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Katherine Anne Porter's Ship of Fools

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Containing pieces by distinguished scholars including Darlene Harbour Unrue and Robert Brinkmeyer, this book is the first full investigation of the links between Porter’s only novel and European intellectual history. Beginning with Sebastian Brant, author of the late medieval Narrenschiff, whom she acknowledges in her Preface to Ship of Fools, Porter's image of Europe emerges as more complex, more knowledgeable, and more politically nuanced than previous critics have acknowledged. Ship of Fools is in conversation with Europe's humanistic tradition as well as with the political moments of 1931 and 1962, the years that elapsed from the novel's conception to its completion.

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Fools and Folly in Erasmus and Porter

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Fools and Folly in Erasmus and Porter

Jewel Spears Brooker

In the articulation of her literary ancestry, Katherine Anne Porter created a place of honor for Erasmus, and in her personal canon, she made room at the top for The Praise of Folly. She told her nephew that she had been formed by Erasmus "from her tenth year" (Letters 415). In 1932, she was reading him in Basel, and on June 19, 1941, she signed a contract with Doubleday to write his biography. After the publication of Ship of Fools, she reiterated her admiration, hinting that her representation of folly was inspired by his. Porter was drawn to Erasmus in large part because of his moral imagination. Both were keen observers of human nature and both considered folly to be endemic in the human condition. But they present strikingly different concepts of folly. For Erasmus, folly is foolishness, and although it is the butt of his satire, he generally finds it amusing. For Porter, on the other hand, folly is innate wickedness. When writing of ordinary human life in The Praise of Folly, he is tolerant and urbane; in contrast, in Ship of Fools, she is harsh and scornful. Unlike Porter, Erasmus actually likes his fools, and far more than she, he identifies with them in their folly.

 

"After All, What Is This Life Itself?"

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"After All, What Is This Life Itself?"

Dimiter Daphinoff

There is a painting in the Yale University Art Gallery that gives visual expression to some of the central concerns of early modern culture which the twentieth-century American writer, Katherine Anne Porter, takes up in her novel Ship of Fools. As with so many of Hieronymus Bosch’s works, the dating of The Allegory of Intemperance is uncertain, but it is generally assumed that it must have been completed some time between 1495 and 1500 as part of a triptych illustrating the Seven Deadly Sins.1 The famous companion panel, the Ship of Fools, is now in the Louvre in Paris. Given the immediate European popularity of Sebastian Brant’s Narrenschiff, published in 1494, Bosch is likely to have designed his triptych as a visual interpretation of Brant’s poem.

This essay, whose starting point is a striking verbal echo of Erasmus’ Praise of Folly in Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools, proposes to investigate the interrelated themes of death, immortality, and folly in Porter’s novel in the context of their treatment by Porter’s great predecessors Brant, Erasmus, and More. It aims to show that the uncompromising indictment of the fools on board Porter’s ship lacks the moral certainties that render the satires of Brant and Erasmus, in particular, effective through the alternatives they imply.

 

Paratexts and the Rhetorical Factor in Literature

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Paratexts and the Rhetorical Factor in Literature

Joachim Knape

As a rhetorician, I did not take Thomas Austenfeld’s invitation to compare Sebastian Brant's Narrenschiff (1494) and Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools (1962) for granted. When working within a strictly defined theoretical framework of rhetoric, it is not obvious that rhetorical analysis is appropriate for the fields of art and literature. If it is, then such an analysis must deal with a series of specific theoretical problems and challenges. In what follows, I will raise a few fundamental questions:

And finally, a methodological problem:

My essay is an attempt to find initial answers to these questions. In this introduction I can only briefly touch on the problems listed above; I have written more extensively elsewhere.1 First, the general question about communication. Within the construct of modern aesthetics, it is not self-evident that literature is both an art and a communicative fact. Since the beginning of the so-called Art Period in the eighteenth century and the emergence of the l’art pour l’art ideology, an idea of the autonomy of artistic work has developed. This has culminated in the contemporary idea of performance: that the meaning and purpose of an artistic work only emerges in the moment of its performance. Artistic messages are thus a phenomenon of a situatively linked emergence.2 With reference to literature, this means that poets write only for themselves and then leave us their texts as mere stimuli for our own individual games. In this way, perhaps literature that has been fully detached from its author, like every other form of art, leads to an original experience of being.

