Porter, Katherine Anne (Vol. 7)
Porter, Katherine Anne 1890–
An American woman of letters, a master stylist, the author of flawless, standard-setting short stories, Miss Porter is known to younger Americans primarily for her long-awaited Ship of Fools, a novel flawed but unremittingly revealing of the intensity of her political and moral sensibilities. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
To the reviewer, Miss Porter is baffling because one cannot take hold of her work in any of the obvious ways. She makes none of the melodramatic or ironic points that are the stock in trade of ordinary short story writers; she falls into none of the usual patterns and she does not show anyone's influence. She does not exploit her personality either inside or outside her work, and her writing itself makes a surface so smooth that the critic has little opportunity to point out peculiarities of color or weave. If he is tempted to say that the effect is pale, he is prevented by the realization that Miss Porter writes English of a purity and precision almost unique in contemporary American fiction. If he tries to demur that some given piece fails to mount with the accelerating pace or arrive at the final intensity that he is in the habit of expecting in short stories, he is deterred by a nibbling suspicion that he may not have grasped its meaning and have it hit him with a sudden impact some minutes after he has closed the book.
Not that this meaning is simple to formulate even after one has felt its emotional force. The limpidity of the sentence, the exactitude of the phrase, are deceptive in that the thing they convey continues to seem elusive even after it has been communicated. These stories are not illustrations of anything that is reducible to a moral law or a political or social analysis or even a principle of human behavior. What they show us are human relations in their constantly shifting phases and in the moments of which their existence is made. There is no place for general reflections; you are to live through the experience as the characters do. And yet the writer has managed to say something about the values involved in the experience. But what is it? I shall try to suggest, though I am afraid I shall land in ineptitude.
Miss Porter's short stories lend themselves to being sorted into three fairly distinct groups. There are the studies of family life in working-class or middle-class households (there are two of these in The Leaning Tower), which, in spite of the fact that the author is technically sympathetic with her people, tend to be rather bitter and bleak, and, remarkable though they are, seem to me less satisfactory than the best of her other stories. The impression we get from these pieces is that the qualities that are most amiable in human life are being gradually done to death in the milieux she is presenting, but Miss Porter does not really much like these people or feel comfortable in their dismal homes, and so we, in turn, don't really much care. Another section of her work, however, contains what may be called pictures of foreign parts, and here Miss Porter is much more successful. The story which gives its name to her new collection [The Leaning Tower] and which takes up two-fifths of the volume belongs to this category. It is a study of Germany between the two wars in terms of a travelling American and his landlady and fellow-lodgers in a Berlin rooming house. By its material and its point of view, it rather recalls Christopher Isherwood's Goodbye to Berlin, but it is more poetic in treatment and more general in implication. (pp. 219-21)
But perhaps the most interesting section of Katherine Anne Porter's work is composed of her stories about women—particularly her heroine Miranda, who figured in two of the three novelettes that made up her previous volume, Pale Horse, Pale Rider. The first six pieces of The Leaning Tower deal with Miranda's childhood and her family background of Louisianians living in southern Texas. This is the setting in which Miss Porter is most at home, and one finds in it the origins of that spirit of which the starvation and violation elsewhere make the subjects of her other stories. One recognizes it in the firm little sketches that show the relations between Miranda's grandmother and her lifelong colored companion, the relations between the members of the family and the relations between the family and the Negro servants in general. Somewhere behind Miss Porter's stories there is a conception of a natural human spirit in terms of their bearing on which all the other forces of society are appraised. This spirit is never really idealized, it is not even sentimentalized; it can be generous and loving and charming, but it can also be indifferent and careless, inconsequent, irresponsible and silly. If the meaning of these stories is elusive, it is because this essential spirit is so hard to isolate or pin down. It is peculiar to Louisianians in Texas, yet one misses it in a boarding house in Berlin. It is the special personality of a woman, yet it is involved with international issues. It evades all the most admirable moralities, it escapes through the social net, and it resists the tremendous oppressions of national bankruptcies and national wars. It is outlawed, driven underground, exiled; it becomes rather unsure of itself and may be able, as in Pale Horse, Pale Rider, to assert itself only in the delirium that lights up at the edge of death to save Miranda from extinction by war flu. It suffers often from a guilty conscience, knowing too well its moral weakness; but it can also rally bravely if vaguely in vindication of some instinct of its being which seems to point toward justice and truth.
But I said that this review would be clumsy. I am spoiling Miss Porter's stories by attempting to find a formula for them when I ought simply to be telling you to read them…. She is absolutely a first-rate artist, and what she wants other people to know she imparts to them by creating an object, the self-developing organism of a work of prose. (pp. 221-22)
Edmund Wilson, "Katherine Anne Porter" (originally published in The New Yorker, September 30, 1944), in his Classics and Commercials: A Literary Chronicle of the Forties (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1950 by Edmund Wilson), Farrar, Straus, 1950, pp. 219-23.
Katherine Anne Porter never has been primarily concerned with literary theory. And so Miss Porter's critical position may sometimes seem ambiguous, at times even contradictory. Her preference for the conscious artist who is alert to the technical problems of his craft, for instance, may seem to contradict her advocacy of an organic theory apparently akin to that of Whitman, whose "expansive, indiscriminate 'cosmic'" impulse the skeptical, rational Miss Porter distrusts. And her concept of the poet as a "seer" set apart and to be trusted more than other men may not be entirely compatible with her notion of the poet as being like other men, with the usual social responsibilities and privileges.
But the most striking paradox in Miss Porter's position emerges from her consistent definition of the nature of her devotion to her "basic and absorbing occupation," for Miss Porter's language suggests religious devotion and faith: she speaks of art as a "calling," of "saints and artists," of giving "true testimony," of the "indispensable moral law," of the necessity for "order and precision," of the "only two possibilities for any real order: art and religion." The paradox of Miss Porter's negation of the orthodoxy of her Catholic family, of her denial of social and political authoritarianism, is that its end is affirmation: extremes meet; "the way up and the way down is one and the same," as Heraclitus was wont to say and as the orthodox T. S. Eliot seems to agree (in "Burnt Norton"). For Miss Porter—ironically, in view of her skepticism—declares her faith in the continuity of human life through art…. Like Henry James, Miss Porter's quest for moral definition led not to philosophy or religion but to art. She thus became the inheritor of a great tradition—the tradition of dissent and inquiry, of selfless devotion to the search for meaning and order in the world of fiction. (pp. 129-30)
Edward Schwartz, "The Way of Dissent: Katherine Anne Porter's Critical Position," in Western Humanities Review (copyright, 1954, University of Utah), Spring, 1954, pp. 119-30.
Since her first story, published in 1930, Miss Porter has never gotten a completely unfavorable review. She has been praised by Time and the New York Times with equal enthusiasm. The Saturday Review has unequivocally placed her in the category of Flaubert, Hawthorne, and James as a story teller and artist. Her prose has been called "beautifully molded," "carefully wrought," "brilliant," and a masterpiece of "polish and lucidity." Even Edmund Wilson, voluble as he characteristically is, has confessed himself at a loss for critical terms laudatory enough to describe Miss Porter's stories. Before the phenomenon of her work, critics usually throw reserve aside and join the chorus of praise.
More important than verbal acclaim, however, in revealing Miss Porter's status in contemporary letters are the facts of her critical career. In 1941, she helped to launch the career of Eudora Welty on a wider sea with a critical preface to Miss Welty's stories. In 1942, she appeared on a radio broadcast dealing with Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw" which turned the Freudian critical tide and led to a revival of interest in James that is still going on. She was a member of the selection committee which gave the first Bollingen Foundation Award to Ezra Pound, thereby uncapping a reaction which must go down in literary history along with the Ossian controversy of the eighteenth century and the Edinburgh Review furor of the nineteenth. It was she, as a Fellow of the Library of Congress, who dropped by Robert Penn Warren's office one day with a newspaper clipping that became the genesis of Warren's novel, "World Enough and Time." And it was Katherine Anne Porter who virtually single-handedly shattered the Gertrude Stein legend with an essay, "The Wooden Umbrella." Her effect on modern literature as a critic is inestimable: she has verbally shaken the widow of Dylan Thomas, castigated immature first novelists for their "self-love, self-pity, and self-preoccupation," and taken long, revealing second looks at such figures as Willa Cather, Ford Madox Ford, and most recently D. H. Lawrence. (pp. 598-99)
In short, Miss Porter is one of a very small group of professional women of letters whose undisputed literary merit is supplemented by journalistic and critical talent. As such, she stands in the company of George Sand, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf….
