The Ambivalent Art of Katherine Anne Porter
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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 Mary Titus draws upon unpublished Porter papers, as well as newly available editions of her early fiction, poetry, and reviews, to trace Porter’s shifting and complex response to those cultural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.
reconsiders. ‘But yours are not dark. I can change all that. O girl with the green eyes, you have stolen my heart away!’” (97). Braggioni remakes the song as he would like to remake Laura; his words are a mask over his predatory gaze, the “cat’s eyes” that, as he sings, mark “the opposite ends of a smoothly drawn path between the swollen curve of her breasts” (97). Knowledge of Porter’s source for Braggioni’s song further reinforces the fact that she views the gluttonous revolutionary as an
TitusFinalPP.indd 4 INTRODUCTION 8/9/05 12:50:52 PM her vocational choice, for, ironically, sexual liberation brought with it other forms of sexual control that questioned female independence. Although the lightweight, liberated “ﬂapper” replaced the sterner and more serious New Woman, with the ﬂapper came the ideology of companionate marriage, which sought to channel women’s increasing autonomy and newly recognized capacity for sexual desire. “Companionate marriage represented the attempt of
photographer George Platt Lynes, for whom she enjoyed posing in elaborate gowns. Concepts of camp and cross-dressing illuminate the complexity of her response to the changing gender roles and new sexual liberations of the twenties, especially in two of her ﬁnest ﬁctional works, “Hacienda” and “Pale Horse, Pale Rider.” Friendships with members of the Agrarian writing community and her own longing to revise and thereby order the painful disorders of her childhood encouraged Porter to increasingly
sexual desires and a traditional upbringing that binds ideal love to strict moral codes. In the light of Porter’s gender-thinking on the tensions of art and love during the 1920s, “The Cracked Looking Glass” appears a grim tale. For here too we can see her recognition that women are in a trap created by their ambitions, their newly acknowledged sexual desires, and their still entrenched, deeply internalized social mores. As in much of her earlier work, Porter allows but two central outlets for
8/9/05 12:51:28 PM ated, self-conscious masculinity by the emphasis on socially acceptable gender performance during the war, but Chuck is also denied interests that do not fall within the narrowly deﬁned arena of appropriate male activity. Adam, too, feels constrained by the increasing conventions surrounding masculinity. Unlike Chuck, however, Adam is muscular, handsome, and enlisted, and thus these conventions provide him with rewards, which make their limitations less constraining. Still