Friday, June 11, 2010

The Charmed Life

Katherine Anne Porter (1890–1980)
From Katherine Anne Porter: Collected Stories & Other Writings

In October 1920 thirty-year-old Katherine Anne Porter traveled to Mexico on assignment as a journalist for the Christian Science Monitor. During her travels she met William Niven, a Scottish-born American scientist respected for his fieldwork in archaeology and mineralogy (nivenite, one of four minerals he discovered, bears his name and is a source of uranium). But he has since inherited a reputation as a bit of a crank for his pursuit of long-discarded theories of the origins of native Mexican populations, as well as for his alleged discovery of a set of untranslatable tablets that an occult writer, James Churchward, used to “prove” the existence of the Lost Continent of Mu in the mid-Pacific. (The tablets have since disappeared.)

Niven impressed Porter both for his eccentricity and for his “authenticity,” and he proved a rich source of material for her writing. He appears as the character Givens in Porter’s first published story, “María Concepción” (1923), and he assumes the central role in “The Charmed Life,” a portrait that Porter published in 1942, five years after Niven’s death. The sketch is her vaguely fictionalized tribute to the “Old Man” who so charmed her and to the “curiously appealing unhumanness of his existence.”

“The Charmed Life” mentions a cache of letters that Porter asserts would have been “political dynamite” if they had seen the light of day. What is left unsaid in the story, as Darlene Harbour Unrue reveals in her recent biography, is that Porter had transcribed several of these letters, which included details of a plot to kill Mexican President Alvaro Obregon, and had leaked their contents to several acquaintances, including a journalist, a labor leader, and a man who claimed to be a Polish diplomat but who was simply “a complex and fascinating liar.” When five men were later executed, Porter worried that her indiscretion may have been the cause—which, Unrue insists, was doubtful, given the “betrayal and disloyalty” that saturated Mexican politics of the period. What is perhaps the most extraordinary coda to these complex machinations is that a special assistant to the U.S. attorney general was closely monitoring Porter’s activities in Mexico during 1920 and 1921. His name was J. Edgar Hoover.

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In 1921, he was nearly eighty years old, and he had lived in Mexico for about forty years. Every day of those years he had devoted exclusively to his one interest in life: discovering and digging up buried Indian cities all over the country. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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