It is perhaps because of her admixture of abilities that Katherine Anne Porter as a writer of fiction has never been tellingly examined. The critic who attempts to isolate her fiction from the rest of her canon winds up rather self-consciously trying to evaluate her as a craftsman; hence the generalizations about her style. The critic who tries to correlate all of her work tends to misread her stories within the context of her topical essays and to find a totality and synthesis which do not exist…. As a critic, Miss Porter possibly may be viewed in an historical context. As a craftsman, she must wait for time to place her in a tidily discernible literary milieu. But as a thinker and a writer of fiction—as a "witness to life," in her own phrase—she speaks to us today and we ought to be able to perceive some pattern of experience and meaning in what she says, if indeed she is the artist we all claim her to be. (p. 600)
[Much] critical confusion has resulted from the effort to understand her stories in terms of their settings or personae (i.e., the "Mexico" stories, the "Miranda" stories). When the fictional pieces are seen as assertions of a life perspective rather than as segments of experience, however—when they are viewed as expressions of theme rather than classified according to secondary resemblances—the stories group themselves in six units, each with a novella as its culmination and most complete thematic statement.
As a serious writer, Miss Porter is concerned, of course, with certain general and pervasive themes: the workings of the human heart; appearance and reality; the epiphanic apperception of truth; the subterranean rills of individual emotion which produce the emotional torrents of an historical era; self-delusion and its consequences. But she tends to use these broader topics to re-enforce more limited themes, which dramatize themselves in a variety of characters and places. (pp. 601-02)
Initially, there is the theme of the individual within his heritage, the relationship of past to present in the mind. "Old Mortality" is the novella which embodies this topic most tellingly, with its three stages of development in the mind of its child-heroine and its alteration of the legendary past through a series of clashes which it has with the factual present. There are four short stories illustrating the same theme, all of them coincidentally dealing with the same characters: "The Old Order," "The Source," "The Witness," "The Last Leaf."… These works treat what Miss Porter has recently called "the country of my heart." Autobiographical or not, they stand thematically with certain works of Faulkner, Mann, and Proust. Like Faulkner, Miss Porter is fascinated with the tragedy of the Old South and the effect of the legend on those who helped to create it. Like Mann, she sees the past as a wistfully perfect and stable order which is perfect only because it is completed, that is, dead. And like Proust, she emphasizes memories of human beings and the fragments of recollected days and ways as the bits which make up the mosaic of present thought. She never exaggerates the past by using it mythopoeically or giving it a transcendence over the present because of its historicity. Instead, she sees the past simply as a former time peopled by human beings living unheroic lives, for the most part. To her as to Homer, the generations of men are as leaves which wax green and then fall; and there is always one last leaf to remind the living of the human reality of the past. (pp. 602-03)
"Flowering Judas" is a shorter statement of the theme of cultural displacement and the discovery of evil. This much-anthologized and criticized story anticipates "The Leaning Tower" in many ways: the idealistic young American protagonist, the removal to a remotely exotic culture, the militaristic background, the underlying tradition of violence and force in the strange culture, the final realization of evil by the protagonist. (p. 603)
The third group of stories deals with unhappy marriages and the self-delusion attendant upon them.
Then there is the group of stories which have as their theme the death of love and the survival of individual integrity. "Pale Horse, Pale Rider" [and] … "The Downward Path to Wisdom" [are examples]. (p. 604)
The fifth body of stories is those which deal with the theme of "Noon Wine": man's slavery to his own nature and subjugation to a human fate which dooms him to suffering and disappointment…. Miss Porter firmly insists that man's suffering is inextricably related to what he is, though she also suggests that certain destructive forces—disease, death—are inevitable and inescapable in spite of one's character and she implies strongly that the struggle of mankind goes on before an aloof and indifferent cosmos…. The violence and suffering, mental and physical, in these stories are denigrated by the ironic realization that man must face them with little choice, however senseless they may be.
Finally, there is "Hacienda," which is really too long to be a short story and too short, diffuse, and plotless to be a novella. Though it appears to stand alone, it is in fact an amalgam of all Miss Porter's themes. The hacienda is a timeless embodiment of the past way of life in the present. It is presently peopled by a number of aliens to Mexican culture, who react to their surroundings in various revealing ways. The master of the hacienda and his wife are the principals in an unhappy and futile marriage, and the husband has just undergone an ill fated love affair with an actress. The complication of the story centers in a crime of passion committed by a Mexican serf, now hopelessly caught in a tangle of legal procedure. (pp. 605-06)
The important point is that thematically Miss Porter is working with a limited group of ideas which she presents with a uniformly superb style and a multiformly ingenious handling of symbols….
[Her] symbols operate on the most direct level and where she intends a multiplicity of meaning, Miss Porter almost always tells the reader so. (p. 606)
Many of Miss Porter's symbols are the very stuff of her narrative and operate without calling up allusions or forming patterns of meaning…. Merely to list such images, however, gives them a commonplace quality which within their contexts they do not have.
A few basic themes, an adroit use of symbols, a limpid prose style—these combine in Miss Porter's stories to the propagation of a fictional point of view which is amazingly consistent and complete. (p. 610)
Katherine Anne Porter is conventionally praised for her humanity and warmth and for the stoic virtues which her people show in the face of life's hardships. It is true that she sets up the stoic as the best sort of behavior. It is also true that the dignity and compassion of her characters are strikingly apparent. But Miss Porter's world is a black and tragic one, filled with disaster, heartbreak, and soul-wrecking disillusionment. (p. 611)
This despair-filled vision is not the one which Miss Porter presents in the non-fiction she has written on subjects corresponding to those of her fiction. In her essays, hope remains in spite of human error and human history. Love need not die and life can have order and meaning. But the essays are topical and temporary; they deal with the merely ethical. The stories concern the ultimately moral and realistic, and they are completely negative in their final perception of truth. (pp. 611-12)
In penetration, her ultimate vision of reality is equal to that of any modern writer, Mann and Faulkner included. Her tragic sense is as keen as Hardy's or Virginia Woolf's; and her knowledge of human feeling is as incisive and compassionate as Conrad's. Yet even her most dedicated admirers hesitate to place her among these titans, the general feeling being that she lacks their volume, their comprehensiveness, their "scope."
Had Miss Porter left those trunksfull of manuscripts unburned, the objection based on volume could have been met. Yet this very act of selectivity is an indication of the guiding principle which has made her unique. Her critical judgment, as accurate and impartial as a carpenter's level, has limited her artistry in several ways. It has not permitted her to universalize but has confined her to being a "witness to life." Consequently, her fiction has been closely tied to what she herself has experienced firsthand. The fact that Miss Porter's essays parallel her stories in theme—love, marriage, alien cultures—is significant in this light. Her artistic preoccupation with "truth" has prevented the fictional generalizations often thought of as scope.
Moreover, Miss Porter's "truth" is the truth of feeling and behavior rather than that of ideas. Her emphasis is always on her characters, and her stories are about people rather than humanity or concepts. Because she narrows her attention to specific individuals, extending their dimensions only by the subtle use of the mythic technique noted before, her stories give the impression of constriction. In addition, her people are in no way exceptional, even in their most flamboyant actions: they are grandmothers, farmers, career girls, and artists acting like grandmothers, farmers, career girls, and artists. If fate involves them in exceptional situations, it is their ordinary or average qualities which are illuminated, not their superhuman or heroic. One has but to compare Mr. Thompson of "Noon Wine" and Raskolnikov of "Crime and Punishment"—both of them ax murderers—to see the literary effects. One is real and the other surpasses reality. It is always reality that concerns Miss Porter.
Finally, Miss Porter's self-criticism has prevented her from publishing, or even preserving, anything less than perfect by her own severe standards. As a result, she has no magnificent failures; and the magnificent failure is often the writer's masterpiece. "Ship of Fools," now "in progress" for twenty years, may turn out to be a success. If it does not, Miss Porter's admirers may justly fear it will never be published, her principles being what they are. All of her fiction published so far has been perfect—limited but perfect. Her readers can be thankful that Katherine Anne Porter has pleased herself sufficiently to permit three volumes of fiction to appear, though they must regret, with the aesthetic theorists of the eighteenth century, that perfection is often bought at the cost of greatness. (pp. 612-13)
James William Johnson, "Another Look at Katherine Anne Porter," in Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1960, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 36, No. 4 (Autumn, 1960), pp. 598-613.
