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Ship of Fools (Porter novel)

Ship of Fools (Porter novel)

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Ship of Fools is a 1962 novel by Katherine Anne Porter
Katherine Anne Porter
Katherine Anne Porter was a Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist, essayist, short story writer, novelist, and political activist. Her 1962 novel Ship of Fools was the best-selling novel in America that year, but her short stories received much more critical acclaim...

 which tells the tale of a group of disparate characters sailing from Mexico
The United Mexican States , commonly known as Mexico , is a federal constitutional republic in North America. It is bordered on the north by the United States; on the south and west by the Pacific Ocean; on the southeast by Guatemala, Belize, and the Caribbean Sea; and on the east by the Gulf of...

 to Europe aboard a German freighter and passenger ship. It is an allegory
Allegory is a demonstrative form of representation explaining meaning other than the words that are spoken. Allegory communicates its message by means of symbolic figures, actions or symbolic representation...

 that traces the rise of Nazism
Nazism, the common short form name of National Socialism was the ideology and practice of the Nazi Party and of Nazi Germany...

 and looks metaphorically at the progress of the world on its "voyage to eternity".


Porter had been widely praised for her short stories
Short story
A short story is a work of fiction that is usually written in prose, often in narrative format. This format tends to be more pointed than longer works of fiction, such as novellas and novels. Short story definitions based on length differ somewhat, even among professional writers, in part because...

, mostly written between 1922 and 1940. She began work on the novel in 1940, intending it initially to be a novella
A novella is a written, fictional, prose narrative usually longer than a novelette but shorter than a novel. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Nebula Awards for science fiction define the novella as having a word count between 17,500 and 40,000...

. It was based on a journal she kept in 1931 during a sea voyage from Veracruz
Veracruz, formally Veracruz de Ignacio de la Llave officially Estado Libre y Soberano de Veracruz de Ignacio de la Llave , is one of the 31 states that, along with the Federal District, comprise the 32 federative entities of Mexico. It is divided in 212 municipalities and its capital city is...

, Mexico, on her way to study in Bremerhaven
Bremerhaven is a city at the seaport of the free city-state of Bremen, a state of the Federal Republic of Germany. It forms an enclave in the state of Lower Saxony and is located at the mouth of the River Weser on its eastern bank, opposite the town of Nordenham...

, Germany, on a Guggenheim Fellowship
Guggenheim Fellowship
Guggenheim Fellowships are American grants that have been awarded annually since 1925 by the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation to those "who have demonstrated exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or exceptional creative ability in the arts." Each year, the foundation makes...

, and the characters in the novel were based on real people she met during the trip. The title was taken from "Das Narrenschiff" ("The Fool-Ship"), a 15th century German poem by Sebastian Brant
Sebastian Brant
Sebastian Brant was an Alsatian humanist and satirist. He is best known for his satire Das Narrenschiff .-Biography:...


Every publishing season, the initial publisher Harcourt Brace
Harcourt (publisher)
Harcourt was a United States publishing firm with a long history of publishing fiction and nonfiction for children and adults. The company was based in San Diego, California, with an Editorial / Sales / Marketing / Rights offices in New York City and Orlando, Florida.In 2007, the U.S...

 announced the forthcoming novel, but she never was able to complete it. As a result, it became eagerly expected by the literary world. In response to critics who complained about the long wait, Porter said, "Look here, this is my life and my work and you keep out of it. When I have a book I will be glad to have it published."


Ship of Fools outsold every other American novel published in 1962. It was a Book of the Month Club
Book of the Month Club
The Book of the Month Club is a United States mail-order book sales club that offers a new book each month to customers.The Book of the Month Club is part of a larger company that runs many book clubs in the United States and Canada. It was formerly the flagship club of Book-of-the-Month Club, Inc...

 selection and immediately, the film rights
Film rights
Film rights are the rights under copyright law to make a derivative work—in this case, a film—derived from an item of intellectual property. Under U.S...

 were sold for $500,000 ($ adjusted for inflation). In 2008 the book finally went out of print but a reprint of the novel in a new Library of America edition is expected in 2012.

