A literary estate under siege

November 25, 2010

I’ve collected the books of Katherine Anne Porter for a few years, and while the collection is not complete, I have some fine first editions from her literary canon. This southern author is known for her small output of flawless short stories and one novel, Ship of Fools, published in 1962. She won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter published in 1965.

The Washington Post recently ran an article about a court battle going on over Porter’s literary estate. On opposing sides are the University of Maryland and Porter’s friends/trustees. The article stated: “At stake are future rights to some of [Porter’s] work, as well as control of the 175 linear feet of letters and literary artifacts she left to the [University of Maryland] in College Park, where she spent her last decade living near campus.”

Porter likely would have relished the drama.  She went for that sort of thing, being one to create colorful exaggerations, denials and lies of love and success about her life. She lied about her age, her husbands, her lovers and her work so easily the author’s note in Conversations with Katherine Anne Porter: Refugee from Indian Creek claimed the content may not be an accurate autobiography: “The lines between the life of the imagination and the life of Katherine Anne Porter blurred and melded.” Author Enrique Hank Lopez may have captured her words on a tape recorder, but he couldn’t be sure what was truth and what was fiction.

One of Porter’s fibs involved a book she edited, the anthology What Price Marriage, which includes 24 pieces by Voltaire, St. Augustine, Mary Wollstonecraft, John Stuart Mill and others. The book’s theme, according to biographer Darlene Harbour Unrue in Katherine Anne Porter: The Life of an Artist, reflects marriage as it was changing to accommodate new attitudes. Porter accepted the editorial assignment because she needed money, and she requested the book be published under the pseudonym Hamblen Sears. She denied any involvement with the anthology. 

A footnote in Katherine Anne Porter: A Sense of the Times by Janis P. Stout says: “[Porter] said later that [the anthology] was a ‘cheap little idea by a cheap publisher’ who had paid her ‘several hundred dollars to assemble a kind of anthology.’ She added, ‘This kind of thing should have no place in the list of my works.’ KPA to Edward Schwartz, Nov. 7, 1951, McKeldin.”

One day a few years ago, a local rare and used books shop owner put a copy of What Price Marriage into my hands for purchase. It’s signed by Porter with the telling comment, “Phooey!” The copy sits on my Ohio bookshelf, far from the legal struggle going on in Maryland. The Washington Post states: “For now, Porter’s legacy is in limbo. The university’s plans to digitize her work are on hold. Who is in charge of granting access to publish her works is uncertain.”

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