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Katherine Anne Porter: Collected Stories and Other Writings (Library of America #186)
Katherine Anne Porter: Collected Stories and Other Writings (Library of America #186)
Katherine Anne Porter
Library of America, 2008
1100 pp., 40.0

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Betty Smartt Carter

Old Mortality

Katherine Anne Porter, "grandchild of a lost War."

On a recent trip to Washington, I zoomed through the National Gallery of Art at about Mach 5. wasn't my idea to do it that way. Left to my own devices, I might have spent long days soaking in the masters and swiping packages of crackers from the pricey cafe. However, I'd hitched myself to a pair of impatient 13-year-olds and a tired husband, and, well, Degas is just a blur to me now even more than usual.

I have a little of the same feeling after few days spent with the Library of America's new Katherine Anne Porter: Collected Short Stories and Other Writings, a hefty expansion of Porter's Collected Stories from 1965. That volume won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, and now editor Darlene Harbour Unrue has enhanced it with 500 pages of Porter's journalism, autobiography, letters, literary criticism, and essays on various subjects, from marriage to Texas to the hard-learned craft of writing. All that, plus a detailed chronology, notes, and (blessedly) an index.

In fact, there's so much here, and so many changes of direction within the collection (from story to story, essay to autobiography), that one reading, even a fairly careful reading, feels like a dash. This is especially true with the short fiction, since a story is, after all, so much like a painting —a narrow window into a far-off place, a sheer curtain between the author's imagined country and the imagination and experience of the reader. With some authors, you barely sense those vast spaces, but Porter's universal themes—love, death, ostracism, guilt, punishment—stretch far beyond the surface of her events and characters. You could sit in front of one of her literary paintings for a few hours, read one of her essays on writing ("The Author on her Work" or "The Situation of the Writer"), close the book and sleep on it, and come back several more times without reaching anything like an end.

Porter describes her approach to writing in an essay called "No Plot, No Story" (the ...

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