Sunday, May 12, 2024


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

Marguerite Griffin, who worked at Minnie White’s brothel on Basin Street, New Orleans, c. 1912. Gelatin silver print from negative by photographer E. J. Bellocq (1873–1949). Courtesy of the Phillips auction house website.
Katherine Anne Porter’s career as a fiction writer got off to a promising start when Century Magazine published her first three short stories—one each year from 1922 to 1924: “María Concepción,” “The Martyr,” and “Virgin Violeta.” At the end of 1924, however, her life was upended when she gave birth to a stillborn boy. She then endured a disastrous relationship with a British painter, Ernest Stock, who gave her gonorrhea. Following the advice of her doctor she underwent surgery for the removal of both of her ovaries. She tried to recuperate with friends in New York and Connecticut, but during this period she was not able to finish much of anything other than book reviews. Several attempts at stories, including “Holiday” (which she would complete and publish thirty-five years later), were filed away among her papers in draft form.

Hoping to cash in on a lifelong historical interest, she signed a contract to write a non-academic biography titled “The Devil and Cotton Mather” and, with a $300 advance, moved to Salem to work on the book. Early in 1928, however, she wrote several pages of self-analysis and concluded:
Now I find myself having elected to do a thing that requires merely a constant exercise of my merely surface abilities, and have got myself into an emotional state over it that keeps me from working, and I find myself drifting again to a condition of inertia and apathy, a desire to give up. . . . [I] have never worked at a speed beyond myself, and when I was quite young I decided to set my limitations moderately. Maybe this was my mistake. For by setting my bounds, I find they are real things and have a way of closing upon me without my (conscious) consent.
She never did finish the biography. Instead, while in Salem, she turned again to fiction and over the next half decade, while traveling from New York to Bermuda to Mexico to Europe, she finished the nine tales that, along with “Maria Concepción,” would make up Flowering Judas and Other Stories (1935).

With only 1,200 words, “Magic” is the briefest among Porter’s works of fiction. Set in New Orleans, the story “seems at first glance to be the work of another author,” as William Nance put it in Katherine Anne Porter & the Art of Rejection. “The extreme example of her early experimental and highly objective approach, it is a minor technical masterpiece.” Published in 1928, it appeared in the Paris-based journal transition, alongside new prose works by Gertrude Stein and William Carlos Williams, photographs by Man Ray, cover art by Pablo Picasso, and an excerpt from James Joyce’s work-in-progress Finnegans Wake.

In 1927, the year she drafted the story, Porter wrote to a friend that her research into Mather’s role in the Salem witch trials had reminded her of her past interest in “Voodoo doctors.” As Porter biographer Darlene Harbour Unrue explained at a symposium held in 2003 to discuss “Magic,” Porter was living in western Louisiana with her sister in 1914 when she met “an old woman . . . who told her stories about New Orleans and about voodoo.” Porter later wrote that the idea for the story originated with an anecdote related to her by her Black maid in New Orleans, who had previously worked in a brothel on Basin Street in Storyville—the city’s red-light district, where prostitution was legal from 1897 to 1917.

At the symposium, Unrue agreed with other recent critics that past readers have not “given enough attention to the narrator. We think of her as the conveyor of the real story, which is the story of Ninette and the madam in the brothel, but the narrator is also very important.” The story’s power lies in its ambiguity: The narrator might be an appreciative and chatty servant—or she might have more in common with the cook, wielding dark secrets of voodoo. “Armed thus with the Creole magic of her tale,” contends literary scholar Kerry Hasler-Brooks, “the servant brings the violence of the story into the Blanchard home and quietly but convincingly destabilizes the power structure there.” Thus, the central question of Porter’s story may well be: why is the servant telling her new employer this lurid and brutal tale?

Notes: Unrue points to the ambiguity of the phrase “fall away” as a crucial element of the story. Rather than suggesting that the household linens are disintegrating or simply vanishing in the wash, Madame Blanchard seems to be implying that they are disappearing through theft. A sou marqué was a coin of the French colonies; it was worth less than a penny.

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For this week’s selection, we depart from the usual format and reproduce the selection, in its entirety, below.
You may also download it as a PDF or view it in Google Docs.


