Thursday, July 26, 2012

Bestsellers List Revisited -- 1962: Katherine Anne Porter Knocks Out J.D. Salinger

First U.S. edition
Fifty years ago, in 1962, Katherine Anne Porter's Ship of Fools spent six months at the top of the New York Times bestsellers list and went on the become the bestselling novel of  the year.  

Released on April Fool's Day, Ship of Fools received mostly positive, sometimes glowing reviews. It quickly moved to the top of the Times list, knocking J.D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey from the top position. Other books on the Times list that spring were The Agony and the Ecstasy, Irving Stone's fictionalized life of Michelanglo, and Harper Lee's now classic To Kill a Mockingbird, which had been on the list for nearly two years.

An episodic and vaguely plotted tale of people of various nationalities, ages, and social classes voyaging from Mexico to Germany in the early 1930s, Ship of Fools was Porter's first and only full length novel. "I tried to write it as a short novel, you know," Porter told Barbara Thompson Davis of the Paris Review. "But it just wouldn’t confine itself. I wrote notes and sketches. And finally I gave in. Oh, no, this is simply going to have to be a novel, I thought. That was a real horror. But it needed a book to contain its full movement: of the sea, and the ship on the sea, and the people going around the deck...It was the question of keeping everything moving at once. There are about forty-five main characters, all taking part in each other’s lives, and then there was a steerage of sugar workers, deportees. It was all a matter of deciding which should come first, in order to keep the harmonious moving forward. A novel is really like a symphony, you know, where instrument after instrument has to come in at its own time, and no other."

Katherine Anne Porter
Porter worked on Ship of Fools, off and on, for more than twenty years. Her long in progress novel -- its working title No Safe Harbor -- became a source of humor in the literary world.  In the mid-1950s, she changed the incomplete novel's publisher from Harcourt Brace to Little, Brown. In order to get the book finished, in 1961 her editor at Little Brown ensconced Porter at an inn on the Massachusetts coast where she could work without interruption.  Porter was nearly seventy-two years old when the novel finally appeared. It was her first published fiction since The Leaning Tower and Other Stories in 1944. 

Ship of Fools is based on Porter's first trans-Atlantic crossing in 1931. Porter explained to Davis -- "We embarked on an old German ship at Vera Cruz and we landed in Bremen twenty-eight days later. It was a crowded ship, a great mixture of nationalities, religions, political beliefs, all that sort of thing. I don’t think I spoke a half-dozen words to anybody. I just sat there and watched — not deliberately, though. I kept a diary in the form of a letter to a friend, and after I got home the friend sent it back. And, you know, it is astonishing what happened on that boat, and what happened in my mind afterwards. Because it is fiction now." 

Born in Indian Creek, Texas in 1890 to a family that had seen better days, Porter grew up in genteel poverty in various Texas towns and in New Orleans. She left school at age fourteen and married for the first time at age sixteen. As a young woman she worked as a movie extra, small time Vaudeville entertainer, and journalist. Her first published fiction, the short story "Maria Concepcion," inspired by her experience living in Mexico, appeared in Century Magazine in 1922.  

Continuing to publish stories and short novels, such as "Pale Horse, Pale Rider" and "Noon Wine," Porter became a favorite among the literary cognoscente but did not catch on with the larger reading public. A slow, painstaking writer who often allowed her extensive social life to interrupt her work, Porter spent decades living off advances from publishers (some for books never completed) and the generosity of husbands, lovers, and friends. She was among the first writers to rely on grants and academic appointments as major sources of support.  

The success of Ship of Fools gave Porter, for the first time, financial stability and acceptance from the general public. Though Ship of Fools was widely recognized as an important work at the time of its publication, that opinion has not endured.  Porter's reputation rests on her short fiction. The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 1966. 

U.S. postage stamp, 2006
"The failure of [Ship of Fools] to crown to her career artistically can be seen as problem of genre. Porter had tried to make her mark in a form that seemed in some ways compulsory...she had felt compelled to shift from the short story to the novel to demonstrate that she belonged in the company of the acknowledged 'heavy hitters' of the book world.  But the genre was uncongenial," wrote scholar Janis P. Stout in Katherine Anne Porter: A Sense of the Times.  

Porter maintained that her own favorite novels were Richard Hughes' A High Wind in Jamaica, Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse and E.M. Forster's A Passage to India. "Three almost perfect novels, if we’re talking about form, you know," she told Davis. "Every one of them begins with an apparently insoluble problem, and every one of them works out of confusion into order. The material is all used so that you are going toward a goal. And that goal is the clearing up of disorder and confusion and wrong, to a logical and human end. I don’t mean a happy ending, because after all at the end of A High Wind in Jamaica the pirates are all hanged and the children are all marked for life by their experience, but it comes out to an orderly end. The threads are all drawn up."

The long stay of Ship of Fools atop the Times fiction bestsellers list finally ended in October 1962 when it fell to third place, outsold by A Shade of Difference, a drama of conflict among United Nations delegations, by Allen Drury, and Seven Days in May, a political thriller by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II.

A star-studded film version of Ship of Fools, directed by Stanley Kramer and scripted by Abby Mann, was released in 1965.  The film is notable for offering the final screen appearance of actress Vivien Leigh who plays the wealthy divorcee Mary Treadwell, an aging beauty traveling alone who interacts with assorted characters during the voyage.

The title Ship of Fools is taken from Das Narrenschiff, a moralistic satire by Sebastian Brant, first published in Basel in 1494. Other books have used the title including Fintan O'Toole's examination of the Irish economy Ship of Fools: How Stupidity and Corruption Sank the Celtic Tiger (2009) and Richard Paul Russo's science fiction novel Ship of Fools (2001) which won the Philip K. Dick Award.  The Doors and The Grateful Dead are among the many bands with songs called "Ship of Fools." 

Ship of Fools was Porter's swan song as a writer.  In the final two decades of her life she reveled in her role as a literary grande dame but wrote almost nothing.  Porter died in 1980 at age ninety, outliving many younger writers, such as Carson McCullers and Flannery O'Connor, who were influenced by her work. 

Here's more information --

Katherine Anne Porter Papers  (University of Maryland Libraries).

Katherine Anne Porter Literary Center (Texas State University).

"Enameled Lady: How Katherine Anne Porter Perfected Herself." Hilton Als.  The New Yorker (20 April 2009).

Paris Review interview  (The Art of Fiction, No. 29, Paris Review, Spring -Winter, 1963).


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