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The Victorian house in which Katherine Anne Porter lived was narrow and white, reached by an iron-railed stairway curving up from the shady brick-walked Georgetown street. The parlor to which a maid admitted the caller was an elegant mélange of several aspects of the past, both American and European. Dim and cool after the midsummer glare, the high-ceilinged room was dominated by a bottle-green settee from the period of Napoleon III. Outside the alcove of windows there was a rustle of wind through ginkgo trees, then a hush.

Finally, a voice in the upper hallway: its tone that of someone talking to a bird, or coquetting with an old beau—light and feathery, with a slight flutter. A few moments later, moving as lightly as her voice, Miss Porter hurried through the wide doorway, unexpectedly modern in a soft green suit of woven Italian silk. Small and elegant, she explained her tardiness, related an anecdote from the morning’s mail, offered a minted iced tea, and speculated aloud on where we might best conduct our conversation.

She decided on the dining room, a quiet, austere place overlooking the small enclosed garden. Here the aspect was a different one. “I want to live in a world capital or the howling wilderness,” she said once, and did. The drawing room was filled with pieces that had once been part of the house on the rue Notre Dame des Champs; this one was bright with Mexican folk art—whistles and toy animals collected during a recent tour for the Department of State—against simpler, heavier pieces of furniture. The round table at which we sat was of Vermont marble, mottled and colored like milk glass, on a wrought-iron base of her own design. There was a sixteenth-century cupboard from Ávila, and a refectory table of the early Renaissance from a convent in Fiesole. Here we settled the tape recorder, under an image of the great god Horus.

We tried to make a beginning. She was an experienced lecturer, familiar with microphone and tape recorder, but now she was to talk about herself as well as her work, the link between, and the inexorable winding of the tape from one spool to the other acted almost as a hypnotic. Finally we turned it off and talked for a while of other things, more frivolous and more autobiographical, hoping to surprise an easier revelation …

INTERVIEWER

You were saying that you had never intended to make a career of writing. 

KATHERINE ANNE PORTER

I’ve never made a career of anything, you know, not even of writing. I started out with nothing in the world but a kind of passion, a driving desire. I don’t know where it came from, and I don’t know why—or why I have been so stubborn about it that nothing could deflect me. But this thing between me and my writing is the strongest bond I have ever had—stronger than any bond or any engagement with any human being or with any other work I’ve ever done. I really started writing when I was six or seven years old. But I had such a multiplicity of half-talents, too: I wanted to dance, I wanted to play the piano, I sang, I drew. It wasn’t really dabbling—I was investigating everything, experimenting in everything. And then, for one thing, there weren’t very many amusements in those days. If you wanted music, you had to play the piano and sing yourself. Oh, we saw all the great things that came during the season, but after all, there would only be a dozen or so of those occasions a year. The rest of the time we depended upon our own resources: our own music and books. All the old houses that I knew when I was a child were full of books, bought generation after generation by members of the family. Everyone was literate as a matter of course. Nobody told you to read this or not to read that. It was there to read, and we read.

INTERVIEWER

Which books influenced you most?

PORTER

That’s hard to say, because I grew up in a sort of mélange. I was reading Shakespeare’s sonnets when I was thirteen years old, and I’m perfectly certain that they made the most profound impression upon me of anything I ever read. For a time I knew the whole sequence by heart; now I can only remember two or three of them. That was the turning point of my life, when I read the Shakespeare sonnets, and then all at one blow, all of Dante—in that great big book illustrated by Gustave Doré. The plays I saw on the stage, but I don’t remember reading them with any interest at all. Oh, and I read all kinds of poetry—Homer, Ronsard, all the old French poets in translation. We also had a very good library of—well, you might say secular philosophers. I was incredibly influenced by Montaigne when I was very young. And one day when I was about fourteen, my father led me up to a great big line of books and said, “Why don’t you read this? It’ll knock some of the nonsense out of you!” It happened to be the entire set of Voltaire’s philosophical dictionary with notes by Smollett. And I plowed through it; it took me about five years.

And of course we read all the eighteenth-century novelists, though Jane Austen, like Turgenev, didn’t really engage me until I was quite mature. I read them both when I was very young, but I was grown up before I really took them in. And I discovered for myself Wuthering Heights; I think I read that book every year of my life for fifteen years. I simply adored it. Henry James and Thomas Hardy were really my introduction to modern literature; Grandmother didn’t much approve of it. She thought Dickens might do, but she was a little against Mr. Thackeray; she thought he was too trivial. So that was as far as I got into the modern world until I left home!

INTERVIEWER

Don’t you think this background—the comparative isolation of Southern rural life and the atmosphere of literary interest—helped to shape you as a writer?

PORTER

I think it’s something in the blood. We’ve always had great letter writers, readers, great storytellers in our family. I’ve listened all my life to articulate people. They were all great storytellers, and every story had shape and meaning and point.

INTERVIEWER

Were any of them known as writers?

