Born Callie Russell Porter on May 15, 1890, Katherine Anne Porter grew up in poverty in Texas as a fourth child. After her mother died due to complications from the birth of a fifth child when Porter was only two years old, Porter's father moved the family to live on a farm near his mother's house. Porter would later take her grandmother's name, changing Catherine Anne to Katherine Anne. Although she was an unexceptional student, Porter was a voracious reader, devouring her grandmother's collection of classic literature. Her first inspiration to become a writer came from a love of the sonnets (14-line poetic form with structured meter and rhyme scheme) of British writer William Shakespeare (1564–1616). When her grandmother died in 1901, Porter was sent to a convent in New Orleans to be educated. She later attended a school in San Antonio, but she dropped out at age 16 to marry a rancher's son, John Henry Koontz. He was the first of her four husbands.
After Porter moved to Chicago to become a journalist, she divorced Koontz in 1915. In her 20s she held a number of jobs including singer, screenwriter, and secretary. Porter nearly died from influenza in the epidemic of 1918. After her recovery she spent time in Mexico, a country she had visited frequently and found supportive to both her health and her art. There she was influenced by the Mexican Revolution (1910–20), which ended the country's dictatorship and established a constitutional republic. The revolution inspired her lifelong political activism.
Life as a Writer
While supporting herself through journalism and dance instruction, Porter pursued fiction writing. Her first short story, "Maria Concepción," was published in 1922. She briefly married and divorced a man named Ernest Stock, about whom little is known beside her nickname for him, "deadly Ernest." Her first collection of short stories, Flowering Judas and Other Stories, included "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall." Published in 1930, the collection earned her critical acclaim, leading to a Guggenheim fellowship in 1931 that allowed her to move to Europe for several years and continue her writing. Around this time she married and divorced Eugene Pressly, a member of the U.S. Foreign Service, and subsequently married Albert Russell Erskine Jr., editor of the Southern Review.
In 1939 her second collection of stories, Pale Horse, Pale Rider, was published. As her fame as an American author grew, Porter was invited to lecture and teach writing. Despite never attending college herself, Porter taught at a number of colleges and universities, including Michigan's Olivet College beginning in 1940. She and Erskine were divorced in 1942.
Porter was a perfectionist as a writer, trusting her own voice almost entirely. She required intense solitude and concentration to write. To finish her only novel, Porter rented a secluded home in Cape Ann, Massachusetts, and scarcely left it for three months in an effort she claimed sprained her soul. The novel, Ship of Fools, was inspired by her time in Mexico and the rise of Nazism in World War II (1939–45). It took over two decades to write and was a best seller. Its publication in 1962 won her the larger audience her prose warranted, and the film version in 1965 starring British actress Vivien Leigh (1913–67) provided Porter with a comfortable income that allowed her to enjoy her later years.
The publication of her collected works received a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award in 1966. Porter was by this time a well-known traveling lecturer and activist. Her final story, "The Never-Ending Wrong" (1977), was influenced by her protests at the Sacco-Vanzetti trial some 50 years prior. On trial were two Italian-American anarchists, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, who were executed for murder on scanty evidence. Porter's story recounted the prosecution of two similar Italian-American anarchists who were executed for murder despite maintaining their innocence and the confession of another man to the crime.
Death and Legacy
After suffering a stroke, Porter died in Maryland on September 18, 1980. Although her published works include just 25 short stories and the single novel, her flawless prose and individual style continue to influence American literature.