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Des terres et des peuples

Katherine Anne Porter’s Mexico

Alice Bailey Cheylan
p. 183-191

Résumés

Katherine Anne Porter a voyagé et vécu au Mexique à quatre reprises entre 1920 et 1930. Son expérience au Mexique a laissé une trace indélébile sur son écriture. C’est dans son pays d’adoption qu’elle a rassemblé la matière de ses futures nouvelles. En écrivant des articles non fictionnels pour des journaux mexicains et américains, elle commence à expérimenter différentes techniques narratives qu’elle utilisera plus tard dans sa fiction. Tissant les faits avec la fiction, elle a créé sa propre forme unique de narration. Cette brève étude se concentrera sur certains des courts articles non fictionnels et des critiques écrits pendant son séjour au Mexique, et démontrera que Katherine Anne Porter travaillait déjà sur les techniques narratives qu’elle développera plus tard dans ses nouvelles.

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1Katherine Anne Porter travelled and lived in Mexico four different times between 1920 and 1930. Her first trip to Mexico was from November 1920 to September 1921. After working in Greenwich Village on a Mexican ballet intended for Pavlova, which never materialized, she was offered a job to work on the Magazine of Mexico as well as asked to write several pieces for The Christian Science Monitor. Traveling by train, she arrived in a country torn apart by civil unrest and revolution. Álvaro Obregón had just been elected president, and there was a very temporary lull in political instability. Porter quickly became part of the artist and expat communities, meeting Mexicans and foreigners alike, and it was here that she began collecting material for her future short stories.

  • 1 Porter, Katherine Anne, Outline of Mexican Popular Arts and Crafts.

2Porter’s second sojourn in Mexico was between April and September 1922. At the time there was an important exhibition of Mexican Art organized by Obregón’s government. Porter used the materials she gathered in Mexico to write monograph for a later exhibition, which was shown in the United States. Outline of Mexican Popular Arts and Crafts1 was given out as a pamphlet at the exhibition in Los Angeles when it opened in November 1922.

  • 2 Porter, Katherine Anne Porter, Flowering Judas.

3Porter returned to Mexico in the spring of 1923 to continue her research on Mexican art for a special issue of Survey Graphic. She again returned to Mexico for a sixteen months period from April 1930 to the summer of 1931. It was during this sojourn that Flowering Judas2, a collection of short stories she had written after and between her first three trips was published.

4Porter’s experience in Mexico was vital to her writing. The influence of Mexican art, culture, and politics is evident in her non-fiction articles and short stories. This short study will concentrate on some of the short non-fiction articles and book reviews written during her time in Mexico, and demonstrate that she was already working on the narrative techniques, which would later be developed in her short stories.

  • 3 Alvarez, Beth, “Adolfo Best-Maugard’s Influence on the Art and Aesthetic of Katherine Anne Porter”.
  • 4 Porter, Katherine Anne, “He”.
  • 5 Porter, Katherine Anne, “Magic”.
  • 6 Porter, Katherine Anne, “Rope”.
  • 7 Porter, Katherine Anne, “Theft”.
  • 8 Alvarez, Beth, op. cit., p. 11.

5In her article entitled “Adolfo Best-Maugard’s Influence on the Art and Aesthetics of Katherine Anne Porter”3, Beth Alvarez gives a very convincing demonstration of how Porter’s writing was influenced by Mexican art and aesthetics. Her writing techniques were inspired in particular by Best’s drawings and paintings. His portraits were the inspiration for the development of the characters in her short stories. Porter drew on his colourful pictorial images of indigenous festivals, dances, and market life to write vivid descriptions. Alvarez notes that in four of the short stories, “He”4, “Magic”5, “Rope”6, and “Theft”7, the characters resemble sketches or caricatures, similar to Best Maugard’s simple line drawings that “suggest an outline but do not flesh out the subjects”8.

  • 9 Heusser, Martin, “‘Why I write about Mexico’: Mexicanness in Katherine Anne Porter’s ‘Flowering Jud (...)

