Katherine Anne Porter, Author of Ship of Fools
By Nava Atlas | On March 4, 2018 | Updated April 13, 2023 | Comments (1)
Katherine Anne Porter (May 15, 1890– September 18, 1980), was an American author and journalist best known for her short stories and her 1962 masterwork, Ship of Fools.
She spent her early years working as a teacher of drama, dance and song to help support her and her father. These misfortunes are what made Porter the amazing writer that she became, focusing on themes of death, mistrust, and depraved human behavior.
Her original name was Callie Porter, born into poverty in rural Texas to Harrison Boone Porter and Mary Alice (Jones) Porter. Later, she discarded her past, inventing a history of her own making. In addition to changing her name, she placed herself within a made-up lineage of statesmen, casting herself as an aristocratic daughter of the Old South.
“My life has been incredible, I don’t believe a word of it.” That’s a famous quote that reflects a penchant for self-invention. She was considered somewhat flamboyant by some; inscrutable by others.
A turbulent childhood and youth
Porter’s early life and youth were turbulent. Her mother died when she was only two years old, after which her father moved her and her three siblings to Texas, to live with his mother, the similarly named Catherine Ann Porter.
After her grandmother’s death, there was a great deal of upheaval, with the family moving from one town to another. Her education ended when she was in her early teens.
At the age of 16, she secretly married John Koontz, the son of a wealthy ranching family. He was violent and abusive, and once threw her down a flight of stairs, resulting in a broken ankle. The marriage ended in divorce several years later (she would have, in total four husbands during her lifetime)
In 1915, Porter was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and while in a sanitarium, decided to become a writer. Fortunately, it was a misdiagnosis. Soon after, she began writing as a gossip columnist and theater reviewer for a Denver newspaper.
She contracted a virulent form of flu while living in Colorado; it was during the 1918 flu pandemic, and she nearly died. This experience inspired the trilogy of short novels contained in Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939), which helped launch her reputation as a fine literary writer.
Strikingly beautiful in her youth, Porter was embroiled in many passionate and turbulent love affairs. Once again she remarried secretly. She tried unsuccessfully to break into film; did “hack writing” that helped her scratch out a living (and which she would rather have forgotten about); it was her writing that finally made her rich and famous.
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An observer of twentieth-century life and politics
A great quote that encapsulates the question that motivated much of her writing was: “Man cannot — oh, why can he not? this to me is the riddle of the universe — face the truth of his own motives.”
Porter lived a long life that was as dramatic as it was passionate. She saw some of the twentieth century’s most turbulent events at close range: she spent time in revolutionary Mexico in the 1920s; in Paris at the start of World War II to witness Hitler’s rise; in Hollywood in the glamorous 1940s; and in Washington, D.C. during the “Camelot” days of the Kennedy.
One of the themes in Porter’s work is her outrage at the hypocrisy of politics and the flawed nature of humans, particularly men. Betrayal, evil, and death are evil are other themes running through her writings. She was, to say the least, cynical about politics. In 1957, she said of American politics in a letter:
“What has discouraged me is simply the fact that from Mussolini and on — Franco, Hitler, Tito, Peron, Batista, Trujillo, in rapidly descending scale to Nasser, our government has without fail backed and supported, in complete criminal collusion, every foul and stinking political dictator in turn as they rise, with the hypocritical excuse that these are all ‘anti-Communist.'”
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Forthright Quotes by Katherine Anne Porter
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Nonfiction, before and after Ship of Fools
Porter’s works of nonfiction aren’t nearly as well known as her short stories, and her magnum opus novel, Ship of Fools. Yet, they were an intrinsic part of her body of work, and reflected her interest in political and social issues.
The first two collections of essays were The Days Before (1952) and A Defense Circle (1954). The Collected Essays and Occasional Writings (1970) gathered observation on an array of themes; The Never-Ending Wrong (1977) was an account of the notorious Sacco-Vanzetti trial and execution.
Ship of Fools
In 1962 she published Ship of Fools, which took her twenty years to write. Critical opinions were mixed, though it was the best-selling novel of her career and of that year overall. It would be her only completed novel.
It was inspired by her own journal kept on a voyage she took from Mexico to Germany in 1931. Set before the start of World War II, it follows the voyage of a group of passengers on their way from Mexico to Europe. It was made into a film that was released in 1965.
Famously, Porter said: “There are enough women to do the childbearing and the childrearing. I know of none who can write my books. Now I am all for human life, and I am all for marriage and children and all that sort of thing, but quite often you can’t have that and do what you were supposed to do, too.”
Yet Porter took twenty years to write Ship of Fools because she was “trying to get to that table, to that typewriter, away from my jobs of teaching and trooping this country and of keeping house.” Perhaps the “trooping this country” was the truth but keeping house? Highly unlikely.
Porter often took many, many years after events to write about and analyze them fully, using her own life as a base for her work. Her writing was a way to face questions that were left unanswered in her own life, giving her work a passionate, realistic, and sometimes harsh voice.
The legacy of Katherine Anne Porter
Porter’s was a true American rags to riches story. She lived on her own terms, and rose to fame by using her steely determination, energy, and above all, her writing talent. She was a friend and correspondent of many literary figures of her time. In 1966 Porter won a Pulitzer Prize, the Gold Medal for Fiction and the National Book Award for The Collected Stories, published in 1965.
Porter died at the age of 90 in Silver Spring, Maryland on September 18, 1980. Her ashes were buried next to her mother at Indian Creek Cemetery in Texas. After her death, there were many more of her short stories and poems published posthumously.
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More about Katherine Anne Porter
On this site
- Flowering Judas: An Analysis
- Miranda Gay: Coming of Age in Pale Horse, Pale Rider
- 6 Quick Writing Tips from Katherine Anne Porter
- Katherine Anne Porter at Work
- Forthright Quotes by Katherine Anne Porter
- Dear Literary Ladies: How can I develop a distinctive writing style?
- Dear Literary Ladies: Is it possible to write well if one is a “starving artist?”
Major Works (fiction)
- Flowering Judas (1930)
- Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939)
- The Leaning Tower and Other Stories (1944)
- The Old Order: Stories of the South (1955)
- Ship of Fools (1962; her only novel)
- The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter (1965)
- Uncollected Early Prose of Katherine Anne Porter (1993)
- The Days Before (1952)
- Defense Circle (1954)
- The Collected Essays and Occasional Writings (1970)
- The Never-Ending Wrong (1977)
Biographies and Letters
- Katherine Anne Porter: A Biography by Joan Givner (1982)
- Letters of Katherine Anne Porter by Katherine Anne Porter and Isabel Bayley (1990)
- Katherine Anne Porter: The Life of an Artist by Darlene Harbour Unrue (2005)
- The Ambivalent Art of Katherine Anne Porter by Mary Titus (2005)
- Reader discussion of Katherine Anne Porter’s books on Goodreads
- American Masters (PBS)
- Surviving the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic
- University of Maryland research guides
- Katherine Anne Porter Papers