["Ship of Fools"] shows that Miss Porter is one of the finest writers of prose in America. It also shows that she has mastered the form—or one of the forms—of the novel. On the other hand, it is something less than a masterpiece. (p. 15)
In a prefatory note Miss Porter specifically describes the novel as a kind of allegory … "of the ship of this world on its voyage to eternity."…
What, then, are we to conclude that Miss Porter is saying about the voyage of life? Is it that there is no possibility of change, no hope of redemption? Are we all the fools of passion, greed, and prejudice? If the novel had appeared in the Thirties, it would have been hailed as an attack on Fascism, and it might have been regarded as a denunciation of middle- and upper-class morality. In steerage the ship carries a large number of Spanish workers who are being deported from Cuba for economic reasons. Although these are looked upon with indifference and contempt by most of the first-class passengers, one of them performs the only purely disinterested act the novel records. But surely the book, at this point, is not intended as a polemic against a particular political system nor even as a defense of the downtrodden. Miss Porter is saying something about the voyage of life, and what she is saying is somber indeed.
Perhaps that is why the novel, for all its lucidity and all its insights, leaves the reader a little cold. There is in it, so far as I can see, no sense of human possibility. Although we have known her people uncommonly well, we watch unconcerned as, in the curiously muted ending, they drift away from us. (p. 16)
Granville Hicks, "Voyage of Life," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1962 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), March 31, 1962, pp. 15-16.
Without any violent act of generalization, we can state the central themes of Katherine Anne Porter's fiction in three enormous questions, and these happen to be the questions asked, in turn, by the three stories that make up the volume Pale Horse, Pale Rider. They may be put this way: What were we? What are we? What will we be? Or: From where did we come? Where are we at this moment? Where are we going? The individual in his past, his present, his future.
And put this way, we recognize, of course, that there are no other questions, really—that all literature, all humankind has always asked these questions and these alone. Being so basic, they can take infinitely various, endlessly specific forms. And the first quality that we are aware of in the fiction of Katherine Anne Porter is the absence of abstraction, its specificity, its immediacy, the richly individuating detail whether of persons, of situations, of scenes. It is precisely this tissue of observed, of felt, of living detail that gives the themes that we have abstracted their powerful emotional charge….
In achieving her constant effects of particularity, nothing is more important, of course, than her own sharply remembered observations, and these go far back into her earliest years, into the place of her origin. In her surprisingly various literary production, in which so little is ever used twice, place is one exception—first the childhood place, then Mexico, then Germany, but above all, the childhood place, "the native land of my heart."…
"Old Mortality" demonstrates the degree to which Miss Porter's is indeed a "usable past," for it is a story drawn not only from her own past, but, more importantly, depicts that past as immersed in another, the ancestral past, the romantic myth of a family tradition. The dead past, continuing to live in present memory, changes its character, becomes in effect a lie, and yet many members of the family are content to live in the lie, to define their present selves in terms of that altered past. One character, Miranda, is not, and the story is the account of her long effort to detach her self from the beguilements of the legend, to define her destiny as a separate thing from her heritage, to move out of the past into a clear present….
The Miranda who emerges from "Pale Horse, Pale Rider" is Miss Porter herself, the artist, who will proceed to write these stories and others with that ultimate clarity—clairvoyance?—that only the true artist possesses. The artist must know everything—past, present, and future—and the true artist must know as much of that most difficult third member of the triad as it is given to men to know.
What Miss Porter makes me know, finally, is that with every present creation the artist dies into his past in order to bring forth another creation.
Mark Schorer, "Katherine Anne Porter" (copyright © 1962 by Mark Schorer; reprinted by arrangement with The New American Library, Inc., New York, New York), an afterword to Pale Horse, Pale Rider, by Katherine Anne Porter, New American Library, 1962.
Literary critics and historians have often remarked the mighty contributions of the female sex to literature, far and wide and always. For the most part those who have done the contributing have been spinsters, nuns, courtesans, invalids, a little exempt from the more distracting, exhausting aspects of womanhood as such. Katherine Anne, throughout her youth and middle age, led a maximum life, concomitantly with her perfect, even perfectionist story writing. (pp. 28-9)
[Although] Katherine Anne herself objects to my use of the borrowed French word…, I cannot wean myself from the use of the term "nouvelle" [to describe "Noon Wine" and the other two works in that volume], because it designates not just a certain length, let us say, twenty or thirty thousand words, but a scope and particular inspiration fundamentally differing from the several types of short story and the several variations of the novel. The nouvelle is an account of a limited number of characters in close connection, or in consequential or interesting contrast; and of their situation as a whole and their state of being in some detail and in depth, not just an incident or episode in their lives. It is a mode of narration in which the narrated time serves as a window to illuminate a remoter past and to reveal something of a foreseeable future; multum in parvo, but very multum and not too parvo. It often shows as many facets of meaning as a novel, but it does not apply to as many levels of experience and observation and significance. Along with Goethe's novelle which is called Die Novelle and Mann's Death in Venice and Benjamin Constant's Adolphe and Mérimée's Carmen and Colette's Gigi and Melville's Billy Budd and Forster's The Eternal Moment, Katherine Anne's "Noon Wine" is a model of the form, an example for the textbooks.
It has an epic quality despite its small scale and modern dress, with only two heroes, one heroine, and one significant villain, expressing themselves commonly, and in natural pitiful circumstances. The epic that it makes me think of, I may say, humorously but not insincerely, is Paradise Lost, because it has Lucifer in it, a very modern and American Lucifer named Mr. Hatch. (pp. 38-9)
Look at him as you like: he signifies always a little more than you have seen and seems larger than life-size; and you think that he must have more lives than a cat; and with facets like a diamond he throws bright, instructive flashes, on one thing and another. Thus I feel justified in having used that moot, incongruous word "epic." He is not only a man hunter, he is mankind as man hunter, sempiternal. He is not only a busybody, he is the great American busybody; godlike as only a devil can be. Lucifer! No wonder that Thompson at first is reminded of someone he has seen before, somewhere. Katherine Anne just mentions this, without explanation. It is perhaps the only signal she gives that she meant Hatch to be a personification as well as a person. Thompson hates him long before there has been a peep out of him about his man hunt; and so does the reader, surely, upon instinct. Hatch-malevolence can often be felt previous to, and lies deeper than, Hatch-activity. It lies so deep indeed that one is half afraid to say simply that it is evil. (p. 41)
A specific and unabashed (though somewhat mysterious) morality works through and through this whole tale, like a fat, like a yeast, like an antidote. Katherine Anne does not pity Hatch, but seemingly she would like to; she abstains from despising him. Perhaps suspicious of the very clarity of her hatred of hatchism, she compensates the individual Hatch for it by a kind of demi-deification and enlargement. She is as careful about him as if she were wearing his face as a mask for her face, and this were confession of a misdeed of hers. (p. 42)
Ship of Fools began with a sea voyage that she took in 1931…. Ten years later she began putting it in fiction form, and gradually, perhaps somewhat unintentionally, it ceased to be a reminiscence and a tale and became a true and full-length novel: The ship Vera, that is to say, Truth, but with no abstraction other than that, no symbolism, on its voyage from Veracruz in Mexico to Bremerhaven in Germany via four intermediate ports of call, a voyage only twenty-six days long in the narrated fact, but in the art of the telling, with reference to many of the passengers, lifelong, in that something of their past and something of their future is included in it all along, by means of great flashbacks and mirrorings of motive and fate, by means of a prophetic understanding of the patterns of their lives still to be lived; about three dozen of them clearly delineated and memorable, some unforgettable: a lot of Germans and a Swede and three Swiss and four Americans, and some Mexicans and Cubans and Spaniards (a vague pitiful collectivity of hundreds of the poorest Spaniards, deportees, in steerage); every age group; aristocrats and professional men and artists and various bourgeois and riffraff and merchant mariners (and that shadowy Spanish proletariat) diversely involved in love and lust and mortal illness and craziness and chauvinism and cruel intolerance and religiosity, actively involved, in brilliant incidents with hallucinating dialogue; all things motivating one another, all things illuminating one another. (pp. 47-8)
It occurs to me that there is a minimum of laughter of any kind in Ship of Fools. George Moore maintained that humorousness always has a bad effect in a novel, disruptive of the illusion in it, drawing attention away from the characters in it to the humorous disposition of the author. I have never heard Katherine Anne say anything about this, but evidently her instinct has been in accord with that of the influential, half-forgotten Irish writer. Humor is one of the subjectivities, along with pathos and anger, powerful in her letters, distilled out of her fiction, for fiction's sake.