6In his essay entitled “‘Why I write Mexico’: Mexicanness in Katherine Anne Porter’s ‘Flowering Judas’ and ‘María Concepción’”9, Martin Heusser explores the relationship between the ethnographical pieces Porter wrote during her Mexican period and her Mexican stories. Heusser argues that Porter’s attraction to the past, the history of the indigenous people of Mexico, is linked to the recreation of her own past which was often the basis for her short stories.

  • 10 Lawrence, Jeffrey, “Why She Wrote about Mexico: Katherine Anne Porter and the Literature of Experie (...)

7In his article entitled “Why She Wrote about Mexico: Katherine Anne Porter and the Literature of Experience”10, Jeffrey Lawrence also analyses the importance of Porter’s Mexican experiences on her writing, but he notes that her eyewitness accounts are not always accurate, and her memories are often distorted in the creative process. He notes that Porter’s short stories are often romans à clef, the characters are based on real people, yet the reality is mixed with fiction. Porter herself described this process in regards to “Flowering Judas”.

  • 11 Porter, Katherine Anne, “Why She Selected ‘Flowering Judas’”.

8All the characters and episodes are based on real persons and events, but naturally, as my memory worked upon them and time passed, all assumed different shapes and colours, formed gradually around a central idea, that of self-delusion, the order and meaning of the episodes changed, and became in a word fiction11.

  • 12 Porter, Katherine Anne, “Blasco Ibáñez on Mexico in Revolution”.

9Although she may have been working on them, Porter did not actually publish any of her short stories during the times she lived in Mexico, she wrote them after and in between her visits, working from memory. She did however write numerous non-fiction articles about the country while she was there which were published in various journals and magazines. Only two weeks after her arrival, her short book review “Blasco Ibáñez on Mexico in Revolution”12 appeared in the English section of El Heraldo de Mexico on November 22, 1920. In the short text which is part review of Ibanez’s book Mexico in Revolution, and part editorial condemning Ibanez’s very subjective and faulty perception of Mexico based on his limited experience in the country, Porter uses ‘I’ which is followed by a third-person description with ‘he’ which later changes to the more universal ‘one’. The text mentions the reception by the reader who will be duped only if he knows nothing about Mexico, the Spanish audience will not accept the work, and the American audience will digest it quickly.

  • 13 Porter, Katherine Anne, “The New Man and the New Order”.
  • 14 In square brackets are quotes from the 2008 edition of Porter, Katherine Anne, Collected Stories an (...)

10In “The New Man and the New Order”13, written in December 1920 and published in the March 1921 issue of Magazine of Mexico, she gives a first hand account of the new President Álvaro Obregón’s inauguration. Her report reflects the new-found hopes and optimism of the new order, which sadly would not keep its promise. Porter identifies with and speaks for the people of Mexico, “Our immediate business is getting this new President inaugurated… ” [872]14. She describes the assembly of people at the Cámara attending the inauguration directly to the reader, “You notice a great many Bourbon faces, with hair rolled back from thin brows” [873]. She again uses the universal ‘one’, “On the left wing one notes a curious assortment of folk…” [873]. She also uses ‘one’ when she refers to the people attending the inauguration who are both participants and observers. “Being part and parcel of this grand spectacle, yet removed in sort of an impersonal observant way, one is compelled to pause and wonder” [875]. This double function is in fact a triple function because the inaugural ceremony and its participants are also being observed by the omniscient narrator. She does not use ‘I’.

  • 15 Porter, Katherine Anne, “The Festival of Guadalupe”.
  • 16 Porter, Katherine Anne, “María Concepción”.
  • 17 Porter, Katherine Anne, “Virgin Violeta”.

