When I met Miss Langman, and I never called her anything else, she was far into her late fifties, yet she looked eerily unaltered from her long-ago Genthe portrait. The author of Wild Asparagus and Five Black Guitars had eyes the color of Anatolian waters, and her hair, a sleek silvery blue, was brushed straight back, fitting her erect head like an airy cap. . . .
She said, that first night at Boaty’s: “Would you see me home? I hear thunder, and I’m afraid of it.”
She was not afraid of thunder, nor of anything else—except unreturned love and commercial success. Miss Langman’s exquisite renown, while justified, was founded on one novel and three short-story collections, none of them much bought or read outside academia and the pastures of the cognoscenti. Like the value of diamonds, her prestige depended upon a controlled and limited output; and, in those terms, she was a royal success, the queen of the writer-in-residence swindle, the prizes racket, the high-honorarium con, the grants-in-aid-to-struggling-artists shit. Everybody, the Ford Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Institute of Arts and Letters, the National Council on the Arts, the Library of Congress, et al., was hell-bound to gorge her with tax-free greenery, and Miss Langman, like those circus midgets who lose their living if they grow an inch or two, was ever aware her prestige would collapse if the ordinary public began to read and reward her.Capote’s portrait of Langman is a vivid vivisection of the writer Katherine Anne Porter, whom Capote first met at Yaddo, the artists’ colony, in the nineteen-forties, when he was in his early twenties and she was in her fifties. By then, Porter had published three critically acclaimed story collections but had little popular appeal.
She did eventually attain commercial success. Her first and only novel, “Ship of Fools,” published in 1962, when she was seventy-one years old, was the best-selling novel in America that year, and movie rights sold to the producer and director Stanley Kramer for four hundred thousand dollars—granting Porter financial, if not emotional, security in her old age. She had worked on the book for nearly twenty years, and had talked about it every step of the way. The novel’s intended publishers died before it appeared. When it did come out, it was criticized, in some circles, for being too superficial. A thick book remarkable for its concision—the many plot points move along at a good clip—“Ship of Fools” is less a masterwork than a piece of cinema, a detailed script about the lost and the damned and the tragedy of history that no man can escape. The book is set aboard the Vera, a passenger freighter, as it makes a twenty-seven-day journey from Veracruz to Germany in the summer of 1931. On board, Germans, Americans, Spaniards, and Mexicans, ranging from the peasant class to the drug-addicted aristocracy, bicker, fight, love, and philosophize. In a trenchant review of the book in this magazine, Howard Moss wrote that “Ship of Fools” is “a novel of character rather than of action.” What draws our interest isn’t political or moral action but Porter’s characters’ inability to access either; the protagonists, like those of Porter’s short fiction, are caught between solipsism and avarice—their emotional rock and a hard place—while the undertow of poverty, politics, and history threatens to pull them down and silence them forever.
Although “Ship of Fools” is not part of the Library of America’s handsome recent edition “Katherine Anne Porter: Collected Stories and Other Writings,” edited by Darlene Harbour Unrue ($40), it’s interesting to read it alongside her other work, if only because it confirms Porter’s superiority as a writer in the short form. (Her last volume, “The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter,” won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 1966.) As Moss noted, “ ‘Ship of Fools’ differs from her extraordinary stories and novellas in that it lacks a particular magic she has attained so many times on a smaller scale. The missing ingredient is impulse. . . . The stories read as if they were composed at one sitting, and they have the spontaneity of a running stream.” In fact many of Porter’s stories were written on the run—from the fiscal burdens, romantic hardships, and unfinished work that she could never put behind her.
Born in central Texas in 1890, Porter was the first modern white woman writer to turn Southern racism and machismo and their ramifications into art. She had an enormously liberating influence on the generation of Southern writers that followed hers: one can often hear her voice in the works of Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, and Carson McCullers. Unlike them, though, Porter wasn’t a particularly regional writer; she could write equally comfortably about Louisiana or Mexico, Texas or Germany—to name just four of the places she lived. And from the time she started publishing fiction, in 1922, she was determined to avoid the pitfalls of autobiography. “It is the intention of the writer to write fiction, after all—real fiction, not a roman à clef, or a thinly disguised personal confession which better belongs to the psychoanalyst’s séance,” she once wrote. Still, despite this overreaching comment, Porter’s most vibrant work springs from her own life. She was at her most assured when she was writing about the poverty and the dust, the casual racism and the surreal violence of her native state.