Ship of Fools is a phenomenal, rich, and delectable book. Though I had read a good many parts of it in typescript and in serial publication from time to time, its qualities as they appear in book form far exceed my expectations: the hallucinating specificity; the supreme and constant meaningfulness of everything; the bewitchment of the story as such, or, to be exact, the stories (plural) interwoven; and a continual sense of cause and effect, both in the mind and in external circumstances, amounting to suspense but at the same time inspiring confidence in the judgment and truthfulness of the novelist; the main generalizations of psychology and morality as plain and acceptable as the face of a clock, the minute hand seeming to cause the hours, the hour hand the days, and subsequently the weeks and months and years and indeed, in retrospect and prospect, entire lifetimes. A good many readers are going to regret having been given snatches of this novel in magazines. An analogy in terms of music occurs to me: the themes best suited to large-scale polyphonic compositions do not make the shapeliest sonatas or the most moving songs.
I think that reviewers may be tempted to describe Ship of Fools as a grand-hotel novel, making a customary and convenient use of the title of a best seller of some years back: a contrivance of heterogeneous humanity cheek by jowl, a matching and contrasting of little plots, with a measure of general involvement as it were by chance, ring around a rosy, all of which one does find in caravanseries and sometimes in great country houses and in hospitals and, as it is in this case, on board ship.
But in Katherine Anne's novel this is only the superficial aspect and the rough outline. Essentially it is a theme novel, with great themes. Shall I undertake to list them? Femaleness, and the basic coercive-submissive (not to say sado-masochistic) relations of males and females; middle age; neuroticism; and several predestining historic matters: the influential mentality of American expatriates, egocentric but sensitive; the pre-Nazi mentality of otherwise quite ordinary middle-class and lower middle-class Germans, with their wild conceit backed up by fanatic hard work and co-operativeness within the group; the cold and sickening ferment of ideas like anti-Semitism. What the twentieth century has had to read in the newspapers is often worse than what Calvin found in the Bible.
It seems to me that she now paints her vision of evil with a more mingled palette, although there is less pathos about it than when she was young. Now no one is entirely blameless—even one of the children on the S.A. Vera is hopeless, and the other two are fiends—but, on the other hand, she never disregards or belittles anyone. On the whole I should say that all the qualities that I have praised in her previous fiction—that grasp of lamentable evil predestination, and the dead seriousness in general, the objectivity, the knack of verisimilitudinous portraiture (often like Frans Hals, sometimes like Goya), the natural-seeming style, the manner always responsive to, adjusted to, the matter, and suspense throughout, well regulated but with no trickiness—all are still praiseworthy in Ship of Fools, unchanged except for the tremendous change of scale. (pp. 49-50)
In reading Ship of Fools one is less aware of structure than of movement, as it might be the movement of one's eyes lighting first on one thing, then on another, or on this person or that…. Meanwhile the principal personages begin to come into view, singly or in pairs or in trios, friendly or hostile or indifferent. The reader gradually circulates among them, stirred at first only by curiosity; and the writer, as to the order and the emphasis and the dimensions of her writing, seems actuated at first only by a readiness to respond to the reader's interest. She keeps answering the questions that she keeps inducing us to ask. (p. 52)
[The] grotesque personages are on the very outer edges of the book … [and] make a frame around the more important, less anomalous portraits; a baroque or rococo frame. This also differentiates Katherine Anne's novel from other novels of the grand-hotel type. She is not mainly interested in the patchwork and variegation of human nature. What fires and polarizes her mind are the themes (as I have said), the elements, the universal characteristics: mutual unkindness of lovers, gluttony and alcoholism, snobbery and conformism, and political power, even that inevitably wielded by the captain of a ship at sea, and bourgeoisie versus destitution, and immaturity versus senility—with scarcely ever a word about any of these subjects in the abstract, not a bit of intellectuality per se; only intelligence, constantly arising afresh from observation. (pp. 54-5)
Glenway Wescott, "Katherine Anne Porter Personally," in Images of Truth: Remembrances and Criticism (copyright © 1962 by Glenway Wescott; reprinted by permission of William Morris Agency, Inc.), Harper, 1962, pp. 25-58.
From "María Concepción" to Ship of Fools, one central impulse unites the fiction of Katherine Anne Porter. This impulse has its most explicit formulation in the short story "Theft": "She remembered how she had never locked a door in her life, on some principle of rejection in her that made her uncomfortable in the ownership of things … a certain fixed, otherwise baseless and general faith which ordered the movements of her life without regard to her will in the matter." At the heart of Katherine Anne Porter's literary achievement lies a principle of rejection…. It is obvious even at the start that this rejection is ambiguous. In "Theft" it is equated with a "general faith which ordered" the heroine's life, and it will be found to contain in its total meaning large proportions of courage and nobility. (pp. 3-4)
The rejection theme … is the heart of Katherine Anne Porter's artistic vision. In terms of her fictional world, it is a tragic vision. It presents an ideal of conduct by which most individuals are found wanting. The lives of the weak and the gross are full of pain and so is Miranda's—but her pain is more intense than theirs precisely because she is more aware of reality. Because she does not try to evade the awareness, hers is a nobler and more fully human response to an essentially painful world. The rejection theme is embodied in the rich concreteness of the life of Miranda and, through her, in the particular world in which she lives. While the portrayal of this heroine shares in the freedom and objectivity of fictionality, Miss Porter has made no secret of the fact that Miranda is autobiographical both in the general outline of her life and in many of its specific details. (p. 8)
[Miranda] is the wonderer, the seer, the truth-seeker, the artist. It is her hunger to see and to know combined with the ideal vision of life generated by her appetite for happiness that forces her along an endless path of disillusion. Fleeing the oppressions which smother life, she finds herself in an ambivalent state of independence-isolation, a state imperative but painful, and this ambiguity dogs her path to the end. For in seeking life she is rejecting it: her vision of life lies at the brink of death, as "Pale Horse, Pale Rider" reveals in a splendid epiphany. (p. 9)
It was in Pale Horse, Pale Rider: Three Short Novels (1939) that Katherine Anne Porter reached the center of her fictional world with the introduction of the semi-autobiographical heroine Miranda. The latest episodes in this heroine's life were recorded first, and it remained for The Leaning Tower and Other Stories (1944) to portray her childhood and even her ancestors. This delayed start and reversed chronology are characteristic of memory, which seems to return progressively to earlier and yet earlier recollections; readers who hoped for later stories carrying Miranda beyond the age of twenty-four were to be disappointed. (p. 55)
It does seem that in "Noon Wine" Katherine Anne Porter transcended in some respects the limitations of the central thematic pattern which governs most of her work. In it there is little evidence of the familiar ironic narrator. There is gentle humor, seen in the stories only rarely, and the single convincing portrayal in all the works of normal love between husband and wife. It is the story of Miss Porter's which most nearly approaches tragedy. A brilliant work, it belongs unquestionably to its author; yet it certainly is not among her most characteristic…. It also contains some of the author's finest writing, beautifully adapted to character and setting. (p. 56)
"The Leaning Tower" is not about art but about the modern world, and its message seems to be despair. Insofar as it is a political story its statement is largely justified by the war which followed; but the story never really functions on the political plane, and this fact is a key to its relative artistic failure. It conveys with strength the sense of strangeness and oppression suffered by an essentially isolated protagonist in an unfamiliar setting. It gives an impressionistic vision of Berlin but one marred by the tendentious distortions of caricature. It is unbalanced structurally by its subordination of every element to an overly ambitious semi-allegorical purpose. Awareness of the complex European situation, aside from theoretic discussion, never really enters the story. The strongly emphasized symbolic structure remains to a great extent emotionally uncharged, for the author's ability to concretize reality has never extended beyond the personal and immediate. It would seem that in "The Leaning Tower" Miss Porter has entrusted the creative act too extensively to the abstract intelligence, too little to that deep, inner way of working which has proved her only avenue to artistic success. That inner way of working, deeply personal as it is, deals in personal relationships and follows the pattern of the rejection theme. (p. 79)
["The Grave"] describes events which might easily have occurred within the space of an hour. These events are of the greatest simplicity, beautifully true to reality, and are portrayed with such minute honesty that they come closer to perfection than any other passage of comparable length in Miss Porter's writings. This sketch is the best example of her ability to find and present natural symbols. The truest meanings come not from contrived symbolism—even from such relatively modest symbols as the dove and the ring in "The Grave"—but from rightly selected and honestly, lovingly presented reality. In an early critical study of Miss Porter's work [in Sewanee Review, April 1940], Lodwick Hartley makes the following perceptive statement: "The greatest gift of Miss Porter is her consummate mastery of detail. Whatever may be her structural or emotional limitations, she has the uncanny power of evoking richness from minutiae. The gift is manifested everywhere in her work, but no more astonishing bit of observation can be found than in "The Grave," a simple and tremendously powerful little story of two children's contact with the mysteries of life and death." (pp. 102-03)
