"Old Mortality" by Katherine Anne Porter - an Analysis

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2007
19 Pages, Grade: 1


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Biography of Katherine Anne Porter (1890-1980) – her life and work
2.1 Katherine Anne Porter and Texas
2.2 Autobiographical elements in Old Mortality

3. Plot and Analysis of Old Mortality

4. Themes
4.1 The Souhtern Belle
4.2 Greensickness in Old Mortality
4.3 Memory

5. Socio-Historical Background
5.1 The Old South
5.2 The New South

6. Narrative technique

7. Conclusion

8. Bibliography

1. Introduction

In this seminar paper I am going to deal with Katherine Anne Porter’s short story Old Mortality, which was first published in the Southern Review, in 1937 (Literature Online Biography). Initially, I am going to depict Katherine Anne Porter’s life as well as the autobiographical elements which permeate Old Mortality. However, the central focus of this paper lies on the representation of the short story and its main issues like family and home in addition to the portrayal of memory. Furthermore, it provides facts about the socio-cultural and historical background as well as information on narrative technique and cultural signifiers.

2. Biography of Katherine Anne Porter (1890-1980) – her life and work

Katherine Anne Porter is probably one of the most outstanding female writers of Southern literature in the twentieth century. However, her path of becoming the artist she was seeking to be since her childhood was a long and especially a hard one, marked by ambiguous feelings not only towards her home state, Texas, but also to her family, especially her father. Besides, Katherine Anna Porter was not only a writer, in fact, Porter was a versatile artist in many ways; she tried to start a career as an actor and singer, seeking to represent the image of the “Southern Belle” and she engaged herself into politics (Stout 25).

Born as Callie Russel Porter on 15 May, 1890 in North central Texas, in town named Indian Creek, she was one of four children born “ […] to Harrison Boone (a relative of frontiersman and pioneer Daniel Boone) and Mary Alice Porter, who died in childbirth when Callie was only two years old”(Literature Online Biography).

Her father realized that he could not pursue his familial obligations on his own and took his four children to live with his mother, Catherine Ann Porter, in Kyle. The powerful character of her grandmother shaped Callie’s personality and her artistic work in several ways. Probably using the penname Katherine Anne Porter, instead of her real name Callie Russel Porter is again evidence of the grandmother’s lasting impression on her. “Porter’s wish to identify with her powerful grandmother, known as Aunt Cat, is indicated by her referring to herself, in letters to her niece, as Aunt Kat” (Stout 191).

Katherine and her siblings grew up in poverty, in the small house of her grandmother, until 1901 when her grandmother died. Harrison Boone moved with his children to San Antonio, where Katherine joined the Thomas School. At the age of 16, in 1905, Porter married her first, out of a total of four husbands, named John Henry Koontz (Literature Online Biography). Although Porter had several marriages and even more affairs, she remained childless.

After her treatment at the Carlsbad Sanatorium, nearby San Antonio, for tuberculosis, Porter began her career as a writer. From 1917 onwards Porter constantly moved from Denver, Colorado to Greenwich Village in New York, to Mexico and even around Europe, working as a journalist, writing not only book reviews and political essays but also tyring to establish a career as fiction writer. In 1922, during her stay in Mexico, Porter finished her first short story named María Concepcíon. With Flowering Judas Porter distributed her first collection of short stories in 1930. For this short-story collection she won her first Guggenheim Fellowships, which provided her financial support in and enabled her journeys to Mexico and Germany. In the 1920’s and 1930’s Porter was also politically engaged; especially the Communist party attracted her attention. However, almost a decade later Porter distanced herself from any sympathies for the communist party, which she shared initially. Her second fellowship followed in 1938. Nonetheless, it was not until 1939, in the year of Porter’s publication of Pale Horse, Pale Rider, which set her status as one of America’s most gifted writers.

Pale Horse, Pale Rider is a collection of three novellas, namely Old Mortality, Noon Wine, and Pale Horse, Pale Rider. In all of these three novellas, the main character, Miranda, who has been detected as a novelized version of Porter herself, is a thread running through the collection which is also known as the ‘Miranda cycle’ (Literature Online Biography).

