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Writer left Texas town behind, but it hasn’t forgotten her

Dallas News (06/14/2002)

By Manya Brachear

When Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Katherine Anne Porter returned home 15 years after leaving humble Kyle to start her career, she lamented the “small, dreary, empty house full of dust.”

But on Thursday, area residents, Austin dignitaries and even the first lady were on hand to dedicate the home as a National Literary Landmark as designated by the Friends of Libraries and the Library of Congress.

“Katherine Anne Porter captures the essence of life and our imaginations in brilliant writings,” Laura Bush said from the front porch of the green and yellow-trimmed historic home. “In reading her, we come to appreciate the Texas of her youth. The author must have come to terms with it.”

The Porter home, leased and cared for by Southwest Texas State University, joins the former homes of Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner as designated national landmarks. The O. Henry home in Austin is the only other National Literary Landmark in the state.

“We have a long love affair with Katherine Anne Porter,” said Jerry Kolacny, vice chairman of the Hays County Historical Commission. “Even if she didn’t think too fondly of us. [She] had a desire to be associated with romance and chivalry of the Old South. She would have much preferred to come back to Tara in Gone With the Wind.”

Ms. Porter, born Callie Russell Porter in 1890, grew up in Kyle under the care of grandmother Catherine Ann Skaggs Porters. After a failed marriage, she took off for Chicago to launch a career in journalism and creative writing.

Her first collection of short stories, Flowering Judas and Other Stories, won high acclaim. Her novels Pale Horse, Pale Rider and Ship of Fools did as well.

The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter won the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize in 1966.

Tensions with her home state arose in 1939 when the Texas Institute of Letters awarded its medal to author J. Frank Dobie instead of Ms. Porter for Pale Horse, Pale Rider.

And a misunderstanding between Ms. Porter and the University of Texas extinguished the author’s hopes of a Katherine Anne Porter Library at the university. Her papers are stored instead at the University of Maryland.

“She had a knack for offending people,” said nephew Paul Porter, 81 with a chuckle. He is one of her last surviving relatives.

“She was very glamorous to me,” he said, fanning himself with a black and white photo of his aunt at the tribute. “Wherever she was, I’d get there.”

Liz Carpenter, who met Ms. Porter, during her tenure as press secretary for first lady Lady Bird Johnson in the 1960s, said designation of the literary landmark is important to preserve one the state’s vital artistic resources. “Literature is about to replace oil as Texas’ most valuable resource,” she said.

With that in mind, Southwest Texas has converted half the house into a museum dedicated to Porter.

The other half serves as a home for the school’s writer in residence, currently Melissa Falcon.

While in the house, Ms. Falcon finished a novel and a collection of short stories. She feels she may have learned from the experience as Ms. Porter did.

“Living in a small town is about understanding the size and developing the desire to see beyond the horizon,” she said.

The university also uses the house for tours, programs for schoolchildren and lectures. More than 30 children are enrolled at The Academy at Hays, a program for young writers.

Most of them attended the ceremony.

“This was a corner of Katherine Anne Porter’s imagination, and we’re in it,” Mrs. Bush said, with her eyes toward the schoolchildren. “Who knows? This house could be the birthplace of another Texas legend. Time will tell.”