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Ship of Fools  
First edition cover
Author Katherine Anne Porter
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Novel
Publisher Little, Brown
Publication date 1962
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)

Ship of Fools is a 1962 novel by Katherine Anne Porter which tells the tale of a group of disparate characters sailing from Mexico to Germany aboard a mixed freighter and passenger ship. It is a satire that traces the rise of Nazism and looks metaphorically at the progress of the world on its "voyage to eternity".



Porter had been widely praised for her short stories, mostly written between 1922 and 1940. She began work on the novel in 1940, intending it initially to be a novella. It was based on a journal she kept in 1931 during a sea voyage from Veracruz, Mexico, on her way to study in Bremerhaven, Germany, on a Guggenheim Fellowship, 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.[1]

Every publishing season, the initial publisher Harcourt Brace 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."[1]


Ship of Fools outsold every other American novel published in 1962. It was a Book of the Month Club selection and immediately, the film rights were sold for $500,000 ($3,522,075 adjusted for inflation).[1] 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 2010.

Critical reception was mixed. While Mark Schorer of The New York Times and Glenway Wescott in The Atlantic Monthly were effusive in their praise, Stanley Kauffmann of The New Republic and Granville Hicks in the Saturday Review were disappointed. Porter herself was never satisfied with the novel, calling it "unwieldy" and "enormous".[1]

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."[2]

The 1965 film was adapted from the novel by Abby Mann and directed by Stanley Kramer. 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.[1]


The theme of the novel is that good people withdraw from a world full of evildoers, seeking a kind of utopia in connection with a place rather than with people. Mrs. Treadwell, an American divorcee, finds her ultimate happiness in Paris. Elsa Lutz, the ugly daughter of a Swiss innkeeper, thinks heaven is in the Isle of Wight. Jenny, an artist, says the happiest moment in her life was when she was swimming alone in the Gulf of Mexico, surrounded by a school of dolphins. And the gangly starving boy at the end of the novel, sensing there is something evil in human relationships and love, withdraws from humanity completely, overjoyed to finally be off the ship and back in his home country, as if it were a "human being, a good and dear trusted friend who had come a long way to welcome him".

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e Johnston, Laurie (September 19, 1980). "Katherine Anne Porter Dies at 90; Won a Pulitzer for Short Stories". The New York Times.  
  2. ^


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