11As a foreign correspondent in Mexico, Porter perfected her descriptive narrative, describing what she actually saw. In “The Fiesta of Guadalupe”15 the colourful procession of the tired burdened pilgrims, the dancing moving “arch of brilliant-coloured paper flowers”, the cathedral bells as “they began to sway and ring – sharply with shocking clamor”, the “booths where sweets and food and drinks were sold” contribute to the image of religious frenzy which soothes and hides “their ragged hands… and their wounded hearts… beating under their work-stained clothes” [879-883]. The narration changes from first to third person and back again before the narrator addresses the reader directly, “… let the old Gods themselves tell you…” [882]. Porter uses a similar third person descriptive narration in her short stories “María Concepción”16 which appeared two years later in December 1922 and “Virgin Violeta”17 two years afterwards in 1924. The careful detailed description of the Indian clothing, jacal, and village gives authenticity to the first simple story of justified revenge. María Concepción has been wronged by her unfaithful husband and lost her newborn baby. When she kills her husband’s lover and takes her newborn infant, life resumes as though it hadn’t been interrupted. A third person descriptive narrative is also used in the second story. Violeta’s comfortable orderly house and conventional traditional clothing are in sharp contrast to the emotional chaos and sexual awakening in the young adolescent.

  • 18 Porter, Katherine Anne, “The Funeral of General Benjamin Hill”.
  • 19 Porter, Katherine Anne, “The Martyr”.

12In “The Funeral of General Benjamin Hill”18, the noise of the military funeral, “the cacophony of music and drum and clatter of horses hoofs and shouts of military orders” are in sharp contrast with the silence of death [284]. In the very short eulogy, the third person descriptive narrative is broken by the reference to “our sure and inevitable end” [884]. Porter uses this same technique, including both narrator and reader in the narration in her short story “The Martyr”19, published in the July 1923 issue of The Century Magazine. The extradiegetic narrator recounts the story of an aging, overweight Mexican artist based on Diego Rivera. Rubén is infatuated with his young model Isabel who continually humiliates him and finally heartlessly runs off with her lover as soon as she is able. The narration is interrupted with a direct remark to the reader, “The next day he and Isabel went to Costa Rica, and that is the end of them as far as we are concerned” [41].

  • 20 Porter, Katherine Anne, “Xochimilco”.

13In March 1921 Porter’s short article “Xochimilco”20 describing an Indian village offers a beautiful portrait of the native people and their market barges, seemingly untouched by the political events surrounding them. This time the first person narrator is not only observing the life in the small village, but she is accompanied by someone else. “Michael” makes two comments during the narrative, referring to the thoughts and emotions of the natives, introducing another interpretation of the surroundings. Porter also uses a first person narrator who exchanges comments with another person in her 1927 story “Magic”. The first person narrator who remains nameless is speaking to Madame Blanchard while doing her hair. She tells the story of Ninette, a young prostitute in New Orleans. This metadiegetic narration where there is a story within a story is a third person narrative broken several times by a direct remark to Madame Blanchard. The following year, in 1928, Porter published her short story “Rope” again playing with narrative technique. A third person narration and the use of the indirect dialogue of a nameless husband and wife reveal the vicissitudes of marital bliss – or sometimes the lack thereof in a small rural farm.

  • 21 Porter, Katherine Anne, “The Mexican Trinity”.

14By July 1921 Porter’s perception of Mexico had changed. In “The Mexican Trinity”21 she reveals the conflicting interests surrounding Land, Oil, and the Church and notes that this battle does not yet concern the Indians who are unable to read and realize the danger looming over them. Porter begins by using ‘we’, identifying herself with the local population, suggesting that she is expressing the opinions of the people on the current situation. She quickly changes to a third person narration which is seemingly more objective before changing back to the more personal and subjective ‘I’ at the end of the article. She realizes that her vision of Mexico is not complete, that the problem is complex and evolving, and her understanding is inevitably limited. This is interesting because she has this epiphany at the moment the events are happening. Later on both temporal and physical distance will allow her more understanding from a different perspective.

  • 22 Porter, Katherine Anne, “In a Mexican Patio”.

15“In a Mexican Patio”22, published in the April 1921 issue of The Magazine of Mexico is a description written in the first person of the guesthouse where Porter was living. Here she was in close proximity with her landlord Doña Rosa, her children, and family animals. Her writing is less journalistic, more subjective. In her short story “He”, Porter’s description of the Whipple family, their children, farm animals, rundown farmhouse and difficult rural life is more negative, but just as descriptive, and just as subjective with the reader left to imagine the feelings of the handicapped boy who is unable to express the himself.

