Mary Langman Prize Essay


Reproduced by kind permission of the Pioneer Health Foundation. The text has been scanned by Luke Kelly who volunteered for this tedious job and to whom we are grateful. In one or two places it is corrupted, and if you can suggest corrections we would be grateful.

The Pioneer Health Foundation exists to disseminate the ideas of the Peckham Experiment,and offers the ‘Mary Langman Prize’; an annual award for an essay that furthers the lessons learnt at the Pioneer Health Centre about the social, emotional and environmental contribution health.

Social Medicine Vol 4 no 3 contains some useful articles about the Peckham Experiment

Footnotes have been incorporated into the text in [square brackets]. Photographs, which were collected together, have been inserted into what seems the most appropriate point in the text.


This book has been written to afford an approach for the intelligent layman to the growing content of the modern science of human biology. In the coming years we are all going to discover that we must either learn to understand and live in obedience to the laws of biology—the science of living— thereby coming to live more abundantly : or that by ignoring them our misfortunes must multiply till, heaping up, they ultimately destroy man’s civilisation—and even man himself. The substance of this book has been drawn from the inspiration of and experience gathered under the Directorship of Dr. G. Scott Williamson, Halley Stewart Research Fellow, at the Pioneer Health Centre in Peckham. It is the third of a sequence of four books, of which the first two—”The Case for Action”[Pearse and Williamson (Faber &. Faber, 1931)] and “Biologists in Search of Material” [Staff Report, Pioneer Health Centre (Faber & Faber, 1938)].—have already appeared, and the fourth—”Science, Sanity and Synthesis”—on the scientific principles upon which the experiment is based, is yet to follow. It was the good sense and generous co-operation of the member-families of the Centre which has made such an experiment possible at all, and if any reader finds in the pages of this book that which interests, pleases or illumines him, it is to the members of the Centre, who lived through some difficult as well as many “grand days”, that thanks are due.The work that this book represents was contributed to by every member of the Centre’s staff, the observations of each having been woven into a whole by the authors—a doctor and a biologist ‘curator’ on that staff. Much trouble has been taken to ensure that nothing important to the issue should be omitted, and that the balance of the whole should be preserved in accordance with the facts and happenings as they occurred in the course of the experiment. For her unflagging interest and work in this connection, we wish to express our deep sense of gratitude to Miss Mary Langman, who nominally acting as amanuensis has actually contributed to every page of this book.

The money for the Peckham Experiment has been raised by a Committee of lay people, who have carried a heavy burden of anxiety in finding the necessary funds for experiment on so large a scale. The scale of the experiment was determined by the needs of health; for experience has already taught us that health can only come forth from mutuality of action within a society sufficiently mixed and varied to provide for the needs of mind and spirit as well as of body. The authors trust that all those whose vision and generosity have led them to support the Pioneer Health Centre will see in this book some realisation of their hopes.

The writing of this book has been made possible by a grant from the Halley Stewart Trust, for which the authors wish to express their appreciation.

Innes H. Pearse, Lucy H. Crocker


  1. Living Things
  2. Man in the Making
  3. Basic Technique
  4. The Health Centre
  5. Health Overhaul
  6. Findings of Overhaul
  7. New Member families
  8. The Family Grows
  9. Infancy
  10. School Days
  11. Growing Up
  12. Courtship and Mating
  13. The Birth of a Family
  14. Social Poverty
  15. Social Sufficiency
  16. A Community Grows 

Appendices (mostly tables and diagrams in picture form)

  1. Plan and Notes on the Building
  2. Services and Amenities (not reproduced)
  3. Nature of Employment of members
  4. Specimen of Laboratory Records
  5. Cost of Health OverhaulTable
  6. Prevalence of Iron Deficiency and Worms
  7. Plans for an Educational Experiment
  8. A Child’s Activities
  9. Financial and Administrative
  10. Use of the Centre daily and weekly