Critical reception was mixed. While Mark Schorer
Mark Schorer
Mark Schorer was an American writer, critic, and scholar born in Sauk City, Wisconsin.-Biography:Schorer earned an MA at Harvard and his Ph.D. in English at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1936...

 of The New York Times
The New York Times
The New York Times is an American daily newspaper founded and continuously published in New York City since 1851. The New York Times has won 106 Pulitzer Prizes, the most of any news organization...

and Glenway Wescott
Glenway Wescott
Glenway Wescott was a major American novelist during the 1920-1940 period and a figure in the American expatriate literary community in Paris during the 1920s. Wescott was gay. His relationship with longtime companion Monroe Wheeler lasted from 1919 until Wescott's death.-Biography:Wescott was...

 in The Atlantic Monthly
The Atlantic Monthly
The Atlantic is an American magazine founded in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1857. It was created as a literary and cultural commentary magazine. It quickly achieved a national reputation, which it held for more than a century. It was important for recognizing and publishing new writers and poets,...

were effusive in their praise, Stanley Kauffmann
Stanley Kauffmann
Stanley Kauffmann is an American author, editor, and critic of film and theatre. He has written for The New Republic since 1958 and currently contributes film criticism to that magazine....

 of The New Republic
The New Republic
The magazine has also published two articles concerning income inequality, largely criticizing conservative economists for their attempts to deny the existence or negative effect increasing income inequality is having on the United States...

and Granville Hicks
Granville Hicks
Granville Hicks was an American Marxist as well as an anti-Marxist novelist, literary critic, educator, and editor.-Life:...

 in the Saturday Review were disappointed. Porter herself was never satisfied with the novel, calling it "unwieldy" and "enormous".

The critic Elizabeth Hardwick had this to say about Ship of Fools: "All is too static and the implied parable is never quite achieved. There is something a little musty, like old yellowing notes. The flawless execution of the single scenes impresses and yet the novel remains too snug and shipshape for the waters of history."

The 1965 film
Ship of Fools (film)
Ship of Fools is a 1965 film drama which tells the overlapping stories of several passengers aboard an ocean liner bound to Germany from Mexico in 1933...

 was adapted from the novel by Abby Mann
Abby Mann
Abby Mann was an American film writer and producer.-Life and career:Born as Abraham Goodman in Philadelphia, he grew up in East Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was best known for his work on controversial subjects and social drama...

 and directed by Stanley Kramer
Stanley Kramer
Stanley Earl Kramer was an American film director and producer. Kramer was responsible for some of Hollywood's most famous "message" movies...

. It won Academy Awards for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White (Robert Clatworthy, Joseph Kish) and Best Cinematography, Black-and-White. Porter's first reaction to the film adaptation was that Mann had omitted too much from the book, distorting its message. It was also noteworthy for being the last film to feature the actress Vivien Leigh.


The theme of the novel is the passengers' unavailing withdrawal from a life of disappointment, seeking a kind of utopia, and, "without knowing what to do next", setting out for a long voyage to pre-World-War-II Europe, a world of prejudice, racism and evil. Mrs. Treadwell, a nostalgic American divorcee, hopes to find happiness in Paris, where she once spent her youth. Elsa Lutz, the plain daughter of a Swiss hotelkeeper, thinks heaven might be in the Isle of Wight. Jenny, an artist, says the most dangerous and happiest moment in her life was when she was swimming alone in the Gulf of Mexico, confronted with a school of dolphins. And at the end of the novel, one of the ship's musicians, a gangly starving boy, feels overjoyed to finally be off the ship and back in his home country, as if Germany were a "human being, a good and dear trusted friend who had come a long way to welcome him". Thus Porter manages to convey that salvation is an illusion, and evil is inevitable.