Alison's Reviews > The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter

The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter by Katherine Anne Porter
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Sep 18, 10

Read from September 01 to 17, 2010

It's hard to rank this book, which comprises three collections and runs from the very bad (most of her stories about Mexico) to the extremely good (the long story “Old Mortality”). I advise readers of this book to skip over the first collection, Flowering Judas and Other Stories and proceed straight to Pale Horse, Pale Rider, which is a solid four stars and will give you everything that's good about Porter's writing (lush characterization, amusing plot quirks that yield major epiphanies, inventive prose, and piercing insight into the, like, human heart). Then, move on to The Leaning Tower and Other Stories, which combines some of those merits (insights and epiphanies) with some problematic stuff that will give a sensible, sensitive reader pause.

It's difficult to stomach the encomiums to former slaves who continued to work for their former owners as loyal members of “the family”; Porter's use of the stereotype of childlike and basically unthinking black people (or Mexicans, or Irish people) is disturbing and unfortunately prevalent. In “The Old Order” Porter goes on to problematize her own problematics, in a fascinating way: watch her follow through the logic of the black mammy who loves her white nurselings, by positing a white woman who nurses, and loves, her slave's baby; Porter shows the upheaval in a white family's notions of loyalty and affection when a “loyal” servant, after her beloved (!) mistress has died, refuses to have anything more to do with the white family who'd believed that she loved and needed them. This is interesting material; however, Porter wasn't always willing to invert the stereotypes she exploited; it's not even clear what kind of awareness she had of the stereotypes, or of their inversion. It's possible that, like most people who engage in stereotyping, she believed herself to be simply observing—and that this fault was ramified by her position as a writer who observed professionally, and that the inversions came about because of her interest in plot, particularly absurd, inventive plots, rather than in her noting and wanting to expose any particular truths about race and ethnic relations. It's hard to balance Porter's acceptance of the idea that Germans are racially stolid, graceless, and generally belonging to a lower order of animal, with her astute observations about war, poverty, hunger, and the ways they twist people into unrecognizable shapes, in the story “The Leaning Tower,” written and taking place in Berlin, 1931.

The shortcomings are particularly evident in the early collection Flowering Judas, with its unbearably patronizing attitudes toward Mexicans. It also displays the faults typical of an unseasoned talent. Porter's early stories often show the kind of verbal accomplishment and glib cleverness (particularly in the “gotcha!” endings) that are typical of many story writers' early work (and, perhaps, of the form itself, in the early 20th century); she rises above this mere glibness in “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” and, to a lesser extent, the title story of the collection (a Mexican story, but a better one, with a great deal more self-consciousness), both of which begin to show off her prodigious talent.

So, how to rate such an uneven collection and such an uneven talent? Four stars, with the caveat of my review.
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