To those in despair of Man’s civilization


A lawn, a rabbit hutch, a much loved rabbit hopping about free in the sun. Its owner, a little girl, has heard a noise that fills her with dismay. She rushes out to find that the terrier from next door has escaped into her garden . . . loud barkings, a horrifying scuffle. The inevitable is happening. . . she flings herself to the ground, for she cannot see that dreadful end. Minutes pass, blackness, abysmal horror, when faintly a voice reaches her, “It’s all right, Jennifer, the rabbit’s safe”. The child uncovers her face ; slowly she approaches the hutch: no cry of joy; she turns away in contemplation. Five minutes later she is heard saying to herself. . . “I must remember, always have a good look before, you cry”.


Before beginning to build, it is necessary to know what bricks are to be used, or, in modern terms, what must be the unit of construction. Times and fashions change and with them the units of material construction. So, too, with the constructs of Society; man changes his institutions, his customs and the external circumstances of his life and, in a manner, his own life with them. But Nature’s laws are abiding. In the realms of Matter and Energy about which man has come to know so much, he accepts Nature’s units of construction and works in obedience to her laws. In the realm of Living he has yet to recognise the unit with which Nature works ; and to learn to use that unit. If man is to venture on the rebuilding of Society, he must take nothing for granted. The first question therefore is—With what unit does Nature build in the living world? It is with the answer to this question that this book is concerned, and because that is its subject we publish now what would in less turbulent times have been withheld until the studies that underlie it had reached a fuller measure of maturity. We claim to have defined the unit of Living. It is not the individual; it is the family. This has opened up a new field for experiment into social organisation and has enabled us to contrive the first rude instrument for the exploration of new possibilities. It is not then on theoretical grounds alone but with some basis of experiment and experience that we offer to the student concerned with the structure of Society of the future, an indication of what living unit will give us a living human Society—no matter what variations in detail may be necessary to suit different peoples and different climes.

In Science one thing leads to another. When setting out on a journey of exploration no scientist knows what his ultimate destination may be. Studies on the ill-defined fringes of several branches of Science, particularly that of pathology, have led to new light being thrown, not on Sickness, but on Health. The first indicating finger pointing to the necessity for the study of health came from work on the epidemiology of infectious disorder.

So in 1926 the pioneer “Health Centre” took shape. [For an account of the first Health Centre, and of the sketch plans for the second, see The Case for Action, Pearse  & Williamson. (Faber & Faber, 1931). 2s.] A small house was taken in a South London borough. It was equipped with a consulting room, receptionist’s office, bath and changing room, and one small club-room. Families living in the vicinity were invited to join this Family Club for a small weekly subscription. By the end of three years, 112 families, i.e., some 400 individuals, had joined and all the individuals of these families had presented themselves for periodic health overhaul. Not all had retained their membership throughout that period, but the question had been answered. Under suitable circumstances, there were families who would welcome a Health Service distinct from any sickness service and without being urged by any sense of impending sickness. But perhaps the most outstanding fact learnt by the scientific staff was that although sickness could be detected early, often indeed long before the individual had any idea of its presence, and although it was found that the individuals subject to such disorders were willing and anxious to have them removed and with the assistance made available now took the necessary steps for their removal, it was in many cases useless to eradicate the disorder only to return the individual to the environmental conditions which had induced it. Equally important, it was discovered that in those who manifested no disorder, the standard of health or vitality found was low and could not be raised without suitable equipment for the purpose. In other words, it became clear that while operating efficiently as a sieve for the detection of disease and disorder, periodic health overhaul is ineffective as a health measure in the absence of instruments of health providing conditions in and through which the biological potentiality of the family can find expression. This finding was unforeseen. The issue now became greatly complicated. The possibilities both for the study and for the cultivation of health were opening out and taking on a new aspect. It was decided to shut down the first small Health Centre which was, as it were, a bench test, and to devise an experiment in which not only the technical measure of periodic health overhaul could be employed on a larger scale, but in which there would be available circumstances and material likely to kindle the health of the families examined.

