Katherine Anne Porter came from “the soft blackland farming country” of north central Texas. The touch and the smell of that dark earth would stay with her for the rest of her long life. Born in 1890 in Indian Creek—then still a frontier settlement—she died, laden with honors, in 1980, in Silver Spring, Maryland. She lived on the move until well into old age; in a late interview, she calculated that she had resided at more than fifty addresses in her lifetime. She was restlessness incarnate. She married four times, once divorcing within a year, and had numerous love affairs, often shedding her lovers as briskly as she changed addresses.

Nothing of this appears in her prose; her sentences display an unhurried, even classical, aplomb. Nor was she quick to publish: She wrote “Holiday,” one of her greatest stories, in the 1920s, but it only appeared, in The Atlantic...

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