And, Madame Blanchard, believe that I am happy to be here with you and your family because it is so serene, everything, and before this I worked for a long time in a fancy house—maybe you don’t know what is a fancy house? Naturally .nbsp;.nbsp;. everyone must have heard sometime or other. Well, Madame, I work always where there is work to be had, and so in this place I worked very hard all hours, and saw too many things, things you wouldn’t believe, and I wouldn’t think of telling you, only maybe it will rest you while I brush your hair. You’ll excuse me too but I could not help hearing you say to the laundress maybe someone had bewitched your linens, they fall away so fast in the wash. Well, there was a girl there in that house, a poor thing, thin, but well-liked by all the men who called, and you understand she could not get along with the woman who ran the house. They quarreled, the madam cheated her on her checks: you know, the girl got a check, a brass one, every time, and at the week’s end she gave those back to the madam, yes, that was the way, and got her percentage, a very small little of her earnings: it is a business, you see, like any other—and the madam used to pretend the girl had given back only so many checks, you see, and really she had given many more, but after they were out of her hands, what could she do? So she would say, I will get out of this place, and curse and cry. Then the madam would hit her over the head. She always hit people over the head with bottles, it was the way she fought. My good heavens, Madame Blanchard, what confusion there would be sometimes with a girl running raving downstairs, and the madam pulling her back by the hair and smashing a bottle on her forehead.

It was nearly always about the money, the girls got in debt so, and if they wished to go they could not without paying every sou marqué. The madam had full understanding with the police; the girls must come back with them or go to the jails. Well, they always came back with the policemen or with another kind of man friend of the madam: she could make men work for her too, but she paid them very well for all, let me tell you: and so the girls stayed on unless they were sick; if so, if they got too sick, she sent them away again.

Madame Blanchard said, “You are pulling a little here,” and eased a strand of hair: “and then what?”

Pardon—but this girl, there was a true hatred between her and the madam. She would say many times, I make more money than anybody else in the house, and every week were scenes. So at last she said one morning, Now I will leave this place, and she took out forty dollars from under her pillow and said, Here’s your money! The madam began to shout, Where did you get all that, you——? and accused her of robbing the men who came to visit her. The girl said, Keep your hands off or I’ll brain you: and at that the madam took hold of her shoulders, and began to lift her knee and kick this girl most terribly in the stomach, and even in her most secret place, Madame Blanchard, and then she beat her in the face with a bottle, and the girl fell back again into her room where I was making clean. I helped her to the bed, and she sat there holding her sides with her head hanging down, and when she got up again there was blood everywhere she had sat. So then the madam came in once more and screamed, Now you can get out, you are no good for me any more: I don’t repeat all, you understand it is too much. But she took all the money she could find, and at the door she gave the girl a great push in the back with her knee, so that she fell again in the street, and then got up and went away with the dress barely on her.

After this the men who knew this girl kept saying, Where is Ninette? And they kept asking this in the next days, so that the madam could not say any longer, I put her out because she is a thief. No, she began to see she was wrong to send this Ninette away, and then she said, She will be back in a few days, don’t trouble yourself.

And now, Madame Blanchard, if you wish to hear, I come to the strange part, the thing recalled to me when you said your linens were bewitched. For the cook in that place was a woman, colored like myself, like myself with much French blood just the same, like myself living always among people who worked spells. But she had a very hard heart, she helped the madam in everything, she liked to watch all that happened, and she gave away tales on the girls. The madam trusted her above everything, and she said, Well, where can I find that slut? Because she had gone altogether out of Basin Street before the madam began to ask the police to bring her again. Well, the cook said, I know a charm that works here in New Orleans, colored women do it to bring back their men: in seven days they come again very happy to stay and they cannot say why: even your enemy will come back to you believing you are his friend. It is a New Orleans charm for sure, for certain, they say it does not work even across the river. . . . And then they did it just as the cook said. They took the chamber pot of this girl from under her bed, and in it they mixed with water and milk all the relics of her they found there: the hair from her brush, and the face powder from the puff, and even little bits of her nails they found about the edges of the carpet where she sat by habit to cut her finger- and toe-nails; and they dipped the sheets with her blood into the water, and all the time the cook said something over it in a low voice; I could not hear all, but at last she said to the madam, Now spit in it: and the madam spat, and the cook said, When she comes back she will be dirt under your feet.

Madame Blanchard closed her perfume bottle with a thin click: “Yes, and then?”

Then in seven nights the girl came back and she looked very sick, the same clothes and all, but happy to be there. One of the men said, Welcome home, Ninette! and when she started to speak to the madam, the madam said, Shut up and get upstairs and dress yourself. So Ninette, this girl, she said, I’ll be down in just a minute. And after that she lived there quietly.

First published in the Summer 1928 issue of transition and reprinted in Flowering Judas (1930) and Flowering Judas and Other Stories (1935).