The Pioneer Health Centre, Queen’s Road, Peckham, London, S.E.

plans of the building

Seven long years passed. They were spent in planning the next stage in great detail and in collecting money for a new and larger enterprise—a field experiment it might be called. It was to be a Health Centre to cater for 2,000 families, in which were to be offered consultative services as before, and in which the member-families would find equipment for the exercise of capacities for which there was little or no possible outlet in the ordinary circumstances of their lives. Thus in 1935 the second stage of the Pioneer Health Centre took form. It was a great venture: a social structure to be built with a new unit—not the individual but the family.After eighteen months’ work an interim report was published under the title of Biologists in Search of Material.[ Faber & Faber, 1938. 2s.] In that book many details of the initial procedure, including the technique followed in the periodic health overhaul, were given. These we do not propose to repeat here, for many will have read them, while for those who have not, the report is still available. We must, however, emphasise the major conclusion of that report. It was that the Health Centre with its peculiar technique for dealing with families in a social milieu with simultaneous use of the periodic health overhaul, had provided us with an instrument of analysis not unlike a prism, which interposed in a beam of white light analyses it into its component parts giving a picture of the spectrum, or rainbow. The spectrum that the Centre revealed was, alas, no gay coloured rainbow. It made clear that the populace was composed of three categories:—

  1. those in whom disorder was accompanied by disease 32%
  2. those in whom disorder was masked by compensation, and who therefore appeared in a state of ‘well-being’ 59%
  3. those in whom neither disease, disorder, nor disability were detected—the ‘healthy’9%

The mechanism of the Pioneer Health Centre has made it possible to view and to study discretionately, in the light of these several categories, so-called ‘normal’ families and individuals going about their daily business.[ Biologists in Search of Material, p. 78]

As the experiment has proceeded, the understanding of the scientific staff has deepened, and the theory of Health has been developed and clarified. We can now visualise the essential elements of a technique for the practice of Health as something different and distinct from the practice of Medicine. It is with this subject that the greater part of this book is concerned. The first three chapters range over a wide field, affording a sketch map of the territory into which we are being led, and indicate the principles of growth and development that are beginning to stand out as fundamental to Living. To some, these chapters may seem difficult, leading them into realms with which they are little familiar. Those readers may prefer to skip this portion of the book and pass on to what for them may seem a more human aspect of the experiment, only returning later to the theory—as one returns to the map at the end of a day’s journey—to trace the path along which they have travelled through a close-woven chronicle of human circumstance.

So vivid was the life, so illuminating the understanding that came to those who worked and moved in and with the experiment, that it remains unalterable. The war, passing like the black shadow of an eclipse across the world, has caused the experiment to be suspended, [The Centre’s activities were suspended at the outbreak of war, September, 1939, owing to the inevitable dispersion of the family unit in war conditions,] but live and vibrant beneath what is now a scorched earth, “the Centre” lives to thrust up in a new age. It has already proved itself a ‘living structure’.

Like this:


New York, after the war. A young writer—more of a hustler, really—named P. B. Jones attends a publishing party full of artists and literary types. There he meets an older, established author he has long admired named Alice Lee Langman; he eventually becomes her lover for a time. Langman, says Jones, who narrates Truman Capote’s underrated, unfinished final novel, “Answered Prayers,” is “a perfected presence, an enameled lady.”

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.

“I am the grandchild of a lost War, and I have blood-knowledge of what life can be in a defeated country on the bare bones of privation,” Porter wrote in a 1944 essay, “Portrait: Old South.” Christened Callie Russell Porter, she was the fourth child of Harrison and Mary Alice Jones Porter, a farmer and a former schoolteacher, who reared their brood on a somewhat shabby farm in Indian Creek, Texas. (Mary Alice’s father had purchased the property in 1883, shortly after his wife was declared insane and institutionalized.) In 1892, the Porters’ fifth child was born; two months after the birth, the mother died, a blow from which Harrison Porter never recovered. In his grief, he couldn’t properly comfort, let alone pay attention to, his children. And when he did focus on them the lion’s share of his affection went to his youngest daughter, whom the family nicknamed Baby, and whom Katherine Anne forever resented. Porter complained to her older sister, Gay, “No wonder our mother died of pneumonia after the exposure of childbirth in January in that house!” In short, she blamed her father for her mother’s death—he hadn’t taken good enough care of her, or his children.

