Ship of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter (1962)

Ship of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter 1962 cover

Ship of Fools by Katherine Ann Porter, published in 1962, was a novel that took her more than twenty years to write. Though critical opinions were mixed, it was the best-selling novel of her career and of 1962 overall.

Set before the start of World War II, it follows the voyage of a group of disparate passengers on their way from Mexico to Europe.

The sprawling story, which Porter originally anticipated would be a novella, was started in 1940. It features large cast of international characters on the German freight and passenger ship, the Vera, most on a pleasure trip from Veracruz, Mexico to Bremerhaven, Germany. There are also more than 800 Spanish workers in steerage.

Porter’s intention was to make the story an allegory about the rise of Nazism. She based some of the details on a sea voyage she herself took in 1931 on the very same route. Having kept a journal on the trip, she based some of the characters on the people she met during the trip.

The publisher kept announcing the book, then they were compelled to continually announce its delay. This went on for years. In response to complaints, Porter said, “Look here, this is my life and my work and you keep out of it. When I have a book I will be glad to have it published.”

Ship of Fools was made into a film that was released in 1965. The following description is from the 1962 Little, Brown edition of the long-awaited novel:


A brief description of Ship of Fools

Over a period of many years, Katherine Anne Porter has devoted her creative energy and her great gifts as a storyteller to this major work, weaving its many strands into a rich, varicolored fabric. It is a novel on the grand scale, and its endless variety of scenes and characters is the variety of life itself.

Comedy and tragedy, love and death, boredom and adventure, pain and pleasure — all are witnessed in the lives and actions of the ship’s company of the German freighter-passenger ship Vera embarked from Veracruz, Mexico and destined for Bremerhaven, Germany. The story covers a period of twenty-seven days in the year 1931.

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Ship of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter

Ship of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter on Amazon

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The drama of good and evil within each individual

Many of the passengers are Germans, returning to their homeland from Mexico … In the mingling and meeting of these various personalities, from the incidents on board ship which affect their lives, this story is fashioned. In each life, the drama of good and evil has taken place.

The world was then on the edge of catastrophe and people were blind to the imminent disaster. This is revealed in episodes of personal unkindness and cruelty, stubborn prejudices and the reciprocal and destructive hatred between Jew and Christian.

Katherine Anne Porter has succeeded in creating the brilliant panorama of life in all its glory and depravity. Her Ship of Fools is the ship of humanity, and it is an unforgettable masterpiece.

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