Porter, Katherine Anne (Vol. 1)
Porter, Katherine Anne 1890–
A Southern American short story writer and novelist, Miss Porter is best known for Pale Horse, Pale Rider, and Ship of Fools. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1966. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
Ship of Fools suggests many of the qualities of the traditional "solid" novel that has virtually dropped out of sight in recent years. Like the nineteenth-century classics, it comes at life in a straightforward and comprehensive way. There are many characters and they all have the uncomplicated distinctiveness, bordering on caricature, that allows the reader to keep them straight and to know where he is with each of them…. Though she has dispensed with the old-fashioned elaborate plot, she does contrive an almost continual movement of the narrative among the characters which serves much the same purpose as complicated plotting once did: it brings different classes (in this case, nationalities) and types into relation and into the kind of revealing patterns of connection and conflict that can take on a large public significance. And tied as the novel is to crucial historical events such as the world-wide depression of 1930's and the coming of fascism, the over-all effect is that of a novelist, as confident in her sense of moral order as Dickens or Balzac, creating the private history of an age….
The main … weakness is that no effective principle of change operates on the action or on the main characters or on the ideas, and hence the book has virtually no power to sustain, complicate, and intensify any real responsiveness to it….
Ship of Fools is not a novel of action or character or ideas, but one that is held together and given significance by its point of view—that is to say, by the direct presence and pressure of Miss Porter's sensibility…. Under the cold, smooth plaster of her prose is … an alternately smug or exasperated or queasy hostility toward most of the behavior she is describing. The art of the book lies mostly in the covert little ways it has of showing up and putting down the characters, and almost any passage of description or dialogue brings out some of them….
[There] is nothing either "majestic" or "terrible" about Miss Porter's image of human failure. Far from being a profound account of the "ship of this world on its voyage to eternity," Ship of Fools is simply what it is: an account of a tedious voyage to Europe three decades ago that has been labored over for twenty years by a writer who, late in life, is venturing, hence revealing, little more than bitchiness and clever technique.
Theodore Solotaroff, "Ship of Fools: Anatomy of a Best-Seller" (1962), in his The Red Hot Vacuum and Other Pieces on the Writing of the Sixties, Atheneum, 1970, pp. 103-21.
Katherine Anne Porter's work is the result of a lifetime of devotion to artistic honesty. Nowhere can she be said to exploit effects for their own sakes. She is at home in the situational metaphor, and her development of it, plus her sense of tradition (of antiquity renewing itself as active memory), gives her a rare eminence. Her only novel, Ship of Fools (1962), is one of the most significant books to appear since World War II: not only because of its intrinsic merits (which are many and become more clear the more one contemplates her work), but also because it is the first full-scale attempt to make a literature of the great, abiding demonology of the 1930's.
Frederick J. Hoffman, in his The Modern Novel in America, Regnery, revised edition, 1963, p. 238.
Katherine Anne Porter's output has not been great, considering the years that she has been writing; but there is probably no other writer of fiction in America who has maintained so consistently high a level. (p. 5)
As a non-practicing Catholic and a liberal southerner, Miss Porter has found the principal themes in her fiction in the tensions provided between fixed social and moral positions and the necessities of movement and alteration. Within a broad framework, she has...
(The entire section is 2,766 words.)