Soon after Mary Alice died, Harrison Porter moved the family to Kyle, Texas, where his mother, Catharine Ann Skaggs Porter, had a house, and a small farm nearby. Petite, fierce, and independent, the Kentucky-born matriarch, known as Cat, had been a widow for some time. (She claimed that her late husband had been a Confederate soldier.) According to Porter, Cat loved to dress and adorn herself, and “talk with friends or listen to music.” “She did not in the least like pinching or saving and mending and making things do,” Porter recalled. In order to avoid acknowledging the dirt trap she called home, Cat made up stories about the family’s glorious past, replete with plantations and servants and a fine lineage.

Porter took after Cat. She, too, was a born fabulist, the heroine of her own dreams, a striver with a moral disgust for poverty and a snob’s belief in hierarchy: to be richer was to be better. Writing of her grandmother in 1944, Porter noted, “The long difficulties of her life she regarded as temporary, an unnatural interruption to her normal fate, which required simply a firmness, a good deal of will power and energy and the proper aims to re-establish finally once more.” She might as well have been describing herself. Throughout her life, Porter believed that her “normal fate” would include the love of a strong man and a life of comfort. Her failure to acquire either led to a certain “inclination to romance,” as Elizabeth Hardwick observed in a 1984 piece about her friend. “As I look back over the attachments I knew about from gossip or otherwise, I see in them a conscious and careful make believe. . . . Katherine Anne knew the impossible when she met it.”

In 1901, Cat died suddenly, and Harrison uprooted the children yet again, taking them to stay with relatives in other parts of Texas and Louisiana. Porter’s only constant in those years was reading—she devoured Shakespeare, Voltaire, and Gibbon, among other writers. She also developed a preternatural ability to reinvent herself. While enrolled briefly at a Methodist school for girls in San Antonio, the fourteen-year-old Porter asked her family and friends to start calling her Katherine, in honor of her grandmother. Encouraged by a drama teacher at the school, and now a black-haired, pale-skinned beauty, she performed several times with a travelling theatre company. When, in the fall of 1905, the family moved again, this time to Victoria, Texas, a city near the Gulf of Mexico, Porter placed an ad in the local paper, offering her services as an instructor in “music, physical culture, and dramatic reading.” Barely in her mid-teens, the nascent artist was searching for the form best suited to her sensibility. As she saw it, stardom of one sort or another was her only ticket out of Texas. “I started out with nothing in the world but a kind of passion, a driving desire,” Porter told Barbara Thompson in 1963, in an interview for The Paris Review. “I don’t know where it came from, and I don’t know why—or why I have been so stubborn about it that nothing could deflect me.”

In 1906, however, when Porter was sixteen, she gave up her independence to marry John Henry Koontz, the twenty-one-year-old son of a wealthy Texas rancher with a spread in Inez. Two years into the marriage, the couple relocated to Houston, where Koontz took a job at a cotton company. Three years after that, they moved to Corpus Christi, so that he could establish himself as a travelling salesman. By that point, Porter’s days were marked by violence, and not the luxury she craved. In 1909, Koontz, often drunk, had knocked her unconscious and thrown her down the stairs. A year or two later, she suffered a miscarriage. In 1913, after undergoing surgery for an ovarian cyst, she instructed her husband to take his pleasures elsewhere. In between these hardships, she converted to Catholicism, her husband’s faith, and read the lives of the saints, finding particular solace in the stories that involved martyrdom. And she ran. Over and over, she fled the marriage, staying with family members or friends, only to return to Koontz again, until, in 1914, at the age of twenty-three, she left him for good, ending what would turn out to be her longest relationship. She bought a one-way train ticket to Chicago, where she supported herself as a movie extra for a while, and published a prose sketch in the Chicago Tribune. When the divorce was final, the following year, she officially changed her name to Katherine Porter.

