To most of her critics and avid readers, Katherine Anne Porter is considered a great short-story writer, not a novelist. However, it was not her short-stories that gave her fame and fortune: it was her first and only novel, Ship of Fools. While it may seem unusual that Porter's anomaly was so popular, Ship of Fools's success can primarily be linked to one thing: timing. Porter had spent more than twenty years working on Ship of Fools, and by the time it was published, the public felt a great deal of curiosity toward the novel. A secondary factor for Ship of Fools's success was text references to political events like the Cold War and historical controversies like the Holocaust. A final factor was the 1965 feature film that helped Porter's novel regain brief attention from the public. The high quality film was well-liked by audiences and was nominated for multiple Academy Awards. The combination of these three things contributed to the sales figures and the overall popularity of Porter's novel.
The most important factor that launched Ship of Fools's fame was that the novel had years to build up a positive reputation before it was even published. Porter worked on and off on Ship of Fools for twenty-two years, and Diane Unrue said that "Porter's habit of writing- quick bursts, usually long enough to finish a story, followed by extended periods of inactivity- was not propitious for writing novels." (Unrue, 164). In 1945 and in 1954 Porter made great efforts to finish the novel, but she lost her motivation and left it incomplete.
While Porter was struggling to finish Ship of Fools, people began falsely assuming that she was almost ready to publish her first long book. People began to get excited because of past critical acclaim for Porter's short works like "Flowering Judas" and "Pale Horse, Pale Rider." Granville Hicks said that "because of Miss Porter's high reputation as a short story writer, her first novel was awaited with curiosity and excitement." (Hicks, 15). People greatly anticipated Ship of Fools because they concluding that if Porter's short stories were good, then Porter's actual novel would be even better.
Porter finally completed Ship of Fools in early 1962, and the public was quite anxious for its April 2 release date. Excerpts from the novel had been printed as early as July 1958 in Mademoiselle, and Publisher's Weekly had already called Ship of Fools a "long-waited novel" more than two months prior to its planned publication date. People could not wait to buy it, and by the second day it was available, the novel had already gone through its fourth printing. By April 23, Ship of Fools made its first showing on Publisher's Weekly "Bestsellers of the Week" list at number seven. Ship of Fools continued to move up the bestseller ladder, and on May 7, barely a month after its publication, it became a number one bestseller.
Ship of Fools stayed at number one for 26 weeks on Publisher's Weekly and the New York Times bestseller lists, but its popularity began to taper off in mid-February 1963. At first, the great length of time that Porter had spent on Ship of Fools encouraged sales because it had boosted the novel's publicity. Many readers and reviewers were so swept up in the novel's hype that they quickly claimed that Porter had written a masterpiece. The initial excitement of the mere appearance of the book caused early reviews to be quite generous with critiquing Ship of Fools. On April 1, 1962, New York Herald Tribune critic Louis Auchincloss wrote a favorable review, saying that Porter made the reader feel "that he has been on board the Vera for the twenty-six days of her voyage, but unlike [the characters], he is reluctant to disembark." (Unrue, 39).
Once the thrill died down, however, there was a growing feeling that the finished work did not justify the amount of time that Porter spent creating it. By the beginning of 1963, Ship of Fools had gained a newer, harsher reputation: it was anti-climatic, it was hard to follow, and it did not have the literary merit that Porter's previous works did. This movement from initial praise to later disappointment shows that it was Ship of Fools's hype, and not the novel itself, that caused the majority of its success.
One secondary factor that helped Ship of Fools's sales was the intriguing issues that took place within the novel. Although the setting takes place on a German-bound vessel in Pre-World War II, Porter draws connections to then-current conflict of the Cold War. Readers were interested in Ship of Fools's anti-communist and anti-fascist elements, especially when troubles escalated with the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962. At this time, Ship of Fools's was at the height of its sales.
The ongoing problems with the Soviet Union and the memories of World War II caused many people to feel a strong fear toward totalitarian governments. Therefore, people also began shaping negative attitudes toward foreign policy. (Boyer, 1005). Porter herself was one of these people, and Ship of Fools contains several themes that paralleled American's feelings in the early sixties. Her anti-totalitarian opinions increased noticeably during the forties and fifties, and it became close to an obsession in both her personal and creative writing. On March 4, 1951, she wrote, "I'm entirely hostile to the principle of Communism and to every form of totalitarian society, whether it calls itself Communism, Fascism, or whatever." (Brinkmeyer, 189). Porter felt that many of the conflicts that plagued Europe could be linked to Communism and Fascism, and Joan Givner said that Ship of Fools was written to "solve the riddle of what had gone wrong with the whole Western World in the twentieth century." (Brinkmeyer, 188).
