flu pandemic, inspired by her own illness. The story was adapted into several television movies in the 1950s and 1960s. This was followed up by another short story collection, “The Leaning Tower” (1944).
She spent many of her years from the 1930s onward travelling the world, writing essays for The Nation and The New Republic and writing short stories. She met prominent writers, celebrities, and world leaders in her travels. However, she only wrote one novel. Ship of Fools (1962) took twenty years to write. The tale of misfits sailing to Europe in the early 1930s became instantly famous and was adapted into a movie in 1965.
In 1965, she published The Collected Stories, her latest anthology. This earned her the Pulitzer Prize in 1966 as well as the National Book Award. She would continue to write for many more years. Porter died at her home in Maryland at the age of 90 in 1980.
Her birthplace in Brown County was recognized by the state as a state historic landmark in 1990. In Kyle, the family home continued to stand years after Porter’s death. In 1997, the city, along with several local charities and benefactors, bought the old homestead and began renovating it. In 2000, it was declared a national landmark and the city established the Katherine Anne Porter Literary Center at the home. Operating today through a partnership with Texas State University in San Marcos, the organization invites noted writers to speak at symposiums and offers programs to help aspiring writers.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.