Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

The Genesis of Ship of Fools

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

The Genesis of Ship of Fools

Article excerpt

Katherine Anne Porter's novel has been something of a fool's paradise for symbol-hunters and analogy-seekers. Some critics have taken the cue of the title and, linking it with Brandt's Dos Narrenschiff and with an earlier title, Promised Land, have read the novel as an inverted version of the Exodus from Egypt. (The division of the passenger list into seven nationalities, the theme of anti-Semitism and the unheroic stature of the captain have lent themselves well to such a scheme.) Others have noted that the Vera is similar to the Fidele in Melville's The Confidence Man with its "flock of fools, under this captain of fools, in this ship of fools." (1) (The publication date of that novel, like Porter's, coincided with All Fool's Day.) The possibilities for speculation are endless.

No doubt Porter would react to such activity as she did to the English reviews of the book (she wrote Glenway Wescott that she would have liked to usher the reviewers up the gangplank along with the other fools), since she has always denied conscious literary intention in her choice of symbols. She has said that she never' consciously took or adopted a symbol in her life. (2)

She explained this statement in particular and her fictional method in general in an informal talk which she gave in 1972 to a group of students at the University of Maryland's Katherine Anne Porter Room. There she said that she "makes up" very little: "You see, my fiction is reportage, only I do something to it; I arrange it and it is fiction but it happened." She illustrated her remark on that occasion by describing the events which formed the basis of "Flowering Judas." An equally useful illustration of her statement is contained in the letter to Caroline Gordon which she wrote during her first voyage to Europe in 1931. (3) She took notes during the journey and used them in compiling a long (twenty-page, single-spaced typescript) letter, which she wrote day by day and described as a "kind of log." This letter was the genesis of Ship of Fools and more than any other document provides information about Porter's fictional method. It supports her statement that few of the names, characters and events in the novel were invented.

When Katherine Anne Porter and Eugene Pressley sailed from Vera Cruz to Bremerhaven on the Vera, there were people from seven different nations on board. Exactly 876 passengers were in steerage; among the other passengers were a zarzuela company, a hunchback, a Spanish countess attended by a mocking group of students, and a ship's doctor with a weak heart. Aware of the microcosmic possibilities, she told Caroline Gordon that they had everything on board--a woman who was likely to have a baby before reaching Bremen, a newborn baby who came aboard when he was just two weeks old, a little dying man who sat curled on his cushions and coughed all day, a woman who weighed nearly four hundred pounds, and a beautiful Spanish bride and bridegroom who were married the day they sailed from Vera Cruz. The bride was a lovely creature, as romantic looking as the princess in a fairy tale, with the grace and silence of a fine wild animal. She sat or walked all day smiling and dazed, with her long hand lying loosely in her husband's. He was the most utterly happy-looking person Porter had ever seen. Neither of the couple danced, wore paper hats, drank, played cards or grinned; Porter said that if she ever saw two persons walking in Eden it was they.

While Porter's fidelity to fact does not, of course, discredit her powers of invention, it does indicate that her talent lies chiefly in her discerning eye for the pregnant situation and her ability to select its significant features and uncover their meaning. She expressed her particular skill well when, in a letter to another friend, she said she rejected the dull, automatic, endless reporting of a certain school of writers. She said that somehow "it must mean something--not an invented meaning, but the meaning implicit in it. …

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