The technical skill exhibited in "Pale Horse, Pale Rider" can hardly be praised too highly. Miss Porter's ability to represent the physical and mental sensations of dream and delirium has been seen in "Flowering Judas" and "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall," but in this story she achieves her most sustained intensity and poetic beauty. Qualities observable here as in any of her works are mastery of sentence and paragraph rhythm, vivid powers of description, and extreme compression, power, and swiftness. Smooth and rapid transitions from one state of consciousness to another are often effected through the use of association…. Whatever remains to be said of other aspects of "Pale Horse, Pale Rider," it must first be acknowledged that the brilliance of its prose style is almost its dominant element, raising it above even the usual high level of the author's stylistic performance. (pp. 131-32)
"Pale Horse, Pale Rider" seems different from the earlier work, finally, in being a love story, which would certainly set it apart from the other Miranda stories. But the difference is more apparent than real. Once it is realized that this is primarily a story not of love but of death, there is no difficulty in seeing its relation to the other stories about Miranda, for they are all about death. (p. 133)
[The] rejection theme simply excludes fulfillment through love. Here it must once again be recalled that this thematic pattern does not always coincide with the plot but in some stories underlies it, impressing itself more or less consciously and explicitly on the surface pattern. Consequently, where the plot parallels the rejection theme it is strong, but where it deviates it is lacking in fictional reality and emotional force. Wherever love, which is not an element of the pattern, seems to appear, it is closely related to that sense of disillusion and loss which is an element of the pattern; and upon examination the emotional force will be found to result from the latter element, not the former. (p. 134)
Ship of Fools is a novel only in one of the broader senses of that protean term…. Its magnitude lies not in the long, intricate plot of the classic novel but in the fact that it portrays over forty characters, many of them at considerable length, through a loose and leisurely accumulation of data provided by dramatization of their actions, penetration of their thoughts, and commentary on their backgrounds. Miss Porter has spoken of the book in terms of scenes written when she could "see" them and then arranged in order with connecting bridges…. What the story contains of plot consists of gradual developments in the relations, mostly casual, between passengers. (pp. 160-61)
The large structural framework and plain, functional style of Ship of Fools would have lent themselves well to the depiction in depth of a wide variety of characters, on the order of Dickens or Tolstoy, or to the accumulation of a rich complexity of people and things in the style of Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March. The talent of Katherine Anne Porter, however, is not of this comprehensive kind. Like these other novelists, Miss Porter deals with human life and human relations—but the scale on which she comprehends them is severely limited. Ship of Fools represents an effort to force a large structure into a small thematic frame. The resulting distortion is centered, as one would expect, in the portrayal of character. Miss Porter's characters are not free even to be fully human. That is to say, the limitations imposed on them are not the deep and mysterious limitations characteristic of real life, limitations partly external and partly springing in an obscure manner from the depths of the individual nature. The bounds imposed upon her characters are narrow, and to the reader of Miss Porter's earlier work, not particularly mysterious. Comparison of Ship of Fools with the earlier work is valid, for Miss Porter's outlook has not changed. There is, in fact, an introspective quality in it which prevents change. Extended over the broad expanse of the novel, the narrowness of Miss Porter's human spectrum results in a monotonous repetition of a few themes and leads to the complaint of numerous readers that little remains to be learned about the characters after the first hundred pages. In the light of these facts it is not surprising to hear Miss Porter say in a recent interview, of the voyage which inspired Ship of Fools, "I don't think I spoke a half-dozen words to anybody." (pp. 163-64)
Miss Porter's ironic intelligence is … constantly present, either in direct comment on the more despicable characters or in indirect comment on them and on life in general through the minds of the few characters with whom she is truly sympathetic. It is as if there were in her some strong compulsion to be constantly proving a point, to be explaining and re-explaining herself through every character, every scene, every sentence. She is not capable of leaving her characters free to act and to change. Her scorn for the majority of them, usually tiresome, occasionally takes the form of skillful parody…. [The] humor is never pure comedy, always satire…. [There] is little in the book that is not harsh; its title is quite appropriate. (pp. 164-66)
To get to the root cause of the novels narrowed vision, we must return to the rejection theme. One characteristic of the rejection pattern which was sometimes partially concealed in the short fiction but appears with painful clarity in Ship of Fools is its utter lovelessness. If not one character of all the forty or more portrayed is capable, in spite of the selfishness and self-delusion in human nature, of mature, reasonably generous and stable love—or even of friendship—then the novel's world is, to say the least, incomplete. (pp. 166-67)
Miss Porter's understanding of evil is extremely personal. Traditional moral standards are to some extent taken for granted, but where the factor of violation of the individual's rights is not present, standards seem to shade off into unreality. This places Ship of Fools directly in the tradition of the rejection theme, in which all evil takes the form of oppression. (p. 167)
The standards by which Katherine Anne Porter's characters are judged are not those of good and evil, but those of truthfulness and self-delusion. To Miss Porter, truth is not a philosophical concept but an index of the individual's awareness of his immediate circumstances, including memory and sense of the future. It is a lack of this awareness, she seems to say, which leads one to "evil"—that is, oppression of others. Miranda, and other characters in proportion as they resemble her, are pre-eminent in truth-fullness and hence "good" to others. Viewed in this way, such goodness as there is in Miss Porter's fiction is seen to be purely negative, for it results from the heroine's tendency to move away from others rather than toward them.
While Miranda does not appear in Ship of Fools, there are several characters in the novel who share her characteristics in varying degrees. (p. 169)
Ship of Fools is a climax in the work of Katherine Anne Porter in its physical magnitude and in its partial advance toward a genuine portrayal of human relations. Yet its reach has, in a sense, exceeded its grasp; for its large cast of characters, together with its stylistic clarity, serves primarily to reveal the limitations of its author's artistic comprehension of human nature. Miss Porter works with great power in certain limited veins, and within the broad field of Ship of Fools her consistent thematic lines have been free to extend themselves to new fundamental narrowness; and the forced extension of this power over a framework of such ambitious dimensions sharply illuminates its oppressive poverty. This poverty is graphically illustrated by the fact that the person in the novel who possesses the greatest self-awareness and underlying forcefulness—because she is pre-eminent in that essentially negative openness to truth which is the supreme desideratum of the rejection theme—is the corrupt, dope-addicted, amoral Condesa. The bizarre consequences of extending this observation to a generalization about life are obvious; but it is just as obvious that this novel does not really generalize about life. Miss Porter's artistic vision, both for better and for worse, is strictly personal. It is, in the last analysis, this extreme subjectivity, combined with the author's peculiar thematic limitations as illustrated by the rejection theme, which renders Ship of Fools basically unsatisfactory as a commentary on human existence…. It is a deficiency in the primary vision of reality that vitiates much of Miss Porter's art; the very existence of that art is proof that her deficiency is not one of honesty or of courage. (p. 207)
The tendency in modern American writing toward simplicity and compression, referred most frequently to Hemingway, obscures somewhat the fact that Katherine Anne Porter developed her oft-praised concise, transparent style largely on her own…. The key to her stylistic power would seem to have been, once again, her instinct of rejection; for it happens that this instinct tends to produce many of the qualities which characterize clear, powerful prose. In the creation of Miss Porter's style, the instinct of rejection has been delicately regulated by her fine sensitiveness to the nature and resources of her language. Her verbal fastidiousness, while it led at times to a bareness which some have criticized, never led her to the eccentricity which trapped Gertrude Stein or even to the stylized understatement of Hemingway, to whose work hers bears some close resemblances. (p. 213)
The dominance of the principle of rejection in the art of Katherine Anne Porter has resulted in a unique body of work. Operating upon her generous literary talent, it helped, first of all, to form a prose style of strength, clarity, and a range which extends from primitive simplicity to poetic beauty. It led to the creation of a small but relatively perfect body of short stories and novelettes characterized by concentration, intensity, suggestiveness, and extreme power. At the same time, however, it restricted severely the area within which this power was able to flow. It led on the one hand to the creation of several stories of stylistic and structural perfection but narrow and degraded humanity, and on the other to a body of interrelated work, centered around a heroine of undeniable dignity, which presents with great power certain limited and painful insights into life—but a body of work formally distorted and warped toward sentimentality by excessive subjectivity. Finally, Miss Porter's artistic principle of rejection seems to have imposed crippling and almost totally destructive difficulties on a work which went counter to so many of its tendencies—the writing of a long novel, Ship of Fools. Only in a few brilliant instances, particularly "The Grave" and "Noon Wine," did the author's devotion to truth triumph over her inner limitations to produce masterpieces of that combined beauty and truth which constitutes great art. (p. 249)
William L. Nance, S.M., in his Katherine Anne Porter & the Art of Rejection (copyright © 1963, 1964 by The University of North Carolina Press), University of North Carolina Press, 1964.