An example of anti-communism in Ship of Fools is during a conversation with William Denny and Mrs. Treadwell, two Americans. After Mrs. Treadwell makes several comments in defense of "the Reds," Denny grows suspicious and questions her:
Denny's head rolled a trifle; he stared at her as if he had never seen her before.
"Are you a Red?" he asked. Without removing his folded arms from the rail he slid along toward her, turned sideways and inspected her...
"Do you know the meaning of the word?" she inquired coldly, moving along the rail from him as he approached. . . . She had never known a Red and did not expect to ever know one.
"I know what I'd do with them if I were running the government," he said, in a heavy rage. . . (Porter, 61.)
Here Denny illustrates the uneasiness that many Americans felt toward Soviets throughout the Cold War. Even though Mrs. Treadwell is an American like him, he doesn't trust her once she speaks up for the Reds. Ship of Fools emphasized the tension and wariness strangers felt toward one another because of the growing problems with the Soviet Union.
It is worth noting that while Porter successfully shows strained relationships between characters, the passage seems to oppose McCarthyism, not Communism. Porter most likely did not intend for this interpretation, since her previous quote agrees with Denny's feelings. The discrepancy probably exists Porter because wrote the bulk of Ship of Fools in the early fifties, when McCarthyism was a strong anti-communist movement. Yet by the time Ship of Fools was published, McCarthyism had long since ended with false, embarrassing accusations on innocent Americans. Despite the confusion, Porter's point is still made: communism should be seen as something evil, and that the problems between the United States and the Soviet Union were far from over.
In addition to anti-communism, anti-fascism also plays a role in Ship of Fools. One way fascism is shown negatively is with the German Captain Thiele, who runs the ship in a dictator-like manner. He creates a hierarchy with him on top and determines other passengers' ranks according to their ethnicity. Only other Germans are allowed to dine at his table, which excludes others that he believes belong to a lower status. He overcrowds the steerage (the lowest level of the ship) with deported Spaniards, and he treats them like prisoners: "Hundreds of people, men and women, were wallowing on the floor, being sick, and sailors were washing them down with streaming hose. They lay in the film of the water, just lifting their heads now and then. . ." (Porter, 72). The captain's abuse of authority is responsible for the inhumane and unsanitary conditions that the Spaniards are forced to live in, which was meant show the cruelties of fascism. The relevance of the anti-totalitarian topics made Ship of Fools caught people's attention, which in turn made Ship of Fools popular.
While anti-totalitarian components were important in Ship of Fools, the historical controversies of the Holocaust also helped Ship of Fools's success. Since it was published in the sixties, the Pre-World War II setting allows for numerous ironies to exist between the German and Jewish characters. Ship of Fools's caught readers' attentions because they were already aware of the millions of Jewish deaths that Hitler had caused. Even today, more than fifty years after the end of World War II, people are still fascinated with the Holocaust and the treatment of Jewish people during that time period.
Porter's references to the Holocaust are often offensive, even shocking. One illustration is a conversation between Lizzi Spockenkieker and Herr Rieber about the Spaniards crammed in the steerage level. When she recounts Herr Rieber's comments to Herr Otto Schmitt, Lizzie's light-hearted words turn appalling:
I was saying, 'Oh, those poor people, what can be done for them?' and this monster [Herr Rieber]-" she gave kind of a whinny between hysteria and indignation- "he said, 'I would do this to them: I would put them all in a big oven and turn on the gas.' Oh," she said weakly, "isn't that the most original idea you ever heard? (Porter, 59.)
It is not an accident that all three characters are German, since Lizzie foreshadows the gas chambers that Nazis used to kill mass groups of Jewish people. Yet even more surprising than Herr Rieber's remark is Lizzie's reaction: she does not get upset at the comment, in fact, she laughs and considers it creative. Lizzie's nonchalant response to the terrifying idea of murdering others disgusted readers and increased the controversial aspects of the novel.