Reading about Katherine Anne Porter’s early, blown-about years in Joan Givner’s deeply pleasurable critical biography, “Katherine Anne Porter: A Life” (1982), and in Darlene Harbour Unrue’s dry, methodical effort, “Katherine Anne Porter: The Life of an Artist” (2005), one does not discover a life devoted to growth, let alone self-analysis or compassion for others. After her divorce, Porter supported herself by addressing envelopes for two dollars and fifty cents a day and, following a brief second marriage to one of Koontz’s business associates, working as a salesclerk at Neiman Marcus. Her life style in those days reminds one of Jean Rhys’s early days in London and Paris—sitting alone in her furnished rooms, a bottle on the unused writing table. Like Rhys, Porter had a habit of inviting ruin into her home so that she could flee it. But the next cataclysmic event in her life came unbidden. In November, 1915, she contracted tuberculosis. Borrowing money from her brother, she recovered for a time in Texas, where she married and divorced for the third time, then in Colorado, where her professional life as a writer began. In September, 1918, the Rocky Mountain News hired her as a reporter. But she collapsed again in October, nearly succumbing to Spanish influenza—an experience she used as the central event in “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” the title piece of her 1939 collection of stories.

In “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” the heroine, Miranda, takes ill during the flu pandemic of 1918. Living on scant wages in a boarding house, she contemplates her immediate past from her sickbed, and among the images that loom and leer in her dreams the most significant involve a horse she rode while growing up on a farm in the South—the horse, we gradually understand, symbolizes death. In the Paris Review interview, Porter explained that her illness had changed her forever: “It just simply divided my life, cut across it like that. So that everything before that was just getting ready, and after that I was in some strange way altered, ready. It took me a long time to go out and live in the world again. I was really ‘alienated,’ in the pure sense. It was, I think, the fact that I really had participated in death, that I knew what death was, and had almost experienced it. I had what the Christians call the ‘beatific vision,’ and the Greeks called the ‘happy day,’ the happy vision just before death. Now if you have had that, and survived it, come back from it, you are no longer like other people, and there’s no use deceiving yourself that you are.”

Although Porter saw her struggle with the flu as an important juncture in her life—her black hair famously turned silver—her biographies make it clear that her life after 1919 was pretty much a continuation of what had come before: she had countless affairs and broken engagements and married and divorced at least twice more. (The poet Allen Tate remarked, “Who knows, there might have been yet another husband dropped off somewhere.” In her own defense, Porter said in a 1965 interview, “I have no hidden marriages. They just sort of escape my mind.”) She depended on friends and publishers and institutions for financial support—and then complained whenever a piece of writing was due, blaming everyone else for her bronchitis, brought on by overwork. Too often, Porter the artist was marooned by Porter the drama queen, with her vanity, her self-centeredness, and her self-destructiveness.

Porter made her way east in 1919 and set up house in Greenwich Village, intending to write fiction and poetry, but became a publicist for a film company instead. In New York, she met Edna St. Vincent Millay and Edmund Wilson, among other bright young things. But she was more drawn to the Mexican expatriates who were part of the bohemian circle. (Porter was an early proponent of difference as the ultimate turn-on.) In 1920, she travelled south of the border, with the idea that she would support herself by writing about Mexico for American publications. Once settled there, Porter fell in love with the people and the culture. Eventually, she referred to Mexico as her second home, and she lived there on and off over the following decade, during which time she befriended the great muralist Diego Rivera. Unrue includes a range of Porter’s writing about Mexico in the Library of America volume, and she has chosen well: Porter had excellent descriptive skills and a solid grounding in history. Had she come of age as a writer in the sixties, she would have made an exceptional New Journalist.