Katherine Anne Porter has been identified with the South and with Mexico; one has even seen her labeled as a "regional writer"; but since "The Leaning Tower" and Ship of Fools it should be clear to all that she belongs to the world, or perhaps the world to her. As a novelist, she can no longer be identified with any one state or even with any one country, nor has she any obvious literary ancestor. In another author such lacks might be regarded as limitations; in a great talent they are indicia of what has been transcended.
"I spend my life thinking about technique, method, style," she once told Glenway Wescott. "The only time I do not think about them at all is when I am writing." She is not concerned with the surface aspects of technique that have absorbed so many writers since Henry James. She does not hesitate to be the omniscient author in Ship of Fools and to jump in and out of her characters at will. When she is concerned with "technique, method, style," it is with the very guts of fiction: the re-creation of the world and the removal of the author. At least to some of us Ship of Fools is a perfect novel, and Miss Porter is the American Flaubert. (p. 136)
Four decades before the publication of Robert Ardrey's African Genesis, Miss Porter understood that, at least on the primitive level, it is the female who must fight to obtain her male.
She had grasped the unself-consciousness of the Latin American, and she was later to make great use of it in Ship of Fools. Her Mexicans, Cubans, and Spaniards behave with the ease and natural grace of cats. They are just as contented, just as beautiful, just as horrible as their feline counterparts. (pp. 137-38)
Miss Porter was from the beginning so totally an artist that she escaped the social fetishes of the 1930's. None of her stories of that period seem in the least dated today. (p. 138)
She was born at a good time for a writer, for she was old enough, during World War I, to have comprehended the society to which it put an end, and she had achieved her maturity as a writer and thinker before the violence of the depression years which unsettled so many younger authors. She was able in Europe to study the origin and birth of the second war, the analysis of which, in terms of individuals of different nationalities, has occupied much of her thinking ever since. She has lived in so many places and done so many things that it is not surprising that at times in her life legends have grown up about her. (p. 139)
[The] three long stories, or short novels, that were later compiled in Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939) … deal with the three themes with which Miss Porter has been most preoccupied: the question of whether the American past (the southern past) had as much of the dignity and romance as it appears to have had ("Old Mortality"); the feeling of nightmare in a senseless present ("Pale Horse, Pale Rider"); and the existence, in past and present, of an evil, of an almost ungraspable human malignity that may well be fated to triumph over life itself ("Noon Wine"). We shall see this third theme grow to occupy her fiction to the exclusion of the first and to the curtailment of the second. (p. 140)
"Noon Wine," the masterpiece of the trio, is the story of three men, one an exploiter, one the exploited, and the last a kind of nemesis or devil…. In the perfection of its sinister mood and in its economy of detail, in its unrelieved grimness, this story is the equal of Ethan Frome. But the vision of evil suggested by Homer T. Hatch was to be pursued by Miss Porter far beyond the southern dairy farm where he meets his just deserts. To her, as the years went by, national boundaries lost their significance. She found that she did not need, in James's famous phrase, "to be tethered in native pastures." She could embrace the world and use the world. She was to become that rarest of things, a true international novelist. And she was to find Homer T. Hatch in Berlin.
She published "The Leaning Tower" first in the Southern Review in 1941, after the war which is fomenting in the story had begun. Miss Porter became increasingly specific about her times and places as her work progressed. The action of Ship of Fools occurs on a transatlantic crossing from Veracruz to Bremerhaven, August 22-September 17, 1931, and that of "The Leaning Tower" takes place in Berlin, between Christmas and the end of December in the same year. Hitler is mentioned only once in "The Leaning Tower," and then only indirectly. A barber wants to cut Charles's hair in the long-on-top, clipped-to-the-skin manner of "a little shouting politician" whose photograph is stuck in a corner of the mirror. But the spirit of Hitler is everywhere in the story, which is a sort of advance exercise for Ship of Fools. The evil of the voices shrieking at the stumbling clown that haunted Miranda in "The Circus," the wickedness of the parents who try to kill their idiot child in "He," and the deviltry of Homer T. Hatch closing in on the unoffending harmonica player in "Noon Wine," are all to be found in the streets of a depressed Berlin: "There were the faces. Faces with no eyes. And these no-eyes, pale, lightless, were set in faces shriveled as if they were gnawed hollow; or worse, faces sodden in fat with swollen eyelids in which the little no-eyes peered blindly as if all the food, the plates of boiled potatoes and pig's knuckles and cabbage fed to the wallowing body, had weighed it down and had done it no good. The no-eyes in the faces of the women were too ready to shed tears." (pp. 141-43)
[The] gigantic task that she was setting for herself [was the translation] into fiction [of] the origins of a world war. (p. 145)
For all its popular success one heard constantly … that [Ship of Fools] was too gloomy, too saturnine, that there were no "nice" people in it, and that bad as things were, they were not that bad. It was sometimes hard to believe that the people making these remarks had lived through an era of human atrocities unparalleled in the recorded history of mankind. It is perfectly true, of course, that war, when it came, produced examples of courage and fortitude as inspiring as the bestiality in Nazi Germany had been depressing, but that was not the subject of Miss Porter's inquiry. She was not tracing what had occurred after Hitler challenged the world, but what had produced the challenge.
She had no need to go into the economics of prewar Germany. She knew that the terrible thing that had happened in the 1930's had happened in the hearts of men. (pp. 145-46)
Her characters cannot communicate because they reject communication. They have decided in advance what is due them in the way of honors, friendship, and love, and they have predefined their friends and lovers as persons who must supply their needs. They are not looking for human beings but for fantasies. Consequently they must reject, even hate, the persons who seem to offer friendship or love. But their plight is not really pitiable. Selfishness and egotism are not pitiable. They are funny, and parts of this book are uproariously funny. Miss Porter is never guilty of the sentimentality that masquerades as compassion. (pp. 146-47)
Does Katherine Anne Porter … not believe in love? Far from it. She has even written that there are more Robert Brownings and Elizabeth Barretts than this world dreams of. It may be precisely to demonstrate that requited and happy love does exist, even on the Vera, that she introduces the blissful but nameless Mexican honeymooners who never speak or have any contact with the other passengers, but are seen occasionally on deck, hand in hand, with eyes only for each other. Having paid this tribute to Venus, Miss Porter can get on with the real job of the novel, which is to explore the horror that springs from the desperate efforts of human beings to escape the loneliness in which they feel themselves entrapped. (p. 147)
Katherine Anne Porter in Ship of Fools has used no tricks that were not contained in the workbag of George Eliot. Her innovations, however, are still fundamental. Her book not only contains no hero or heroine; it contains no character who is either the reader or the author, no character with whom the reader can "identify." Nor is there anywhere in the book any affirmation of the basic striving upwards or even courage of mankind, always considered essential to a "great" novel. To have put it in would have begged the very question the novel asks. (p. 151)
Louis Auchincloss, "Katherine Anne Porter," in his Pioneers & Caretakers: A Study of 9 American Women Novelists (© 1961, 1964, 1965, the University of Minnesota), University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1965, pp. 136-51.
