Katherine Anne Porter was born in Texas in 1890 as Callie Russell Porter. When she was two, her mother died during childbirth, so she went to live with her grandmother, Catherine Ann, along with her three siblings and her father. When Porter was eleven, Catherine Ann died, prompting the family to move frequently, often shifting between Texas and Louisiana. As a result, Porter received little formal education beyond elementary school. When she was sixteen, Porter ran away and converted to Catholicism to marry John Henry Koontz. Koontz was an alcoholic who subjected Porter to extreme physical abuse, and after eight years of marriage, Porter left him to start a career as an actress in Chicago and Texas. She formally divorced Koontz in 1915 and changed her named to Katherine Anne, a respelled version of her grandmother’s name.
The same year she divorced Koontz, Porter contracted tuberculosis. For the next two years, she lived in sanatoriums. Porter’s writing career began in 1917, when she worked as a drama critic and gossip columnist for the Fort Worth Critic, struggling to make ends meet. While working for a newspaper in Denver, Colorado, she fell victim to the great influenza epidemic that swept the nation in 1918 and 1919. After recovering, she moved to New York City, where she wrote fiction for children and did some ghostwriting. In 1920, Porter went to Mexico, a country that felt familiar to her because of the Mexicans she had known in Texas. She quickly became involved with the revolutionary movement seeking to overthrow the government, befriending infamous revolutionaries such as Diego Rivera. She also taught and worked as a journalist in Mexico and soon abandoned Catholicism.
In 1922, Porter published a book called Outline of Popular Mexican Arts and Crafts. That year also marked the publication of her first short story, “María Concepción.” She wrote book reviews for various journals, along with articles for the New Republic and the Nation. In 1930, she published her first collection of short stories, Flowering Judas and Other Stories, which drew on Porter’s firsthand experiences of the revolution in Mexico.
Porter’s personal life, meanwhile, continued to be colorful and difficult: she had several miscarriages and endured a yearlong marriage to a man named Ernest Stock, who gave her gonorrhea. In the late 1920s, Porter traveled to Europe and eventually moved to Paris in the early 1930s, where she became friends with English writer Ford Madox Ford. In 1938, Porter returned to the states and married a man twenty years her junior, but she divorced him in 1942. She never remarried.
Porter blossomed as a writer during the 1930s. In 1937, she published Noon Wine and Pale Horse, Pale Rider: Three Short Novels. The latter features a southern family, the youngest daughter of which is often identified as a stand-in for Porter herself. When writing fiction, Porter often drew on her own life, creating rich blends of reality and imagination. As she wrote in one of her essays, “I shall try to tell the truth, but the result will be fiction.” The title character in the story “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” (1930) is largely based on Porter’s grandmother, Catherine Ann Porter. The story also addresses religious belief and grave illness, subjects of which Porter had personal knowledge.
Porter worked on her novel Ship of Fools for more than twenty years, teaching at universities and giving lectures to earn money while she wrote. She finally published the novel in 1962, when she was seventy-two. Although Porter had already achieved critical success, Ship of Fools was the work that turned her into a widely known and read author. The novel spent twenty-six weeks at the top of the New York Times bestseller list and was made into a film starring Vivien Leigh in 1966. Porter won more acclaim in 1965, when her Collected Stories won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. She was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature three times. Toward the end of her life, Porter returned to the Roman Catholic faith she had adopted as a young woman. She died in 1980, and her ashes were buried next to her mother’s grave in Texas.