PORTER

Well, there was my sixth or seventh cousin once removed, poor William Sidney. O. Henry, you know. He was my father’s second cousin—I don’t know what that makes him to me. And he was more known in the family for being a bank robber. He worked in a bank, you know, and he just didn’t seem to find a talent for making money; no Porter ever did. But he had a wife who was dying of TB and he couldn’t keep up with the doctor’s bills. So he took a pitiful little sum—oh, about three hundred and fifty dollars—and ran away when he was accused. But he came back, because his wife was dying, and went to prison. And there was Horace Porter, who spent his whole eight years as ambassador to France looking for the bones of John Paul Jones. And when he found them, and brought them back, he wrote a book about them.

INTERVIEWER

It seems to me that your work is pervaded by a sense of history. Is that part of the family legacy?

PORTER

We were brought up with a sense of our own history, you know. My mother’s family came to this country in 1648 and went to the John Randolph territory of Virginia. And one of my great-great-grandfathers was Jonathan Boone, the brother of Daniel. On my father’s side I’m descended from Colonel Andrew Porter, whose father came to Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, in 1720. He was one of the circle of George Washington during the Revolution, a friend of Lafayette, and one of the founders of the Society of the Cincinnati—oh, he really took it seriously!—and when he died in 1809—well, just a few years before that he was offered the post of secretary of war, but he declined. We were never very ambitious people. We never had a president, though we had two governors and some in the army and the navy. I suppose we did have a desire to excel but not to push our way to higher places. We thought we’d already arrived!

INTERVIEWER

The “we” of family is very strong, isn’t it? I remember that you once wrote of the ties of blood as the “absolute point of all departure and return.” And the central character in many of your stories is defined, is defining herself often, in relation to a family organization. Even the measure of time is human—expressed in terms of the very old and the very young, and how much of human experience they have absorbed.

PORTER

Yes, but it wasn’t a conscious made-up affair, you know. In those days you belonged together, you lived together, because you were a family. The head of our house was a grandmother, an old matriarch, you know, and a really lovely and beautiful woman, a good soul, and so she didn’t do us any harm. But the point is that we did live like that, with Grandmother’s friends, all reverend old gentlemen with frock coats, and old ladies with jet breastplates. Then there were the younger people, the beautiful girls and the handsome young boys, who were all ahead of me; when I was a little girl, eight or nine years old, they were eighteen to twenty-two, and they represented all glamour, all beauty, all joy and freedom to me. Then there was my own age, and then there were the babies. And the servants, the Negroes. We simply lived that way; to have four generations in one house, under one roof, there was nothing unusual about that. That was just my experience, and this is just the way I’ve reacted to it. Many other people didn’t react, who were brought up in very much the same way.

I remember when I was very young, my older sister wanted to buy some old furniture. It was in Louisiana, and she had just been married. And I went with her to a wonderful old house in the country where we’d been told there was a very old gentleman who probably had some things to sell. His wife had died, and he was living there alone. So we went to this lovely old house, and, sure enough, there was this lonely beautiful old man, eighty-seven or -eight, surrounded by devoted Negro servants. But his wife was dead and his children were married and gone. He said, yes, he had a few things he wanted to sell. So he showed us through the house. And finally he opened a door, and showed us a bedroom with a beautiful four-poster bed, with a wonderful satin coverlet: the most wonderful, classical-looking bed you ever saw. And my sister said, “Oh, that’s what I want.” And he said, “Oh, madame, that is my marriage bed. That is the bed that my wife brought with her as a bride. We slept together in that bed for nearly sixty years. All our children were born there. Oh,” he said, “I shall die in that bed, and then they can dispose of it as they like.”

I remember that I felt a little suffocated and frightened. I felt a little trapped. But why? Only because I understood that. I was brought up in that. And I was at the age of rebellion then, and it really scared me. But I look back on it now and think how perfectly wonderful, what a tremendously beautiful life it was. Everything in it had meaning. 

INTERVIEWER

But it seems to me that your work suggests someone who was searching for new—perhaps broader—meanings … that while you’ve retained the South of your childhood as a point of reference, you’ve ranged far from that environment itself. You seem to have felt little of the peculiarly Southern preoccupation with racial guilt and the death of the old agrarian life.

PORTER

I’m a Southerner by tradition and inheritance, and I have a very profound feeling for the South. And, of course, I belong to the guilt-ridden white-pillar crowd myself, but it just didn’t rub off on me. Maybe I’m just not Jewish enough, or Puritan enough, to feel that the sins of the father are visited on the third and fourth generations. Or maybe it’s because of my European influences—in Texas and Louisiana. The Europeans didn’t have slaves themselves as late as my family did, but they still thought slavery was quite natural… . But, you know, I was always restless, always a roving spirit. When I was a little child I was always running away. I never got very far, but they were always having to come and fetch me. Once when I was about six, my father came to get me somewhere I’d gone, and he told me later he’d asked me, “Why are you so restless? Why can’t you stay here with us?” and I said to him, “I want to go and see the world. I want to know the world like the palm of my hand.”