To me Ship of Fools lacks the flawlessly finished surface of [the] three short novels which preceded it. The richness, the decorative beauty of those books is gone. So is the mournfully elegant symbolism; it is replaced by a compound of images either too obvious or too vague. So is the sureness of tone of the prior books. Now the tone is usually hard but sometimes cloying. (p. 220)
We all know that there is such a thing as too much revision; here apparently is such a case. And yet the book as a whole is powerful despite the fact that some of the life has been written out of it. The subject itself is strong. Evil makes more impressive reading than good; folly is more entertaining than wisdom; and Miss Porter's vessel is as much a ship of knaves as of fools. There is a wickedness in most passengers in addition to some foolishness, and a sickness in every passenger…. Beyond all this there is constant ugliness. Miss Porter sets down detail after detail that is simply unpleasant. (p. 221)
During a Washington interview given a reporter after Ship of Fools was published, Miss Porter leafed through a number of reviews and remarked that none of them quite saw the point of the book. The point was, she said, "that evil is always done with the collusion of good." She explained that she considered the theme of the book to be "the budding of an evil. All the wrong that is being done is done through the moral inertia, carelessness, and indifference of what are usually thought to be upright citizens." Dr. Schumann believes both in Original Sin and the Real Presence. In the most important philosophic passage in the book he observes dryly, "It takes a strong character to be really evil. Most of us are too slack, halfhearted, or cowardly—luckily, I suppose. Our collusion with evil is only negative, consent by default, you might say. I suppose in our hearts our sympathies are with the criminal because he really commits the deeds we only dream of doing!" (pp. 221-22)
As the ship sails along Miss Porter weaves her characters into elaborate and suggestive patterns. From character and action two generalizations about evil can gradually be deduced, generalizations which cut through national lines and have nothing to do with being German or Spanish or American. These are, first, that the young are more wicked than the old…. The second generalization is more tentative and never openly announced. It is that men are more evil than women. (p. 223)
Here in Ship of Fools is the world as Miss Porter has come to see it. When the voyage nears its end Dr. Schumann says defensively to the Vera's captain, "There are still some very decent persons on board." The captain promptly challenges him to name one—and he has no answer. Sordid as this world seems, however, Miss Porter thinks it her duty to report it faithfully, to write "straight."… Hers is the classical artist's urge for clarity; and unswerving honesty is her aim. (p. 224)
Carl Bode, "1962: Miss Porter's 'Ship of Fools'," in his The Half-World of American Culture: A Miscellany (copyright © 1965 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Southern Illinois University Press, 1965, pp. 220-25.
The exceptionally high quality of the fiction of Katherine Anne Porter is not to be accounted for entirely by historical-biographical means, by an exclusive attention to her serious and universal themes, or by an analysis of her striking use of mythic material alone. It is to be accounted for also, and in great measure, by its formal properties, verbal and rhetorical. Those make clear an impressive talent for showing forth a first-rate and peculiarly feminine intelligence in a compositional mode precisely appropriate to its singular feeling.
Miss Porter's fictional means are traditional and conventional in the best sense of those terms, as befits a classical modern artist….
Classic I employ in Arnold's judicial sense to mean "the class of the very best," to a lesser degree in the historical sense of deriving by tradition from the monumental models, and to a considerable degree in the formal sense, in contrast to romantic, to mean an elevation, as principles of composition, of reason and control over emotionality and spontaneity. (p. 7)
The first brief wave of reviews was almost unanimous in its praise of Ship of Fools and then very shortly the many dissenting opinions began to appear, usually in the most respectable intellectual journals where reviewers claim to be, and often are, critics. These reviews were characterized by one of two dominant feelings: bitter resentment or acute disappointment. A remarkable instance of the former appeared in the prestigious journal Commentary [Theodore Solotaroff's "Ship of Fools: Anatomy of a Best Seller," later collected in his The Red Hot Vacuum and Other Pieces on the Writing of the Sixties, excerpts from which appear in CLC-1]…. (p. 10)
Commentary's view of Ship of Fools as depicting mankind in a hatefully distorted, therefore untruthful, therefore immoral way, is in fact the view of the book commonly held by the normally intelligent and reasonably well-educated reader of fiction, if my impressions are accurate…. (p. 12)
Neither especially visionary nor especially doctrinaire, such a publication [as Commentary] has, typically, a low tolerance for anything that smacks of the concept of original sin, having, as this concept does, a way of discouraging speculation about decisively improving the human lot. Miss Porter's book appeared to take a dim view of the behavior of the race and that is enough for the intellectual journal, despite its implied claim to having broad views and cultivated interests, including an interest in fiction…. Had the critic given Miss Porter her due as an artist, he might have seen that Ship of Fools condemns human folly, but it never once confuses good and evil. It is one thing to be a writer who smirks at human decency and argues for human destruction (de Sade, say), it is another to be a writer who winces at human limitations and pleads by her tone, by her attitude toward her readers, for a pained nod of agreement. Said Dr. Johnson to the Honorable Thomas Erskine some two hundred years ago: "Why sir, if you were to read Richardson for the story, your impatience would be so much fretted that you would hang yourself. But you must read him for the sentiment." In the case of Ship of Fools, this sentiment is so consistent and so pervasive as to make us wonder how anyone could have scanted or mistaken it. It is the very opposite of misanthropy in that far from taking delight in exposing human foibles, in "getting" her characters' "number," Miss Porter's narrative voice has the quality of personal suffering even as it gives testimony. It seems to say: "This is the way with the human soul, as I knew it, at its worst, in the years just prior to the Second World War. And alas for all of us that it should have been so." (pp. 16-17)
When Miss Porter, who could have put her cast of characters anywhere she wanted, elected to put them aboard ship, she made as if to free them, in the manner of a romance, for a moral quest; that is, they are ostensibly liberated, as if by magic, precisely because they are aboard ship—liberated from the conventions of family background, domestic responsibility, national custom, and race consciousness. Theoretically, they can emerge triumphant over duplicity, cruelty, selfishness, and bigotry at the end of the journey. But they do not.
Freedom they are incapable of utilizing for humane ends. Freedom Miss Porter can grant them, but since they are men of our time, they cannot, in her view, accept it responsibly. That is, they cannot make good use of their lucky accident because their freedom is only nominal. On the one hand, history has caught up with them; on the other hand, psychology has stripped their spiritual and emotional lives of all mystery. In Miss Porter's world the past is merely the genesis of neurosis (there is no point in pretending we have never heard of Freud) and the future, quite simply, is the destruction of Isabel Archer's Europe of infinite possibilities (there is no point in pretending we have never heard of Neville Chamberlain). Ship of Fools argues that romantic literary conventions do not work in the modern world, and emerges as even more remote from the idea of the novel than a study of its formal properties alone would suggest. One can see it finally as anti-novel. (pp. 22-3)
The failure of love, that is, the incapacity to imagine fully another's humanity, to act upon such imagination with a degree of generosity, and to abjure that vicious counterfeit of love, sentimentality, is by now so pervasive a theme in modern writing as to be something like a common topic. As treated in Ship of Fools, it surprised friends and repelled strangers, but it need not have, since it had its logical antecedent in Miss Porter's earlier work. In "Old Mortality," a bit less satiric in mode than the longer work, somewhat less allegorical in genre but no less ironic in its own way, Miranda, for the moment at least, rejects love outright. (p. 47)
Miss Porter's avowed affinity with Henry James is decisively formal. In "the master" she saw the triumph of "making," the effective ordering of experience by the means of style. For James, ordering meant a strict limiting (and it is in this sense as well that he earns the designation classical). In his introduction to Roderick Hudson he had declared, "Really, universally, relations stop nowhere, and the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally but to draw, by a geometry of his own, the circle within which they shall happily appear to do so."… Because Henry James often wisely drew his circle small. Daisy Miller was not to be The Portrait of a Lady; "The Beast in the Jungle" was not to be a novel. Nor, for the same reason, was Miss Porter's "Noon Wine." The metaphor of the circle tells. The romantic writer might fancy himself seeing or singing, but the classical James, and Miss Porter after him, circumscribes.
