Katherine Anne Porter's Ship of Fools: An Interrogation of Eugenics

By Roney, Lisa | Papers on Language & Literature, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Katherine Anne Porter's Ship of Fools: An Interrogation of Eugenics


Roney, Lisa, Papers on Language & Literature


Katherine Anne Porter (1890-1980) published numerous short stories, reviews, and other articles over the course of her long life, but she produced only one full-length novel, Ship of Fools, published in 1962 and adapted for a film released in 1965. Porter noted that it had taken her twenty years to complete the novel, but it had an even longer incubation, as part of "her external experiences and internal life over the course of sixty years" (Unrue, The Life 249, 257; see also Givner, A Life 206, 243-268, and 425-444, and Stout 199). (1) While many comparisons can be made between Porter's life and the novel, the anti-eugenics themes woven throughout Ship of Fools are linked not only to her steamship travel to Germany and experiences with proto-Nazism when she lived in Berlin in 1931, but also with her personal history of tuberculosis, from which she suffered for nearly three years starting in 1915 and which she feared through many episodes of other kinds of respiratory ailments. Because Porter herself sometimes made aristocracy-loving, even what now seem like racist statements, and perhaps because her work is often interpreted as "pessimistic," it can be a challenge to see the full extent of the humanitarianism of her vision. The otherwise baffling contradictions that she expressed about social issues, however, make more sense when seen through the lens of an experience of shameful chronic illness that resulted in a kind of "double consciousness" (Du Bois 3). Ship of Fools represents Porter's life-long attempt to sort out her--and her era's--beliefs about health, illness, ethnicity, genetics, and their relationships to morality. The novel demonstrates the ways in which common, seemingly banal assumptions and behaviors about health, not exclusive to the Nazis or even Nazi-era Germans, formed one of the underpinnings of the Holocaust.

* * *

It is common knowledge that Katherine Anne Porter spent some time in three different tuberculosis sanatoria in Texas from 1915 through 1917 and even that she went to Denver in 1918 in the company of another recovering tuberculosis patient so that both could live in the supposedly curative mountain air. Porter spent only a few days in a sanatorium in Denver, as tests showed that her tuberculosis was no longer active (Unrue, The Life 55-60), and it is uncertain whether she ever again suffered from active tuberculosis, (2) but until the advent of antibiotics in the 1940s, there was no definitive cure, and the active form of the illness could recur at any time. Tuberculosis in this period was ubiquitous and fearsome; it killed an estimated five million people in the U.S. alone between 1900 and 1950 (Dubos and Dubos 220). During the period of time when Porter immigrated to Western Europe and lived in Berlin, then Paris, Madrid, and Basel--August 1931 through January 1936-she suffered frequent bouts of bronchitis and other respiratory illnesses, which would continue throughout her life. In 1934, Porter spent time in a sanatorium in Davos, Switzerland, the town known as the "ultimate" place for tuberculosis treatment (Dubos and Dubos 176-177) and made famous as such in Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain. Although her wealthy friends brought her there to recover from a failing marriage and a general run-down state (Unrue, The Life 152), she nonetheless had a diagnostic X-ray performed, which is in the collection at the University of Maryland along with one from her time in Mexico in 1931. She frequently suspected that her ill health might signal a return of tuberculosis (Unrue, The Life 139, 144, 152; Stout 64, 79).

In spite of the duration of her active infection and the even longer period of worry that Porter had about tuberculosis, to a great extent she erased or downplayed it from later accounts of her life, as she did a number of unpleasant aspects of her childhood and young adulthood. Biographers and critics over the years have struggled to unravel and explain numerous inconsistencies in Porter's self-descriptions, between her accounts of her life and documented facts, and between her life and her autobiographical fiction. …

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