Ship of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter (1962)

Ship of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter 1962 cover

Ship of Fools by noted American short story master and novelist Katherine Ann Porter (1890 – 1980) was published in 1962. The sprawling novel took her more than twenty years to write and was highly anticipated by critics and readers alike. 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 eight hundred 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. 

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Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter

See also: An analysis of Flowering Judas
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A brief description of Ship of Fools

The following description is from the 1962 Little, Brown edition of the long-awaited novel:

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.

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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Ship of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter

Ship of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter on Amazon

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A 1962 review of Ship of Fools

This original review from The Daily Telegram of Eau Claire, WI (March 14, 1962) contains a good overview of the cast of characters who drive the narrative:

In a brief introduction to Ship of Fools, Miss Porter writes: “The title of the book is a translation of the German of Das Narrenschiff, a moral allegory by Sebastian Brant (1458 – 1521), first published in Latin in 1494. I read it in Basel in the summer of 1932 when I still had vividly in mind the impressions of my first voyage to Europe.”

The ship in Katherine Anne Porter’s novel is the Vera a German vessel carrying both passengers and freight from Veracruz to Bremerhaven, via Spain, in the autumn of 1931. Many of the passengers are German, returning home after years of self-imposed exile in Mexico.

Cast of characters

Among them are a proto-Nazi named Siegfried Rieber, who, with his bald head and hard little ball of a stomach, romps vigorously in pursuit of the strident Lizzi Spockenkieker.

Another is a complacent German professor, once head of a German school in Mexico, and now retired and homeward bound with his wife and their seasick white bulldog, Bebe.

Wilhelm Freytag is a handsome young businessman returning to Germany in order to bring his wife, who happens to be Jewish, to Mexico.

Then there is Willibald Graf, a religious fanatic and cripple who believes he has the power of healing and who is physically dependent upon a surly nephew, who in turn thinks only of the legacy that will be his when his uncle finally dies.

In addition to the Germans, there are the Americans aboard. Jenny Brown and David Scott, both painters, are making their first trip to Europe, and are both too proud, too sensitive, and too uncertain to be able to love one another.

A loutish Texan named William Denny is as filled with his own brand of prejudice as any of the virulently anti-Semitic German passengers.

Another American is Mary Treadwell, a rootless and evasive divorcee, who is resolved to avoid any kind of personal commitment.

The Vera makes her way eastward

When the Vera stops in Havana she takes aboard some hundreds of Spanish sugar-field workers, who are then packed into steerage to be returned to their homes in either the Canaries or Spain due to the collapse of the sugar market in Cuba.

So, as the novel develops, the Vera makes her way eastward from the Caribbean toward her several European ports of call. Miss Porter portrays the assorted travelers aboard this “ship of fools” with impressive insight and psychological authority. Though the ship is presumably the ship of humanity, and many passengers are representative of the many aspects of human nature, Miss Porter is ever the novelist rather than the symbolist.

Each of her many characters has his or her own individuality, depth and dimension, and their own truth.

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katherine ann porter

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