"Southern Myth: A Note on 'Noon Wine,'"
Critic: Elmo Howell
: Louisiana Studies
, Vol. 11, No. 3, Fall, 1972, pp. 252-59.
Criticism about: Katherine Anne Porter (1890-1980)
[(essay date 1972) In the following essay, Howell evaluates Porter as a Southern writer.]
Although the body of Katherine Anne Porter's work has little regional implication and
though Miss Porter has spent most of her adult life away from her native Texas, she has
always acknowledged the importance of the regional in art and expressed satisfaction in
her own provincial origin. In 1965, in an article in Harper's she declared the writers of the
South and West are at the center of the American literary tradition--not those from the
Eastern seaboard, who pour from their pens "unbelievable abominations" that no longer
look like English but some dreadful perversion of it. They have fallen into "a curious
kind of argot," she says, "more or less originating in New York, a deadly mixture of
academic, guttersnipe, gangster, fake-Yiddish, and dull old worn-out dirty words--an
appalling bankruptcy in language, as if they hate English and are trying to destroy it
along with all other living things they touch."1
Her defense of the provinces belies Miss Porter's own position as a Southern writer.
Though she praises the "unclobbered heads" from the South and West that keep rising up,
in her own fiction she has been shy about using regional material. She broke away early
from her Texas moorings, joined a revolution in Mexico, and then not finding revolution
very attractive moved on to Europe to join the other expatriates on the Left Bank.
Consequently, her writing is international in scope, while at the same time she holds on to
her Southern heritage as some deep reserve that gives ballast to surface floundering.
Though very much at home with the smart gadabouts between the wars, she was never
really one of them. For them, nothing worked, she said, "except sex and alcohol and
pulling apart their lamentable Midwestern upbringings and scattering the pieces."2 Her
sympathy was all with those writers who stayed at home and built on home material, like
Willa Cather and Eudora Welty. She has written a few stories herself about home; but
with a memory as long as Faulkner's and a background as opulent and with something of
the same bardic impulse to prompt her, the surprising thing is the meager use of the
regional in Miss Porter's art.
Her main effort in this direction is autobiographical, in the Miranda stories, which deal
with the history of her family beginning with ante-bellum days in Kentucky. After the
death of her husband in the Civil War, the grandmother Sophia Jane moved her family of
nine children, along with Negro servants, first to Louisiana and eventually to a South
Texas ranch, where the girl Miranda was brought up. The grandmother is a matriarch,
embodying in virile form the finest qualities of the old days, and Aunt Nanny and Uncle
Jimbilly are almost parodies of the old-time Southern darkies. Miss Porter writes with