Letters of Katherine Anne Porter

No Safe Harbor, the working title for Katherine Anne Porter’s novel Ship of Fools, would have made a fitting one for the story of her life as revealed, incompletely and tfully, in these letters chosen from among thousands that she wrote during her long lifetime. After surviving declining family circumstances, an early and unhappy marriage, and, in 1918, a close call with death (so close, she says, her obituary had been written), Porter eventually discovered that her true direction lay in exile. What that meant, among other things, was living her life on the run, seeking but never finding a permanent home. Thus in a 1941 letter: ”My life has been a long history of my attempts to take root in a place, to have a place to go back to, at least.” Along the way she passed through three more marriages, and at age 51 could look back and say, ”An unbelievable number of men have said they loved me, and I still believe that two of them really did love me.”

But the places she lived and the people she met! In Mexico, the great Russian filmmaker Sergey Eisenstein and the poet Hart Crane. In Berlin, 1932, Hermann Goering, from whom she received a boastful presentiment of the Nazi agenda. In Paris — her favorite city — in New York, Baton Rouge, and elsewhere, the struggle was always the same: to write and ”try to keep one lap ahead of the bills.”

In some of her long letters to her nephew Paul Porter, she fancies herself a sort of Dutch uncle, and he took to calling her ”my Darling Wailing Wall.” Both personae apply, for she did believe the world was going to hell in a hand basket, and thought the only remedy lay in the practice of ”spiritual aristocracy.” If one couldn’t do much about the world, finally, one could do something about one’s own place in it. And for Porter that meant, as she wrote to the novelist J.F. Powers, ”that nothing in this world matters one single damn except to get your work done.”

Letters of Katherine Anne Porter