A little more than two decades ago, the novelist and professor Tom Grimes paid a visit to the childhood home of Katherine Anne Porter, one of Texas’ great writers.
Porter had died in 1980 at the age of 90. Long before she found literary fortune and fame in New York, winning a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for her collected short stories in 1966, she spent her formative years in her grandmother’s three-bedroom house in the dusty rail town of Kyle—now a fast-growing suburb between Austin and San Marcos with a population approaching 40,000.
The Katherine Anne Porter Literary Center, at 508 Center St. in Kyle, hosts free readings and discussions with visiting writers. To request a home tour, email [email protected]. For a schedule of public events, visit kapliterarycenter.com.
When Grimes arrived, there were about 3,000 residents in Kyle. Porter’s home seemed all but deserted.
“The house was a mess, falling down,” recalled Grimes, a faculty member at Texas State University in San Marcos, where he led the creative writing program for many years. “I stood in the center of the street for about two minutes just looking at the house. Not a car passed. I didn’t see one coming toward me in either direction. The town was so small then, it was kind of special.”
In 1997, Grimes partnered with a group of Kyle residents and William T. Johnson, executive director of the Burdine Johnson Foundation in nearby Buda, to buy and restore the house. The group completed the renovations three years later, and in 2006, the home was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The writer in residence at Texas State University lives in the home, which has been christened the Katherine Anne Porter Literary Center, and tours are given by appointment.
But the Porter house, as it’s known, is more than a shrine to a deceased author and the home for a living one. Over the years, it has quietly become a literary mecca.
On nearly a dozen Fridays a year, the center partners with Texas State to host nationally acclaimed writers and poets who deliver free, public readings and lead discussions. The room where the readings take place, in a building in the backyard of the home, is perhaps the most intimate literary venue in Texas. A Pulitzer Prize-winning poet may draw an audience of fewer than 20 or 30 people, many of them creative writing students who also study with the writers beforehand. For devotees of exceptional literature, a night at the Porter house is hard to beat. There are books for sale, too, and the writers stick around afterward to chat and sign books.
Larger crowds spill onto the lawn for best-selling authors like Philipp Meyer, of The Son fame, and Junot Diaz, a MacArthur genius grant recipient. Annie Proulx was the literary center’s first reader and has returned twice. Other notable visiting writers range from George Saunders and Jennifer Egan to Texas-based heavyweights Ben Fountain and S.C. Gwynne, author of Empire of the Summer Moon. Most of the visiting writers also read to the public on Thursday afternoons just down the road at The Wittliff Collections at Texas State.
“We continue to have very good and very diverse visiting writers,” said Johnson, whose foundation supports the center and the visiting writer series. “I think it goes back to a feeling of connection with Katherine Anne Porter. She was one of the best writers born in Texas. That she grew up in Kyle is of cultural note.”
Born Callie Russell Porter in 1890, Porter was 2 years old when her mother died, and she moved into her grandmother’s house on Center Street in Kyle. She lived there until she was 12. Married at 16 and divorced at 25, Porter left Texas behind three years later, in 1918.
In New York, she concocted a backstory as a Southern belle who grew up in a stately plantation home, rather than the “dreary little place at Kyle,” as she described it in a letter following a rare visit to her childhood home. The house was “empty, full of dust, and even smaller than I remembered it.”
Despite her reinvention as an aristocrat, the home and the town seem to have kept a hold of her, and her fiction regularly drew on her childhood in Kyle, as first lady Laura Bush noted during the dedication of the center in 2002. “There is so much more to this house than its remains,” Bush said. “This is a corner of Katherine Anne Porter’s imagination, and how lucky we are to be trespassers here.”