Another way the German and Jewish characters are shown is through the fear that the Jews feel toward the Germans, even when some of them are German themselves. This is especially seen between Lowenthal and Captain Thiele, where the Captain is repeatedly rude and bullying to Lowenthal, who is Jewish. After the Captain forces Lowenthal eat by himself in the dining room, Lowenthal's fear becomes evident:
Ah, he needed to be more careful and clever than he was- he suffered waves of fright sometimes because he feared he was not clever enough, [the Captain and other Germans] would play him a trick someday and he would not know it until it was too late. It occurred to him often that he was living in a world so dangerous he wondered how he dared to go to sleep at night. (Porter, 97.)
The Captain's hatred toward Lowenthal is significant because it shows how smug the Captain is about his "superiority." The Captain bases his prejudice solely on Lowenthal's religion, and is never able to see Lowenthal as anything but inferior. His mind set remarkably parallels the future Nazis' attitudes toward the Jewish population. Lowenthal, in turn, lives in terror of the Captain's power, similar to the Jewish people lived in fear of the Nazi soldiers.
Since Ship of Fools had all these factors making it a selling success, then why did it receive only mediocre reactions from critics and audiences? After all, the previous excerpts are striking and well-written. Unfortunately, the rest of the novel is hard to follow and very thick in content. Ship of Fools is almost five hundred pages long, with no chapters and only three noticeable divisions. There is no focus on a central character, since Porter instead decided to write about forty passengers' experiences. On top of that, critics called the ending anti-climatic. Most of these complaints went unnoticed when Ship of Fools first appeared, but as time passed critics voiced their feelings of disappointment. In the summer of 1962 Yale Review critic Wayne Booth said, "We flash from group to group, scene to scene, mind to mind, seldom remaining with any group or observer for longer than three or four pages together... Why, why did Miss Porter feel that she should try to get everything in?" (Liberman, 13). Some readers felt the same way, and considered Ship of Fools an average story that did not live up to its expectations of a masterpiece.
It is possible that Ship of Fools would have been remembered in a negative light if it were not for the 1965 movie-version that became a box-office hit. Director and producer Stanley Kramer filled the cast with talented actors, including Vivian Leigh, Oskar Werner, and Simone Signoret. Ironically enough, it seems that Kramer had created the masterpiece, not Porter. When the movie was released, Kramer's Ship of Fools was praised for its high quality and poignant scenes. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther said that it was a "powerful, ironic film" that was "perpetually engrossing and thought-provoking... it eminently deserves to be seen." (Crowther, 18). It was also nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Werner), and Best Actress (Signoret). It ended up winning two, one for Best Cinematography in black and white and the other for Best Art Direction in black and white.
The favorable publicity from critics and the Academy Awards rejuvenated interest in Porter's novel. Due to the promotion from other media, the novel became more mainstream. The film opened up a whole new market for movie-goers who wanted to read the novel, and Penguin Books released a paperback edition of Porter's Ship of Fools in 1965. Although it did not attain bestseller status again, the movie generated more sales for the novel, and it pumped short-lived interest into the Porter's book while the movie was popular.
While Ship of Fools was the number one best-selling book of 1962, its success was bittersweet. Its release was met with enthusiasm and praise, and the bulk of its sales probably occurred in the first six months following its publication. Unfortunately, reviews turned sour after the public's initial excitement died down, since they felt that after all the wait and hype Ship of Fools just wasn't what they had hoped. Specific scenes are captivating and involve present issues and past controversies, yet they get lost in the overwhelming number of people and pages that Porter created. Ship of Fools's greatest disappointment was that although it had potential to reach its high expectations with its interesting story concept and fascinating characters, it did not. Unfortunately, it is just too long and dense, which is maybe why many people consider the two-and-a-half hour movie the best thing that came out of Porter's only novel.
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Brinkmeyer, Robert. Katherine Anne Porter's Artistic Development. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1993.
Crowther, Bosley. "Ship of Fools." The New York Times. Page 18. July 29, 1965.
Hicks, Granville. "Voyage of Life." Saturday Review: January- June 1962. New York:
Saturday Review/World, Inc. Vol. 45.
Liberman, M.M. Katherine Anne Porter's Fiction. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1971.
Porter, Katherine Anne. Ship of Fools. Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1962.
Unrue, Darlene. Critical Essays on Katherine Anne Porter. New York: G. K. Hall and Co., 1997.
Unrue, Darlene. Truth and Vision in Katherine Anne Porter's Fiction. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985.