It was a little disconcerting then to learn of Miss Porter's irritated insistence, soon after the proliferation of bad reviews, that Ship of Fools was, indeed, a novel. Her unfriendly critics had called it, among other things, a long tedious short story. I have asked if Ship of Fools might not be neither a badly attenuated short story nor a novel. It is a work large in all important ways, and if it is a bad novel, its magnitude must be accounted for by the efficacy of another classification, because, whatever it is, it is a fine and moving fiction. (pp. 52-3)
In order to do justice to Miss Porter in her own Jamesian terms, one must arrogate to himself the right to propose that she sells her own work short at times when she elects to function as formal critic, since only in her terms (e.g., designating Ship of Fools a novel) can her work be faulted. Similarly "Noon Wine," in my view one of the three or four finest novellas by an American author, would be, by any useful formal definition of a novel, a fatally underfed piece of work. (p. 54)
M. M. Liberman, in his Katherine Anne Porter's Fiction (reprinted by permission of the Wayne State University Press; copyright © 1971 by Wayne State University Press), Wayne State University Press, 1971.
Katherine Anne Porter's Theft epitomizes a moral preoccupation which runs through all her fiction, and her story is a most concise and clear statement of her chief theme. Frequently her own phrase "the negative collusion of evil" is used to describe the theme, but the phrase out of its proper context in Ship of Fools is somewhat inaccurate since it suggests and is usually taken to mean merely passive indifference to evil-doers. If Dr. Schumann's statement is reproduced in its entirety, its meaning is seen to be something stronger than passivity: "I agree with the Captain it takes a strong character to be really evil. Most of us are too slack, half-hearted, or cowardly—luckily, I suppose. Our collusion with evil is only negative, consent by default, you might say. I suppose in our hearts our sympathies are with the criminal because he really commits the deeds we only dream of doing!"
What Katherine Anne Porter condemns in all her work is a course of action by which a person, remaining blameless himself, encourages someone else vicariously to perform the evil he wills and dares not do. She returns tirelessly to this vice because it seems to her to be so common, so underestimated and so morally devastating. The women in Magic, the girl in Theft, Laura in Flowering Judas and countless others are guilty of vicarious sinning. (p. 32)
Katherine Anne Porter follows Hawthorne in emphasizing the inhuman nature of her protagonist by comparing her with three other sinners, who, while they are despicable wretches, still retain some connections, no matter how tenuous, with the rest of humanity. Camilo, Bill and the janitress of Theft, exactly like the three worthies (rascals) of Ethan Brand, are distinguished by cheating, swearing and drunkenness. From the comparison with these other characters the point clearly emerges that while Ethan Brand and the girl of Theft are marked by none of the obvious signs of degeneracy they are, in fact, more destructive and more dangerous…. Both stories make clear that the sensitive, intelligent person has an equal capacity both for good and for evil. Both Ethan Brand and the girl gravitate, he consciously and she unconsciously, towards evil. They become fiends and their devilishness is indicated in crudely medieval terms—by fiery furnaces and flashing, Satanic eyes. This method is not surprising in Ethan Brand since Hawthorne's story is consistently close to moral allegory. In Katherine Anne Porter's subdued narrative the sudden apparition of the demonic janitress stoking up her furnace is somewhat more startling. No doubt it is intentionally so, both as a dramatic ploy and as an indication of the author's unequivocal moral censure. She has little patience with euphemism and no time for moral prevarication. (p. 33)
[Unlike] Hawthorne's story, hers is not remarkable for richness of detail nor does it indeed make much of a visual impact at all. Rather its qualities are auditory and the poetic language can stand by itself as a rare and astonishing example of stylistic mastery. Within the story the effect of the language is not separable from the theme, but style and theme merge to form a richly orchestrated account of a journey of self-awareness which occurs at the level of consciousness described by the author (… in her self-revealing introductory essay to Eudora Welty) as the place, "where external act and the internal voiceless life of the human imagination almost meet and mingle on the mysterious threshold between dream and waking, one reality refusing to admit or confirm the existence of the other, yet both conspiring toward the same end."
Katherine Anne Porter's … concern is chiefly with the definition of the girl's wrongdoing and the part played in it by self-delusion. To this end she has used considerable ingenuity in delaying the revelation of the girl's destructiveness to the final lines of the story where it has the effect of startling equally the protagonist and the reader. Only at this moment does it become apparent that the girl is responsible for the increasing boldness of those who abuse her. Her moral position, therefore, is weaker than that of the Satanic janitress since she bears the guilt both for the thefts and for the moral deterioration of the thieves. Katherine Anne Porter excels in the dramatization of such moments of sudden insight and many comparable conclusions to her other stories come to mind, such as Miranda's in The Grave, Frau Rittersdorf's in Ship of Fools and Laura's in Flowering Judas (this last, however, takes place in a dream for Laura's conscious mind is unable to acknowledge her guilt).
The fact that the girl of Theft has been unconscious of the harmful implications of her behaviour in no way lessens her guilt. On the subject of unconscious evil-doing Katherine Anne Porter has said elsewhere:… "The most dangerous people in the world are the illuminated ones through whom forces act when they themselves are unconscious of their motives. And yet, no force has ever acted through either a saint or an evil person that wasn't somehow directed to further the ends and the ambitions and hopes of that person, which makes me feel that the instrument is not altogether so innocent and so helpless as we have been saying." (pp. 34-5)
Joan Givner, in The International Fiction Review, January, 1974.
Katherine Anne Porter's Ship of Fools has been the subject of an adverse body of criticism which finds the author's philosophic view of man pessimistic and misanthropic. By reading the novel as a satire, however, one perceives that Miss Porter's philosophic and artistic purpose is neither misanthropic nor pessimistic. Ship of Fools is a criticism of mankind by a woman who cares deeply about humanity. She derides human folly that arises from man's delusions about the evil within himself and from his failure to love. She aims to induce man to admit his own failings and then to strive to overcome them. But Swift in his preface to The Battle of the Books points out one of the principal problems of such satire: "Satyr is a sort of Glass, wherein Beholders do generally discover everybody's Face except their Own." The adverse critics of Ship of Fools affirm the continued validity of Swift's perception of the nature of satire and its audience.
In the traditional satirical manner Katherine Anne Porter isolates her characters' most repugnant traits by identifying those traits with animals. She reflects through her use of animal imagery her almost medieval hierarchical view of world order, in which man's fall from grace manifests itself in his exhibiting qualities of lower forms of life. (p. 316)
[She] observes her characters from an ironic point of view and emphasizes through comedy and irony the grotesque and absurd aspects of their actions. Although one is supposed to laugh at the ridiculous characters and their situations, Miss Porter makes clear, by negative example, how one must laugh…. Miss Porter's satire does not end with deflation of character or with sheer amusement. She seeks to evoke laughter of recognition, laughter of compassionate understanding of the absurdities that man himself creates. (p. 317)
From the beginning of the novel Miss Porter sets the various nationalities one against the other in encounters which are thinly veiled expressions of hatred. Within the groups of each nationality there is conflict between people of different social and economic strata, different regions, different ethnic and religious backgrounds. The chaotic world in which they live exists because of their insistence on stressing differences in themselves and other people and in making those differences the basis for hatred. (p. 320)
[The] satirist's purpose is to save man, in spite of his spiritual defects, from spiritual death.
The characters in Ship of Fools are threatened with spiritual death not only from their inability to love on an impersonal level, but also from their human failure in personal relationships. (p. 326)
The failure of love, the only refuge in a world gone mad with hatred, Miss Porter shows, arises from a deadly selfishness which allows men to seek only the fulfillment of their own egotistical desires, be they the fanatical religiosity of Herr Graf, the sterile lust of Rieber and Denny, the romanticism of Mrs. Treadwell, or the superhuman moral perfection of Dr. Schumann. The characters rob themselves as well as others, creating a life which is at best a limbo, at worst a hell, from which there is no escape without love. The result is a spiritual suicide of which the characters themselves are never quite aware. Miss Porter satirizes the follies of man by describing the absurd and ironic aspects of human relationships. She holds up to the reader an image of the fool reflected in her mirror of satire. But Katherine Anne Porter's ultimate hope is that he will recognize his own face as well as those of other men and will strive to correct those failures which deprive him of his own humanity. (p. 330)
Jon Spence, "Looking-Glass Reflections: Satirical Elements In 'Ship of Fools'," in Sewanee Review (© 1974 by The University of the South), Spring, 1974, pp. 316-30.