Katherine Anne Porter Correspondence Project: An Introduction

“She always kept things secret in such a public way.”

Katherine Anne Porter, “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” (1930)

        Katherine Anne Porter’s description of Cornelia, daughter of the titular Granny Weatherall, is apt considering the tensions between Porter’s own private and public personas. Porter, too, was a secretly-public person – she was forthcoming with information about her life and experience, though she sometimes elaborated on the facts, exaggerating details or creating new information.  The reality of her life became mysterious, as Callie Russell Porter became the Katherine Anne Porter who captivated the literary communities of which she was a part. In the margins of Katherine Anne’s books in Hornbake Library’s Porter Room, there are even notes from Katherine Anne’s sister, Gay, that call attention to the points at which Katherine Anne’s stories depart from or obscure the source material of her own life.

Katherine Anne Porter with hair down in garden, Mixcoac, Mexico. Back inscription: “Ophelia in Mixcoac, March 1931.”
Katherine Anne Porter Papers, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Maryland Libraries

Porter’s 1930 story, “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall,” served as my personal introduction to Porter, but it is her 1939 collection of short novels, Pale Horse, Pale Rider, that sealed my appreciation of her work. The three short novels – “Old Mortality,” “Noon Wine,” and the titular story – take the reader from the shadows of the old moneyed South, to a Texas farm, to war-weary and flu-ridden Denver. What is most striking about Porter is her ability to cut to the bone with language. “Granny Weatherall” is a stream-of-consciousness story, stylized to read as a string of dying thoughts, regrets, and potentially hallucinations. Porter’s short novels are sharp, each imbued with a touch of mystery themselves – what is the truth about Aunt Amy’s hemorrhage? What was hidden in the Swede Helton’s past? How did Adam feel as he met his fate, alone?

“Day at Night: Katherine Anne Porter, novelist and short story writer.” For more video and radio interviews of Porter, visit the University Libraries’ Digital Collections.

Porter’s stories, short novels, and sole novel, 1962’s Ship of Fools, leave readers entranced by her language and enticed by her mysteries. Fortunately, the Katherine Anne Porter Correspondence Project has been at work digitizing Porter’s copious correspondence, held in Hornbake Library’s Special Collections and University Archives, as her correspondence is as literary as her fiction. Since its work began in 2012, the project has published two phases worth of Porter’s correspondence. Phase 1 centers Porter’s relationships with her family, most importantly her sister Gay. Phase 2 focuses on Porter’s literary relationships and correspondence with personal friends. Porter’s social circle ranged widely, as she maintained friendships with Flannery O’Connor, Glenway Wescott, Cleanth and Tinkum Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, Eudora Welty, and Josephine Herbst, to name just a few. Phase 3 shifts gears yet again, and includes letters related to publishing, agents, and financial and legal matters.

Katherine Anne Porter portrait with typewriter and Juniper (kitten). 1946, Santa Monica, California.
Katherine Anne Porter Papers, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Maryland Libraries.

The most recent phase, Phase 3, features the largest batch of correspondence to be digitized yet, with a total of 2,433 items. The contents of these items range widely – from newspaper clippings with annotated notes sent to her late-in-life lawyer, E. Barrett Prettyman, to long letters sent to her longtime friend and agent Cyrilly Abels (who also served as managing editor of Mademoiselle magazine). The aim of the Correspondence Project is to make accessible the wealth of correspondence and records that Katherine Anne maintained throughout her rich life. There is a scholarly thrill to the ability to peek behind her fiction and become acquainted with Katherine Anne through the rhythms of her friendships, the reports and contracts with her editors. Though many Katherine Anne Porters exist in the archives of twentieth century American literature, now there is the opportunity to openly, publicly assess on what grounds the myths of Katherine Anne are founded, and which myths are embellished or misunderstood. We’re excited to continue making more of Katherine Anne’s correspondence available on a digital platform, and we look forward to the new avenues this material makes available for scholarship on Katherine Anne’s life and works.
Jeannette Schollaert is a graduate assistant in Special Collections and University Archives who works with the Katherine Anne Porter Correspondence Project. There, she assists with compiling and organizing metadata and contributing to the Project’s online exhibitions. She is pursuing a PhD in English, and her research focuses on twentieth century American women writers and ecofeminism.

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