The racial lens through which Porter views Mexican life dates some of the material. In a 1924 essay, for instance, she writes, “In Mexico, most of the birds, and all of the people, sing. They sing out freely and cheerfully, to the extent of the voice Heaven has endowed them with, in all places, and at all hours.” But, as far as Southern writers go, Porter was one of the more evolved. She never despised black people, for instance; back in Texas, she had empathized with their low ranking on the social ladder—it reflected her own. In 1943, she resigned from the National Institute of Arts and Letters for a time, because of its propensity for identifying potential candidates as “Negro.” And in a 1942 letter to her nephew she wrote, “I think at best there is perhaps a certain tension that exists yet between even the most intelligent persons of the black and the white races in this country. There is too much evil and sad history, too many painful memories, between us. . . . But it can be overcome, outlived, not by denying the past, but by understanding it.” Mexico gave Porter the setting for her first short story, “María Concepción,” which was published in 1922, when she was thirty-two. As a tale of marital jealousy and revenge, it carries the reader along, but it’s a clever student’s idea of a short story, not the powerful, messy work of a writer whom the page can barely contain. The same can be said of most of her first book, “Flowering Judas and Other Stories” (1930), despite the positive responses it received from other writers, including Graham Greene, who reviewed the British edition in 1936: “These seem to me the best short stories that have come out of America since the early Hemingways, and there is more promise of future life in them, the sense of a consciousness open to any wind, a style adaptable to any subject.” The best moments in “Flowering Judas” occur when the narrative breaks through Porter’s self-conscious craftsmanship and shows us something about the world where she was born. Unfortunately, that happens in only two stories. The first, titled “He,” is the horrifying tale of a mentally challenged boy (referred to as “He” or “Him,” a moniker that’s clearly meant to remind us of Christ) who is exploited by his poor farm-locked family. Porter begins:

Life was very hard for the Whipples. It was hard to feed all the hungry mouths, it was hard to keep the children in flannels during the winter, short as it was. . . .

Mrs. Whipple loved her second son, the simple-minded one, better than she loved the other two children put together. She was forever saying so, and when she talked with certain of her neighbors, she would even throw in her husband and her mother for good measure. . . .

This didn’t keep the neighbors from talking plainly among themselves. “A Lord’s pure mercy if He should die,” they said. “It’s the sins of the fathers,” they agreed among themselves. “There’s bad blood and bad doings somewhere, you can bet on that.” This behind the Whipples’ backs. To their faces everybody said, “He’s not so bad off. He’ll be all right yet. Look how He grows!”

Readers of Welty, McCullers, and O’Connor will admire the verisimilitude of Porter’s Southern locutions here—“A Lord’s pure mercy”—and how cleverly she skewers not only the townspeople’s hypocrisy but Mrs. Whipple’s as well: when it comes down to it, Mrs. Whipple is more interested in her own martyrdom than she is in her son.

Porter herself must have felt something of that boy’s isolation, as a motherless child in those small, hot, poverty-stricken Texas towns. Her fear of breaking out, of being heard, also haunts “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall,” the other great story in “Flowering Judas.” Essentially a monologue delivered by an old woman on her deathbed, it recalls Granny Weatherall’s jilting by one man and her decision to settle for another. The author hovers over Granny’s hallucinations, and her annoyances with her various caretakers, like a bemused spectator, ever aware of the fact that our aloneness in life becomes irrefutably clear in our dying.

Porter couldn’t have written the novella “Noon Wine,” the real centerpiece of “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” without having first produced “He” and “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall.” The pieces form a kind of trilogy, resistant to the sometimes overwhelming command of metaphor and style, the insistence on elegance and control, which limit the rest of Porter’s work. Unlike her other stories and “Ship of Fools,” these three pieces are not constricted by her fundamental fear of self-exposure—a fear that she covers with a judgmental tone that mars most of her and her characters’ better impulses. “Noon Wine,” a masterly tale of greed, murder, and suicide on a run-down farm in Southern Texas, is the only story in which Porter was able to fully re-create the pinched, sparse universe she grew up in. In a 1956 essay, she noted that this “short novel . . . exists so fully and wholly in its own right in my mind that when I attempt to trace its growth from the beginning, to follow all the clues to their sources in my memory, I am dismayed; because I am confronted with my own life, the whole society in which I was born and brought up.”