 

"Before the Voyage Ended"

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"Before the Voyage Ended"

Beth Alvarez

Prior to its April 1962 publication, more than half of the text of Ship of Fools had previously appeared in a total of twelve installments in seven periodicals. This exploration of the relationship between the previously published portions of the novel and the 1962 work is informed by primary source materials at the University of Maryland Libraries. Surviving among Porter's papers are manuscript copies of six of the excerpts (Partisan Review, Fall 1945; Harper's, October, November, December 1950, November 1953; Mademoiselle, July 1958). Her papers also hold Porter's personal copies of eleven of the twelve serials in which the excerpts were originally published (Sewanee Review, October 1944; Accent, Summer 1946; Sewanee Review, January-March 1947; Harper's, October, November, December 1950, November 1953; Atlantic, March, April 1956; Mademoiselle, July 1958; Texas Quarterly, Autumn 1959). There is also correspondence with editorial staff of the seven periodicals in her papers and additional relevant correspondence in the papers of Seymour Lawrence and Cyrilly Abels. My research began with the manuscripts and correspondence, followed by reading the twelve excerpts in the order in which they were published. After reading the text of the entire novel, I compared it with the texts of the excerpts and noted differences between them. What follows are the results of these efforts and some preliminary conclusions. Appended to the paper are charts detailing the relationship between the excerpts and the novel.

 

"Mad with Virtue and Piety"

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"Mad with Virtue and Piety"

Robert H. Brinkmeyer, Jr.

In this paper I want to bring into dialogue William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses and Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools. At first glance the two novels appear to have nothing to do with each other: Go Down, Moses, which appeared in 1942, focuses on the lives of an extended family in rural Mississippi over the course of more than a hundred years; and Ship of Fools, which appeared in 1962, follows the complicated interactions of various shipmates on a 1930s voyage across the Atlantic. While I am not suggesting any specific matters of influence—Porter clearly knew the work of Faulkner, but I’ve yet to find any evidence that she had read Go Down, Moses—the two novels (both of which had their origins in the late 1930s, despite their vastly different publication dates) dovetail in terms of several key concerns and themes, particularly regarding issues of idealism, responsibility to history and one’s community, and what might be called the negative collusion with evil. Especially striking are the parallels between two principal characters, Faulkner’s Ike McCaslin and Porter’s Dr. Schumann. In my discussion here, I want to focus primarily on these two figures, and particularly on the way that the noble, but finally misguided, idealism of Ike McCaslin sheds light on Dr. Schumann’s similarly admirable but ultimately flawed commitment to a principled life. Typically understood as the moral center of Ship of Fools, Dr. Schumann emerges in this reading as more complicated and less trustworthy, not the moral compass of the novel but finally another of its foolish denizens.

 

Ship of Fools the Film

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Ship of Fools the Film

Christine Hait

The present volume celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools by bringing the novel into conversation with the various Ships of Fools that preceded it, including Sebastian Brant’s and Alexander Barclay’s. Another Ship of Fools merits inclusion in this fleet, the Ship of Fools that Porter’s novel inspired: director Stanley Kramer’s 1965 film version of the novel. Porter scholars typically put the novel and Kramer’s film in an exclusive relationship, focusing on the translation of the novel to film and asking questions about the film that lead back to the novel. Understandably, they probe the film for assistance in the ongoing effort to accurately evaluate the novel. Especially when understood in a variety of contexts, the film does help with the evaluation of the novel. The film can be placed in the context of films from 1965 that look back at the rise of Hitler and its aftermath.

 

Transnationalizing Porter’s Germans in Stanley Kramer’s Ship of Fools (1965)

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Transnationalizing Porter’s Germans in Stanley Kramer’s Ship of Fools (1965)

Anne-Marie Scholz

In the mid-twentieth century and just prior to the onset of mass commercial air travel, the transatlantic voyage provided novelists and filmmakers with a potent metaphor to gauge the relationship between tourism, travel, and the meaning and significance of "transnational" forms of interaction and transformation. An intriguing example of such an effort is the Jewish-American filmmaker Stanley Kramer’s 1965 adaptation of Katherine Anne Porter’s 1962 novel Ship of Fools. In her novel, Porter transformed the medieval German satire Das Narrenschiff into a modern narrative about transatlantic travel. Her version tells the story of a group of German, Spanish, and American as well as Swiss, Cuban, and Mexican passengers en route on the passenger ship Vera from Veracruz, Mexico, to Bremerhaven, Germany. It is set in the historically significant period of the early 1930s, when the Nazis were first coming into power. This essay will evaluate the ways that the metaphor of transnational travel was used to examine the meanings of "Germanness" in this period. It will also consider how these American depictions were received by German reviewers and critics in both West and East Germany.1

 

