The Ambivalent Art of Katherine Anne Porter

The Ambivalent Art of Katherine Anne Porter

Copyright Date: 2005
Pages: 264
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  • Book Info
    The Ambivalent Art of Katherine Anne Porter
    Book Description:

    During a life that spanned ninety years, Katherine Anne Porter (1890-1980) witnessed dramatic and intensely debated changes in the gender roles of American women. Mary Titus draws upon unpublished Porter papers, as well as newly available editions of her early fiction, poetry, and reviews, to trace Porter's shifting and complex response to those cultural changes. Titus shows how Porter explored her own ambivalence about gender and creativity, for she experienced firsthand a remarkable range of ideas concerning female sexuality. These included the Victorian attitudes of the grandmother who raised her; the sexual license of revolutionary Mexico, 1920s New York, and 1930s Paris; and the conservative, ordered attitudes of the Agrarians. Throughout Porter's long career, writes Titus, she "repeatedly probed cultural arguments about female creativity, a woman's maternal legacy, romantic love, and sexual identity, always with startling acuity, and often with painful ambivalence." Much of her writing, then, serves as a medium for what Titus terms Porter's "gender-thinking"--her sustained examination of the interrelated issues of art, gender, and identity. Porter, says Titus, rebelled against her upbringing yet never relinquished the belief that her work as an artist was somehow unnatural, a turn away from the essential identity of woman as "the repository of life," as childbearer. In her life Porter increasingly played a highly feminized public role as southern lady, but in her writing she continued to engage changing representations of female identity and sexuality. This is an important new study of the tensions and ambivalence inscribed in Porter's fiction, as well as the vocational anxiety and gender performance of her actual life.

    eISBN: 978-0-8203-3084-6
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xii)
    (pp. 1-13)

    In a story composed during the 1920s but unpublished in her lifetime, Katherine Anne Porter created a brilliant and masochistic young woman who dedicates her life to art. The Princess glories publicly in her choice but weeps privately at its price—social alienation and childlessness. “Nature is abhorrent, a vulgarity,” the Princess proclaims; she celebrates an eccentric creativity expressed in elaborate costume and stages a personal rebellion against proscribed gender roles.¹ Family and social law mass against Porter’s Princess, and she dies, literally drowning beneath the weight of her dedication. The oppositions created in this early story, and the tensions...

    (pp. 14-26)

    Sometime around 1927, Katherine Anne Porter struggled to complete a strange and bitter tale about a young woman who has dedicated her life to creating art. The result, although unfinished, represents an extraordinary document in Porter’s exploration of gender roles and sexuality and, indeed, in the history of women’s writing. “The Princess” creates a symbolic world that serves to define the cultural conflicts surrounding a woman artist. For Porter, the intellectual freedom allowed in an invented world was clearly libratory, providing a landscape in which she could explore dangerously charged materials with less risk because she made no claims for...

    (pp. 27-46)

    When the young acolyte looks at the Princess, he sees her alienation and difference. An artist, she is set apart from common women by her creativity and dedication to her craft: “with her red hair braided, her grey eyes wide and cold; he felt a strangeness about her, and a terrible fated loneliness.”¹ Similar isolation and extraordinary skill characterize most of the women in Katherine Anne Porter’s earliest fiction, including her first published stories, three “retold” tales of magic and transformation: “The Faithful Princess,” “The Magic Ear Ring,” and “The Shattered Star.” All appeared in 1920 in the children’s magazine...

    (pp. 47-68)

    When Porter’s Princess walked the streets of her father’s kingdom, fascinated male onlookers “searched the folds of her robes with cautious stares, wishing their eyes were hands; and turned away, saying each one to himself, ‘Not even the gods know what manner of woman is concealed in that robe!’”¹ Curiosity, fear, and desire draw these male spectators to the Princess’s armored body. Because she has rejected the simple shifts that would have coded her physical state for her culture, her body becomes undefined, potentially a threat, for if a different “manner of woman” is hidden under the thick robes, what...