In 1944 a collection of essays followed, namely The Leaning Tower and Other Stories and in 1952 The Days Before. In the 1940s and 50s Katherine Anne Porter moved around the USA, lectured and gave readings at several well-known universities, including Stanford University, from 1948-1949 and the University of Virginia. Finally, after years of travelling around the world, constantly on a controversial quest for a sense home and at the same time escaping home, Porter settled in 1969 in College Park, Maryland (Literature Online Biography).

At the age of 72, Porte’s first and only novel Ship of Fools was published. The novel is created on Porter’s own Atlantic journey, in 1931, which took her over two decades to write. The book is considered as one of Porter’s masterpieces, which not only represents her artistic brilliance but was adapted for the cinema. Porter sold the movie rights, which procured her financial autonomy (Literature Online Biography).

The year 1966 was very promising for Katherine Anne Porter. She won the National Book Award as well as the Pulitzer Prize for The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter. In the following years Porter received honorary doctorates from several universities. The University of Maryland even dedicated a Katherine Anne Porter room in Porter’s honour. After suffering several strokes, from which she never recovered, Porter passed away on the 18th, September 1980, in Maryland. In 1993 The Katherine Anne Porter Society was founded and published newsletter on her work from 1994 to 2006 (Literature Online Biography).

2.1 Katherine Anne Porter and Texas

Katherine Anne Porter’s relationship to her home is very ambiguous but nonetheless home and family are important issues throughout her works. Being a Texan writer and to be “identified as a Texas writer was to be branded as a subliterary storyteller” (Stout 25). But this is not the only difficulty Porter had to encounter. At the time Porter began her writings, Texan literature mainly featured cowboys as well as “[…] frontier tales that, at the time she [Porter] was establishing herself had admitted little artistry “(ibid.). Additionally, Texan writers were predominantly male and presented cowboys riding their horses and shooting (ibid.).

For many years Porter even claimed that she had come from Louisiana. Although she distanced herself from Texas, she emphasized the Southernness of her Texas locale (ibid. 26). Porter kept going back to her roots, also in between her journeys to Europe and various other states in the US, which is clearly evidence for her connectedness and allegiance to Texas. In fact, the conception of “home, going away from home or revisiting home”, is an important issue in Porter’s stories (qutd. in Busby, Heaberlin 31). Hence, for Porter home is a basis for life, order and return, even in her reminiscence of the past.

2.2 Autobiographical elements in Old Mortality

Although Janis P. Stout advises the reader to be careful “in reading imaginative literature autobiographically”, autobiographical strains are portrayed in several parts of Katherine Anne Porter’s works, especially in the so called Miranda stories (Stout 19). However, Stout claims that certain details, “with their trappings of prosperity and social prominence” suggest rather a life Porter wanted to have than reality (ibid. 192).

Clearly, Miranda and partly Amy, who are central characters in Old Mortality, are to some extent personifications of Porter herself. This becomes obvious when we consider the fact that both, Amy and Miranda, have ambiguous emotions, torn between love and rejection, towards their home. The traditions of their family are of utmost importance nevertheless, Miranda and Amy are only able to gain autonomy by rejecting these family conventions (ibid 216).

Especially the figure of the father is represented as focal point of dominant emotions (ibid). Miranda’s father, Harry, not only defines the qualities for feminine beauty but punishes his daughters by creating emotional as well as physical distance, for example when Miranda’s father did not take his girls out at Saturdays because they had bad marks or when Miranda returned home to attend her uncle’s funeral (Stout 193). Also Katherine Anne Porter’s father, Harrison Boone Porter, who never overcame his wife’s death, had a reserved relation to his children (Graham 142).

The image and importance of the “southern belle”, which is one of the central topics in Old Mortality, is also relevant to Porter herself. She enjoyed the role of the grande dame, the Southern belle but at the same time she criticized and rebelled against this imposed glorification of female perfection. Porter was somewhat obsessed with her appearance, never leaving her home without make-up which is due to her father’s love, “[…] whose love was far from reliable and apparently was often based on his sense of whether his daughters were pretty and appealingly dressed” (Stout 20).


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"Old Mortality" by Katherine Anne Porter - an Analysis
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mortality, katherine, anne, porter, analysis
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Bachelor Katharina Eder (Author), 2007, "Old Mortality" by Katherine Anne Porter - an Analysis, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/171955


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