  • 23 Porter, Katherine Anne, “Where Presidents have no Friends”.

16Her short text “Where Presidents have no Friends”23, written in the spring of 1922 begins with a first person narrator, a young Mexican born Spaniard, who had supported Carranza until he was overthrown in May 1920. The reader is given the background to the current regime which resembles its predecessor in that the president can trust no one. The switch to a third person narrator emphasizes the universality and new-found objectivity of this idea.

  • 24 Porter, Katherine Anne, “Corridos”.
  • 25 Porter, Katherine Anne, “A Portrait of the Poet”.

17Porter’s early accounts of life in Mexico show that she was not only well-versed in Mexican politics, but also in Mexican art. In “Corridos”24, published after her third trip to Mexico in the May 1924 issue of Survey Graphic, she recounts the stories springing from the oral tradition of Mexican folklore. By transposing these songs to paper they take on another artistic form. Similarly her translation of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz’s poem “A Portrait of the Poet”25 allows it to be appreciated in another form by English readers.

  • 26 Porter, Katherine Anne, “Old Gods and New Messiahs”.

18As Porter’s reputation as a specialist on Mexican art and culture developed, she was asked by the New York Herald Tribune to write several book reviews. Her 1929 review of Anita Brenner’s Idols Behind Altars, entitled “Old Gods and New Messiahs”26 begins with a standard third person narration, changes to homodiegetic narration in the second half with the introduction of “Those of us in Mexico at the time saw this happen…” then continues with her own thoughts “I wish…” and closes with a universal diegesis with ‘we’ the Americans.

19To conclude, Porter’s experience in Mexico had a considerable effect on her writing. It was there that she was first able to experiment with different forms of narration, develop her writing techniques with non-fiction articles, collect material for her future short stories, learn to appreciate the different forms of Mexican art and transcribe them in her writing as demonstrated by Alvarez, use a foreign culture to better understand her own culture and origins as revealed by Heusser, and seek to combine fact with fiction in a literature of experience as shown by Lawrence. Her Mexican experience permeated her thoughts and her writing, leaving an indelible trace. She continued to be consulted as an expert on Mexican art and aesthetics for the rest of her life.

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Bibliographie

Alvarez, Beth. “Adolfo Best-Maugard’s Influence on the Art and Aesthetic of Katherine Anne Porter”. Newsletter of the Katherine Anne Porter Society XVII (2017): 1-16.

Heusser, Martin. “‘Why I Write about Mexico’: Mexicanness in Katherine Anne Porter’s ‘Flowering Judas’ and ‘María Concepción’”. On the Move: Mobilities in English Language and Literature. Ed. Annette Kern-Stähler and David Britain. Tübingen: Narr Verlag, 2012. p. 69-80.

Lawrence, Jeffrey. “Why She Wrote about Mexico: Katherine Anne Porter and the Literature of Experience”. Twentieth Century Literature 64(1) (2018): 25-52.

Porter, Katherine Anne. “A Portrait of the Poet”. Survery Graphic (1924).

Porter, Katherine Anne. “Blasco Ibanez on Mexico in Revolution”. El Heraldo de Mexico (November 22, 1920): 7.

Porter, Katherine Anne. Collected Stories and Other Writings. New York: The Library of America, 2008.

Porter, Katherine Anne. “Corridos”. Survey Graphic 5 (May 1924): 157-158.

Porter, Katherine Anne. Flowering Judas. New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1930.

Porter, Katherine Anne. “He”. New Masses 3 (October 1927): 49-58.

Porter, Katherine Anne. “In a Mexican Patio”. Magazine of Mexico (April 1921).

Porter, Katherine Anne. “María Concepción”. The Century Magazine 105 (December 1922): 224-239.

Porter, Katherine Anne. “Magic”. Transition 13 (Summer 1928): 229-231.