    (pp. 69-96)

    In one fragment of “The Princess,” Katherine Anne Porter’s artist heroine describes the beauty she creates as both bodily and transcendent, both in her flesh and existing independently of it. “This is the beauty I have dreamed and made,” she proclaims. “If you should strip me, you will find nothing but that beauty I have made . . . and if you kill me, you cannot destroy my dream.” Generative, weighted with her art, the Princess is mortal and yet the creator of something that will endure beyond her. Her language evokes both suffering and maternity: “If I am heavy...

    (pp. 97-117)

    When the High Priestess and the gathered powers of her kingdom finally bring the Princess to trial for her unnatural crimes, the masked and bejeweled female artist responds with laughter. Proclaim the judges, “We accuse Her Royal Highness with the following offenses against the dignity of the throne, the peace and welfare of the sovereign realm, and the Temples of the most High Zerdah and of the Woman God.” As the judges list the Princess’s offenses—“unholy practices,” “corrupting the youths and maidens of her court,” and more—she answers each accusation with a loud “Ha, ha, ha.” The audience...

    (pp. 118-128)

    Made hopeful by the Princess’s sudden willingness to marry the young acolyte, the Queen expresses her heartfelt wish, “May I live to dandle my grandchildren upon my knee.” But the Chief of the Royal Council remains baffled by the Princess’s strange vocation; he cannot understand why she would reject motherhood for her glittering and painful art. “Why” he asks, as have so many others in this strange story, “Why do you suffer the torments of these robes and the dark mask and the sharpened jewels of your gloves?” The Princess responds in her familiar cryptic fashion: “I will make beauty...

    (pp. 129-153)

    For a time, the acolyte in Katherine Anne Porter’s “The Princess” proves the perfect lover for a woman artist. Although he longs for a physical expression of their love, this young man willingly subordinates his desires to his beloved’s dreams. At their marriage altar, the Princess refuses to undress, to set aside her ornate and beautiful robes, her consummate works of art. Instead she turns to the acolyte and announces, “This is the beauty I have created out of a dream and a vision, and I shall wear it until my death. But if you will, let us be betrothed,...

    (pp. 154-177)

    As the Princess lies dead in the glimmering water, her protective costume slowly floats away: “the waves lipped back and forth over her heavy robes and the cold inert jewels . . . until softly, oh, softly they were loosened.” Finally her body is uncovered, as it was before she undertook her sartorial arts. The people come to view her corpse, “naked and glistening” in the water, and find her satisfyingly diminished. “‘ Ah, do you see!’ cried one of the women, in a voice cold with spite. ‘She was not so mysterious! She was like the rest of us,...

    (pp. 178-197)

    Elaborately dressed and bejeweled, never stepping out of her role as the visionary virgin artist, the Princess becomes a living legend. Soon the people of her kingdom forget her past and see only her presence. As Porter writes, “She became even as she lived among them, a legend. There were many who professed that they could not remember her face.”¹ The transformation of a woman from human to symbolic status fascinated Katherine Anne Porter, as we have seen in her stories of women as artists’ models, explored in chapter 3. In the 1930s, fueled by new friendships with members of...

    (pp. 198-214)

    Conversations between the Princess and the young acolyte follow a distinct pattern. He expresses his desire for her love; she responds with visionary decrees and another layer of glittering razor-sharp armor. Sexual obsession alternates with physical and emotional wounds. Brief, unconsummated, the marriage ends with her death, leaving a poet singing about “his faithful love, and her unrelenting cruelty.”¹ Somewhere near forty years after she wrote “The Princess,” Katherine Anne Porter published a novel that recalls but far surpasses her early tale in its depiction of love, obsession, and sexual violence. Ship of Fools contains some of her most startling...

  15. NOTES
    (pp. 215-234)
    (pp. 235-242)
  17. INDEX
    (pp. 243-252)