Katherine Anne Porter on Being a Southern Writer (And Eloping)

Katherine Anne Porter in her Paris Review interview:

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.”

INTERVIEWER

And at sixteen you made it final.

PORTER

At sixteen I ran away from New Orleans and got married. And at twenty-one I bolted again, went to Chicago, got a newspaper job, and went into the movies.

INTERVIEWER

The movies?

PORTER

The newspaper sent me over to the old S. and A. movie studio to do a story. But I got into the wrong line, and then was too timid to get out. “Right over this way, Little Boy Blue,” the man said, and I found myself in a courtroom scene with Francis X. Bushman. I was horrified by what had happened to me, but they paid me five dollars for that first day’s work, so I stayed on. It was about a week before I remembered what I had been sent to do; and when I went back to the newspaper they gave me eighteen dollars for my week’s nonwork and fired me!

I stayed on for six months—I finally got to nearly ten dollars a day—until one day they came in and said, “We’re moving to the coast.” “Well, I’m not,” I said. “Don’t you want to be a movie actress?” “Oh, no!” I said. “Well, be a fool!” they said, and they left. That was 1914 and world war had broken out, so in September I went home.

 

“The Discharged Soldier” — William Wordsworth

Drawing of Adrian Jones by Michael Fay
Drawing of Adrian Jones by Michael Fay

In Section IV of his Prelude, William Wordsworth evokes the most moving encounter with a veteran of war that I have ever read. At first reticent to be anything but a voyeur, the narrator (Wordsworth, in all likelihood), slips “into the shade/ Of a thick hawthorn” to spy on the “meagre man” with a “ghastly” mouth “in military garb” resting on a “mile-stone.” As the poor ex-soldier, “Companionless,” begins to issue “low muttered sounds, as if of pain / Or some uneasy though,” the narrator shakes his “heart’s specious cowardice” and hails the veteran as a human being, asking for his story. It turns out that the guy is slowly—and with great difficulty—returning to his “native home.” Wordsworth takes the veteran to a nearby friend’s house for companionship and rest, before returning to his own home in a contemplative mood. Full text of  “The Discharged Soldier”—

No living thing appeared in earth or air,
And, save the flowing water’s peaceful voice,
Sound there was none–but, lo! an uncouth shape,
Shown by a sudden turning of the road,
So near that, slipping back into the shade
Of a thick hawthorn, I could mark him well, 390
Myself unseen. He was of stature tall,
A span above man’s common measure, tall,
Stiff, lank, and upright; a more meagre man
Was never seen before by night or day.
Long were his arms, pallid his hands; his mouth
Looked ghastly in the moonlight: from behind,
A mile-stone propped him; I could also ken
That he was clothed in military garb,
Though faded, yet entire. Companionless,
No dog attending, by no staff sustained, 400
He stood, and in his very dress appeared
A desolation, a simplicity,
To which the trappings of a gaudy world
Make a strange back-ground. From his lips, ere long,
Issued low muttered sounds, as if of pain
Or some uneasy thought; yet still his form
Kept the same awful steadiness–at his feet
His shadow lay, and moved not. From self-blame
Not wholly free, I watched him thus; at length
Subduing my heart’s specious cowardice, 410
I left the shady nook where I had stood
And hailed him. Slowly from his resting-place
He rose, and with a lean and wasted arm
In measured gesture lifted to his head
Returned my salutation; then resumed
His station as before; and when I asked
His history, the veteran, in reply,
Was neither slow nor eager; but, unmoved,
And with a quiet uncomplaining voice,
A stately air of mild indifference, 420
He told in few plain words a soldier’s tale–
That in the Tropic Islands he had served,
Whence he had landed scarcely three weeks past;
That on his landing he had been dismissed,
And now was travelling towards his native home.
This heard, I said, in pity, “Come with me.”
He stooped, and straightway from the ground took up
An oaken staff by me yet unobserved–
A staff which must have dropped from his slack hand
And lay till now neglected in the grass. 430
Though weak his step and cautious, he appeared
To travel without pain, and I beheld,
With an astonishment but ill suppressed,
His ghostly figure moving at my side;
Nor could I, while we journeyed thus, forbear
To turn from present hardships to the past,
And speak of war, battle, and pestilence,
Sprinkling this talk with questions, better spared,
On what he might himself have seen or felt.
He all the while was in demeanour calm, 440
Concise in answer; solemn and sublime
He might have seemed, but that in all he said
There was a strange half-absence, as of one
Knowing too well the importance of his theme,
But feeling it no longer. Our discourse
Soon ended, and together on we passed
In silence through a wood gloomy and still.
Up-turning, then, along an open field,
We reached a cottage. At the door I knocked,
And earnestly to charitable care 450
Commended him as a poor friendless man,
Belated and by sickness overcome.
Assured that now the traveller would repose
In comfort, I entreated that henceforth
He would not linger in the public ways,
But ask for timely furtherance and help
Such as his state required. At this reproof,
With the same ghastly mildness in his look,
He said, “My trust is in the God of Heaven,
And in the eye of him who passes me!” 460

The cottage door was speedily unbarred,
And now the soldier touched his hat once more
With his lean hand, and in a faltering voice,
Whose tone bespake reviving interests
Till then unfelt, he thanked me; I returned
The farewell blessing of the patient man,
And so we parted. Back I cast a look,
And lingered near the door a little space,
Then sought with quiet heart my distant home.