Porter, Katherine Anne. “Old Gods and New Messiahs”. New York Herald Tribune Books (September 29, 1929): 1-2.

Porter, Katherine Anne. Outline of Mexican Popular Arts and Crafts. Los Angeles: Young and McCallister, 1922.

Porter, Katherine Anne. “Rope”. The Second American Caravan. New York: The Macaulay Co., 1928. p. 362-368.

Porter, Katherine Anne, “The Fiesta of Guadalupe”. El Heraldo de México (December 13, 1920): 10.

Porter, Katherine Anne. “The Funeral of General Benjamin Hill”, El Heraldo de México (December 17, 1920): 7.

Porter, Katherine Anne. “The Martyr”. The Century Magazine 106 (July 1923): 410-413.

Porter, Katherine Anne. “The Mexican Trinity”. The Freeman (August 3, 1921): 493-495.

Porter, Katherine Anne. “The New Man and the New Order”. Magazine of Mexico (March 1921): 5-15.

Porter, Katherine Anne. “Theft”. The Gyroscope (November 1929): unpaged.

Porter, Katherine Anne. “Virgin Violeta”. The Century Magazine 109 (December 1924): 261-268.

Porter, Katherine Anne. “Xochimilco”. The Christian Science Monitor (May 31, 1921): 10.

Porter, Katherine Anne. “Where Presidents Have No Friends”. The Century Magazine 104 (July 1922): 373-384.

Porter, Katherine Anne. “Why She Selected ‘Flowering Judas’”. This is My Best. New York: The Dial Press, 1942. p. 539-540.

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Notes

1 Porter, Katherine Anne, Outline of Mexican Popular Arts and Crafts.

2 Porter, Katherine Anne Porter, Flowering Judas.

3 Alvarez, Beth, “Adolfo Best-Maugard’s Influence on the Art and Aesthetic of Katherine Anne Porter”.

4 Porter, Katherine Anne, “He”.

5 Porter, Katherine Anne, “Magic”.

6 Porter, Katherine Anne, “Rope”.

7 Porter, Katherine Anne, “Theft”.

8 Alvarez, Beth, op. cit., p. 11.

9 Heusser, Martin, “‘Why I write about Mexico’: Mexicanness in Katherine Anne Porter’s ‘Flowering Judas’ and ‘María Concepción’”.

10 Lawrence, Jeffrey, “Why She Wrote about Mexico: Katherine Anne Porter and the Literature of Experience”.

11 Porter, Katherine Anne, “Why She Selected ‘Flowering Judas’”.

12 Porter, Katherine Anne, “Blasco Ibáñez on Mexico in Revolution”.

13 Porter, Katherine Anne, “The New Man and the New Order”.

14 In square brackets are quotes from the 2008 edition of Porter, Katherine Anne, Collected Stories and Other Writings.

15 Porter, Katherine Anne, “The Festival of Guadalupe”.

16 Porter, Katherine Anne, “María Concepción”.

17 Porter, Katherine Anne, “Virgin Violeta”.

18 Porter, Katherine Anne, “The Funeral of General Benjamin Hill”.

19 Porter, Katherine Anne, “The Martyr”.

20 Porter, Katherine Anne, “Xochimilco”.

21 Porter, Katherine Anne, “The Mexican Trinity”.

22 Porter, Katherine Anne, “In a Mexican Patio”.

23 Porter, Katherine Anne, “Where Presidents have no Friends”.

24 Porter, Katherine Anne, “Corridos”.

25 Porter, Katherine Anne, “A Portrait of the Poet”.

26 Porter, Katherine Anne, “Old Gods and New Messiahs”.

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Alice Bailey Cheylan, « Katherine Anne Porter’s Mexico »Babel, 45 | -1, 183-191.

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Alice Bailey Cheylan, « Katherine Anne Porter’s Mexico »Babel [En ligne], 45 | 2022, mis en ligne le 05 septembre 2022, consulté le 23 mai 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/babel/13309 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/babel.13309

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Alice Bailey Cheylan

Université de Toulon
Laboratoire BABEL [EA 2649]

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