Katherine Anne Porter Papers
Scope and Content Note
The correspondence primarily focuses on business transactions and the exchange of autographed editions. Often, however, Porter’s letters contain personal opinions or they address personal matters. She discusses topics ranging from her genuine interest in the well-being of the Moody’s Magic Lantern Bookstore to the nature of modern readership. The letters especially illuminate her final years after her stroke in 1978 as her health weakens and her assistant, Bill Wilkins, takes up her correspondence.
Linda and Vearl “Gill” Moody operated Magic Lantern bookshop in Kosciusko, Mississippi until they moved to their home town in Johnson City, Tennessee in the early 1980s and opened a brick and mortar, Moody Books. During a phone conversation in 2013, Vearl said that he often wrote to authors like Henry Miller, Robert Penn Warren, and Katherine Anne Porter, all of whom were very willing to autograph books and provide manuscripts for The Magic Lantern. Vearl reflected that Porter in particular was “magnificent” in her charity to the store and was a pleasure to correspond with, as this set of letters displays. On the subject of the letters, Vearl remembers being surprised to hear that Porter was ill when her assistant took up writing, as Porter had been generous and forthcoming until the last. As a letter from her assistant Bill Wilkins verifies, Katherine became somewhat paranoid and resistant to her nursing. Vearl remembers she wrote once asking him to come and bring her to Mississippi because, as he put it, she was being “held prisoner.”
While Porter’s letters are mostly about particular signed editions of The Collected Essays and Occasional Writings of Katherine Anne Porter, three interesting letters concern an issue with her publisher and an auto-pen forgery of a limited edition of A Christmas Story allegedly signed by both Porter and the illustrator, Ben Shahn. She frantically writes with many corrections, “I am horrified...I never heard of a ‘limited edition’ and I never signed one that was already signed by Ben Shahn.” Much of the correspondence like this is very candid and reflective of her personal connection to Magic Lantern books. She says at one point, “I wish you to know and remember that I have a very personal and serious interest in you and your wife and your Magic Lantern Book Store.”
Though the incentive for Porter’s correspondence concerns shipments of autographed books, she often speaks her mind and provides fluent opinions on the book trade or events in her life. Early in her letters she writes, “Please do believe how concerned I am with your brave attack on apathy, the terrible inertia of the human mass towards the arts, all the arts; they are blinded and deafened and benumbed by the savage noise they call music, the beastliness of foul moving pictures...” continuing to encourage Magic Lantern books to endure any lulls in readership, for true book lovers will always find them. She admires and references other literary figures like Sylvia Beach, saying in a letter from 1975, “The name of your shop is attractive. I was a friend of Sylvia Beach in Paris, and knew the whole story of her life in ‘Shakespeare & Company’–take heart from her history- it wasn’t easy...” Throughout the correspondence, Porter also displays a characteristic wit and sharpness, as she writes, “Do you know your wonderful Mississippi writer, Eudora Welty? If you know her, you know she has a wonderful humor and a kind of merriment...If they can’t read Eudora, I advise you to erase them from your list of prospective customers; you would be wasting your energy on them.”
Some of the final letters, beginning in early 1977 are from Porter’s assistant, Bill Wilkins, detailing Porter’s stroke, final business transactions, and his unhappy departure from his role as Porter’s assistant. Three letters are dictated by Porter to Wilkins, and although initialed in painful hand by Porter, remain fluent and well-thought underneath the dejected tone. She dictates in 1978, “Please remember who I am and how I worked. Take my word for it now that only now you can have something that you’ll never have again...so get yourself some money and show yourself up.” The final note, cleanly written from Wilkins on May 10, 1978, is a poignant goodbye, as he explains that Porter’s stroke has made her paranoid, and “since I’m [Wilkins] am closest right now, I’m where it hit and will not be with her any longer. No regrets- it was a wonderful year and perhaps I accomplished what I meant to.” Wilkins finished her final work on the Sacco-Vanzetti executions earlier that year, and Porter died two years later on September 18, 1980.
Language of Materials
After her grandmother’s death, Porter attended a convent school until she married John Henry Koontz at age 16 to eschew her family and gain some financial security. She reported his abusive tendencies, however, and filed for divorce nine years later in 1915, after which she was diagnosed with tuberculosis. While she spent the two years battling the illness and going in and out of sanatoriums, she wrote on drama and social life for a local journal in Fort Worth, Texas, The Critic.
This opportunity excited Porter’s interest in writing and film critique, and inspired her to move to New York City, where she associated with influential Southern writers like Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren. Porter continuously moved, however, leaving New York for a teaching job in Mexico, and then a marriage in Connecticut, and the subsequent divorce which pushed her to Bermuda. In total should would be married and divorced four times in her life, her last marriage ending in 1942. In 1930, she returned to Mexico, remarried, and received a Guggenheim fellowship. Her travels that year inspired her most famous work, Ship of Fools, thirty years later.
Over the next decade, Porter firmly established her reputation as a great American writer, producing infrequent but prodigious works as she continued to travel around the world. In 1943, Porter became the first Chair of Poetry at the Library of Congress after years of rave reviews comparing her to the likes of Ernest Hemingway.
In 1948, after a bad affair in Washington D.C. pushed her to Hollywood she spent time screenwriting and, teaching at Stanford University. For the next ten years she would teach at the University of Michigan, Washington and Lee, and University of Texas. Although she lacked a college degree herself and often was unorganized, she was a popular professor.
In 1962, she finally released Ship of Fools to critical acclaim at home and some harsh criticism abroad. None the less, Porter received the Pulitzer Prize in 1966 and United Artists bought the right produce the film, released in 1965. That same year she won the National Book Award for The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter.
Over the next decade Porter continued to write, speak publicly, and teach periodically. In 1977, Porter suffered a stroke and her final book on the Sacco and Vanzetti trial, The Never-Ending Wrong was finished by her assistant Bill Wilkins. She passed away in Silver Springs, Maryland on September 18, 1980 at the age of 90 after leaving her literary material to the University of Maryland Library.
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- Finding Aid for the Katherine Anne Porter Papers
- Description rules
- Describing Archives: A Content Standard
- Language of description
- Script of description
Part of the Vanderbilt University Special Collections Repository
Jean and Alexander Heard Library
419 21st Avenue South
Nashville TN 37203 United States