Ship of Fools

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Ship of Fools

Alexandra Subramanian

When Ship of Fools was published on April Fool’s Day, 1962, Porter knew that her honeymoon with the critics was over. "[L]et it [come]," she had told her publisher, Seymour Lawrence.1 Indeed, since its publication Ship of Fools has invited admiration but also biting criticism from friends, critics, and biographers alike. Some of the criticism, moreover, has been highly personal, highlighting Porter’s own faults, prejudices, and shortcomings, at times disregarding her complex humanity, which included a capacity for kindness that cannot be easily dismissed. Theodore Solotaroff, writing a review of Ship of Fools in Commentary in 1962, summed up the prevailing feeling against the novel. He virtually decimates it from almost every angle, claiming that the "soul of humanity is lacking."2

This paper argues against those who have judged Ship of Fools as marred by cynicism, prejudice, and the author’s darkened view of humanity. The novel will be analyzed, rather, in light of Porter’s debilitating sensitivity, deep understanding of human behavior and motives, and acute awareness of the consequences of casual or calculated cruelty, misogyny, and violence. Porter was attuned to the suffering of the vulnerable, whether afflicted by poverty, parental cruelty and neglect, or disability. To Porter’s mind, acts of unkindness, insensitivity, and a failure to take responsibility, especially regarding the weak and vulnerable, created a tragic and unnecessary cycle of violence, alienation, and despair.

 

The Weimar Moment in Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools

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The Weimar Moment in Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools

Joseph Kuhn

Katherine Anne Porter’s statement, made in a letter to her editor in 1956, that she planned to write "a parable of political action" in Ship of Fools (1962) has not received the attention it deserves (Porter, Letters 501). From the first, commentators have observed what is obvious, that the novel depicts the approach of the Third Reich, but they have perhaps not appreciated enough that this approach had to be through the political system of the Weimar republic and that Porter’s "parable" is set during this stage of transition. Porter intended that the German passengers on the Vera be seen as citizens of the Weimar state and, since she gives the voyage of the ship the time frame of August to September 1931, this makes them citizens during the unstable government of Chancellor Heinrich Brüning (1930-1932). Some interpreters treat the German passengers as though they are virtually National Socialists already, but the Captain, the ship’s doctor and middle-class passengers such as the Huttens have the monarchist allegiances appropriate to supporters of the traditionalist right (which was in power in Brüning’s government and that of his successor Franz von Papen). What Porter presents in parable-like form in Ship of Fools are the "political action[s]" whereby this nationalist right was outflanked by the radical right. The deliberateness of Porter’s setting her novel in Brüning’s Germany is also shown in a comment Porter made in a slightly later letter to her editor in which she said that her novel should try to bring out "the political and economic cross currents" of the crisis years of 1931-1932 (Porter, Letters 504).

 

Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools

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Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools

Darlene Harbour Unrue

In the summer of 1962, after Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools had been published the previous April to enthusiastic reviews and for many weeks had sat comfortably on the bestseller list of the New York Times Book Review, the influential American critic Wayne Booth posed the question others had indirectly raised: Is Ship of Fools really a novel? Investigating Booth’s question and some answers proffered by Booth and other critics—and even by Porter herself—helps us classify and sub-classify Ship of Fools and by extension reach a better understanding of it. In the process we discover that Porter’s only long novel encapsulates her artistic canon and much of her life, marked in the novel not only by obvious autobiographical elements but also by private reprisals and jokes.

By implicitly asking the question "How can we tell what a work means, let alone whether it’s good or bad, if we don’t know what it is to begin with?" Booth took for granted the formalist assumptions that all of literature can be first divided into kinds and then into sub-kinds and that every work can be evaluated according to the degree to which it incorporates genre requirements. Booth answered his own question of whether Ship of Fools is really a novel by invoking F. R. Leavis’s The Great Tradition and rather tepidly concluding that Ship of Fools is "not quite Leavis’s idea. . . of what the novel ought to be" (637). Because it also ran afoul of Booth’s own narrow definition of "novel" and his bias for a tightly woven plot, Ship of Fools was not quite Booth’s idea of a novel either.

 

Notes on Contributors

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Thomas Austenfeld is Professor of American Literature at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland.

Jewel Spears Brooker is Professor of English Literature emerita at Eckerd College, Florida.

Dimiter Daphinoff is Professor of English Literature at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland.

Joachim Knape is Professor of Rhetoric at the University of Tübingen, Germany.

Beth Alvarez is Curator of Literary Manuscripts emerita at the University of Maryland at College Park.

Robert H. Brinkmeyer, Jr. is Emily Brown Jefferies Professor of English and Director of the Institute for Southern Studies at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, S.C.

Christine Hait is Professor of English at Columbia College in Columbia, S.C.

Anne-Marie Scholz is Adjunct Professor of American Studies at the University of Konstanz, Germany.

Alexandra Subramanian is Adjunct Professor of English at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, California.

 

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