Set at the close of the nineteenth century, “Noon Wine” tells the tale of Mr. Thompson, a man with a wife and two sons, who can’t make a go of his dairy farm. One day, while he is sitting on his porch churning butter, a stranger ambles up to the property, asking for work. The man “spoke with some kind of foreign accent Mr. Thompson couldn’t place. It wasn’t Cajun and it wasn’t Nigger and it wasn’t Dutch, so it had him stumped.” Thompson takes a chance on the foreigner, Mr. Helton, who turns out to be Swedish, and the farm’s prospects change; eventually, it even shows a profit. Thompson raises Helton’s wages (“The man’s worth it, Ellie,” he says to his wife. “He’s made this place pay, and I want him to know I appreciate it”), and the family gets used to the tall Swede’s silences and the sad sound of his harmonica playing that drifts from his shack after dinner.

Porter lulls us into a false sense of security as Thompson grows more confident, and more arrogant: he believes he’s brilliant for having hired Helton in the first place. But just as we grow fond of these characters and their foibles another man ambles onto the property: “He wasn’t exactly a fat man. He was more like a man who had been fat recently.” His name is Homer T. Hatch. In a scene of gothic horror—and it’s horrible because it’s funny, too—Thompson and Hatch discuss tobacco and other mundane male pursuits, while Hatch gradually reveals that he’s looking to arrest Helton, who is insane, and who killed his own brother with a pitchfork in North Dakota. When Hatch spies Helton, he advances toward him with a knife. In an effort to protect his friend, Thompson hits Hatch with an axe, killing him, while Helton runs off. The story’s tragedy grows and grows, spreading through the reader’s mind like a fungus. After Thompson is accused and acquitted of manslaughter, he visits his neighbors to try to tell his side of the story. Begging for absolution makes him heartsick. Lying in bed after one such visit, he asks himself, “Did he have to kill Mr. Hatch?” The answer he comes up with is yes. The violence was always in Thompson, waiting for the right circumstance and person to attach itself to. Moving as though in a dream, Thompson goes outside, where he writes a note that says, in part, “It was Mr. Homer T. Hatch who came to do wrong to a harmless man.” Then:

He licked the point of his pencil again, and signed his full name carefully, folded the paper and put it in his outside pocket. Taking off his right shoe and sock, he set the butt of the shotgun along the ground with the twin barrels pointed towards his head. It was very awkward. He thought about this a little, leaning his head against the gun mouth. He was trembling and his head was drumming until he was deaf and blind, but he lay down flat on the earth on his side, drew the barrel under his chin and fumbled for the trigger with his great toe. That way he could work it.

This brilliant morality tale resounds through much of the Southern writing that followed. It undoubtedly had an enormous influence on Eudora Welty—especially on her stunning story, “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” (1963), which was inspired by the murder of the civil-rights activist Medgar Evers. One can find elements of “Noon Wine” in O’Connor’s story “The Displaced Person” (1954) and in McCullers’s “Ballad of the Sad Café” (1943) as well. In 1944, Porter published “The Leaning Tower and Other Stories,” a collection that, for the most part, lacks the flashes of life that mark these three earlier stories. The title story is set in Berlin, in 1931, a year that Porter spent in that city with a man she later married, Eugene Pressly, a government official who was fourteen years her junior. The hero of “The Leaning Tower,” Charles Upton, is a young Texan who travels to Berlin, inspired by the memory of a German childhood friend named Kuno. As a boy, Charles was in love with Kuno’s foreignness, and also envious of his class: his father was a merchant who “took his family back to Germany for a few months every two years,” Porter writes. “And Kuno’s postcards, with their foreign stamps, coming from far-off places like Bremen and Wiesbaden and Mannheim and Heidelberg and Berlin, had brought the great world across the sea, the blue silent deep world of Europe, straight to Charles’ door.” Eager to see that world for himself, Charles decamps for Berlin as a young adult. At the beginning of the story, he’s walking the streets in search of a cheap pensione. At a busy intersection, he notices people looking in a shopwindow at “sausages, hams, bacon, small pink chops; all pig, real pig, fresh, smoked, salted, baked, roasted, pickled, spiced, and jellied.” In another window, Porter writes, were:

dainty artificial pigs, almond paste pigs, pink sugar chops, chocolate sausages, tiny hams, and bacons of melting cream streaked and colored to the very life. Among the tinsel and lace paper, at the back were still other kinds of pigs: plush pigs, black velvet pigs, spotted cotton pigs, metal and wooden mechanical pigs, all with frolicsome curled tails and appealing infant faces.

With their nervous dogs wailing in their arms, the people, shameless mounds of fat, stood in a trance of pig worship, gazing with eyes damp with admiration and appetite . . . their late-medieval faces full of hallucinated malice and a kind of sluggish but intense cruelty that worked its way up from their depths slowly through the layers of helpless gluttonous fat.

This is a scene worthy of Fassbinder. But, despite its descriptive power, the condemnation of between-the-wars Germany, and Germans, gives the story the feeling of journalism rather than of literature; it is a travelogue with no room for the moral ambiguity of life.

By the time Porter published “The Leaning Tower,” she had become something of a legend. “She was always spoken of simply as ‘Katherine Anne,’ and whether one was actually acquainted with her or not,” Hardwick writes. “Everyone who cared about writing knew and admired her work. . . . And if at the height of her fame and for her longest story ‘The Leaning Tower’ Miss Porter came out with $300—well, that was her career.” Not every critic had unqualified admiration for Porter, though. Edmund Wilson, reviewing “The Leaning Tower” in this magazine, wrote, “Miss Porter is baffling because one cannot take hold of her work in any of the obvious ways. . . . If [the reviewer] is tempted to say that the effect is pale, he is prevented by the realization that Miss Porter writes English of a purity and precision almost unique in contemporary American fiction. If he tries to demur that some given piece fails to mount with the accelerating pace or arrive at the final intensity that he is in the habit of expecting in short stories, he is deterred by a nibbling suspicion that he may not have grasped its meaning.”

It’s true that it’s almost impossible to get a toehold on much of Porter’s later work, owing to its high varnish: her characters can barely breathe beneath the sheen. Porter perfected her stories until you begin to feel like a clumsy intruder for even reading them. Rarely do you get beneath the decorous surface and feel a character’s lifeblood. And it is this artificiality that kept Porter on the wrong side of the line that separates a minor writer from a great one. Ultimately, she controlled too much: she relied on tricks of style, on a language that was too cultivated for the rough potential of stories like “He” and “Noon Wine” to develop. Too often one senses Porter repressing the trashy twang of her childhood in favor of something more, as Capote put it, “enameled.”

Porter did not publish another book until “Ship of Fools,” eighteen years after “The Leaning Tower.” Soon after that, the school of Southern writing that she had helped to forge was gone—O’Connor died in 1964, McCullers in 1967. But Porter had turned her back on her rural roots some time earlier. After “Noon Wine,” she didn’t revisit Texas—the violence of a male-centered world—in any significant way. Self-promotion came first; her fiction second. (She liked to quote Madame Du Barry, who said, “My life has been incredible. I don’t believe a word of it!”) By the time she died, in 1980, the star had suffocated the writer, who simply couldn’t bear to take advantage of what empowered her as an artist: her lower-class origins. When “Ship of Fools” made her a wealthy woman at last, she bought an emerald ring that she had long coveted. Perhaps the shine of that stone finally eclipsed the too glaring days of her long past. ♦


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *