Commentary Magazine


On “Ship of Fools”

To the Editor:

A little sense on Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools! [“‘Ship of Fools’ & the Critics,” October 1962] I don’t see why Mr. Solotaroff’s journalistic case for the prosecution was boxed off in white and featured on the cover of COMMENTARY. Ship of Fools should not be read after or placed beside the masterpieces of the ages, but rather with such a book as Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence. In such a context, its virtues, to me at least, are obvious: it is one of the very few American novels (almost unique in this lately) that deserves to be long; the writing is always alert, modest, and honest. As for its gloom and grayness, I find them in their way glorious. For what it is worth, Ship of Fools is in the American Liberal Tradition, a tradition that most of us follow in our non-fiction, but one that is hardly attempted any more in imaginative work. For the Liberal, 1931, just as now, is a time to look blue! I can’t see that the fact that Ship of Fools doesn’t include such opposite Germans as Einstein, Hitler, and Thomas Mann is an indictment. It would be easy to picture an idealistic prosecuting attorney, such as Mr. Solotaroff, reading Macbeth (I am making no comparison), and saying its perverse darkness has no room for Erasmus, Spinoza, and Sir Francis Bacon.

Robert Lowell
New York City

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To the Editor:

I hope Theodore Solotaroff watched that recent TV panel discussion of Ship of Fools. He would have found critics reacting over the air the way most of them reacted in print. Even considering that Katherine Anne Porter—kindly, disarming, and gray-haired—was present, I thought the literary experts were unduly respectful. When the moderator was incautious enough at one point to hint that the book consisted of a series of vignettes rather than a plot, Glenway Wescott, the Mark Schorer of the program, overrode him firmly. The author then explained lamely but authoritatively that her characters “interacted.” Nobody dared to suggest that the characters remained unchanged after the interaction. Thinks for Solotaroff’s useful analysis. . . . I wish to register one small dissent: Ship of Fools was not “unexciting” or “tedious.” Quite the contrary.

Oliver Pilat
New York City

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To the Editor:

Bravo to Theodore Solotaroff for his brilliant and penetrating critique of Katherine Anne Porter’s highly overrated Ship of Fools.

I was unable to conceive of the book as a masterpiece when I read it. However, no other critic was as clear-headed, discerning, and humanistic as Mr. Solotaroff in detailing the reasons for its failure.

Edward L. Hendel
Port Chester, New York

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To the Editor:

My thanks to Mr. Solotaroff for his article. . . . I seem to have found more humor in the book (especially in the opening pages) than he did, but my general impressions were much like his. . . I trust I will be forgiven for adumbrating two points which disturbed me in the article.

Mr. Solotaroff notes that one of the factors which led to favorable reviews was the memory of Miss Porter’s earlier work. And he seems to agree with the generally favorable assessment of her short stories. With reference to Ship of Fools, however, his position appears to be that the fault ultimately lies in Miss Porter’s sensibility: in particular, in her attitude to matters sexual. . . . Then how does one account for the valuable earlier work . . .? Mr. Solotaroff refers . . . to the fact that the novel was produced “late in life.” If this is important and bears on the differences between the novel and the short stories, then surely it should be dealt with directly . . . rather than by innuendo. . . .

Secondly . . . there are hints throughout the article that the widespread critical failure Mr. Solotaroff describes is somehow a product (at least in part) of general critical attitudes toward contemporary literature. I found Mr. Solotaroff extremely convincing on the subjects of “solid” 19th century novelistic virtues and 20th century novelistic techniques. But I searched in vain for a clear definition of critical attitudes toward contemporary literature or, more important, of the connection between those attitudes and the reception given Ship of Fools. . . .

Jan G. Deutsch
Supreme Court of the United States Washington, D. C.

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To the Editor:

. . . I find it so hard to believe that a reviewer lacks as much knowledge of depth psychology as Solotaroff apparently does . . . that I am convinced his shallowness is explained by his unwillingness, rather than his inability, to come to grips with this book. He reacts to the “ship” symbolism like a hot potato, only too anxious to drop it and declare . . . that a ship is merely a ship and a voyage is merely a voyage, though tedious. He is still obliged to tell us something about the “ship” which he does in as undynamic a way as possible, but he can no longer tell us anything about its feeling and its direction. He attempts to cover this deficiency with two standard gambits. . . . First, the author is essentially anti-sexual and, therefore, misanthropic—and secondly, she is an emotional invalid, unable to come to grips with the special violence of some characters as opposed to others.

However, what if a ship is not a ship, and a voyage not a voyage? What if the ship is where we are now, in this world, and the voyage is (as it is symbolically so often) toward death? Then, some of the things that Solotaroff found objectionable make a lot more sense. For instance, the unchangeability of most of the characters makes you horrifyingly aware that most of them are literally moving toward deterioration and decay and one is actually dying. . . .

Miss Porter’s handling of sex is understandable within the same terms. Instead of flowing from love, sex takes on the distorted function (so common in our culture) of a desperate attempt at self-renewal in the face of death. . . .

What about Miss Porter’s treatment of the Germans? . . . Each of the German (as well as non-German) characters has isolated death from his character structure. This makes it perfectly feasible for them to use others as sacrificial replacements for various rationalizations. . . .

Solotaroff, like so many COMMENTARY reviewers, cannot face up to existence: to life and death. But he needn’t despair, for he has good and illustrious company. Forty years ago Freud proposed the existence of the death instinct, and for forty years American psychoanalysts have winked at the Old Man and sold the staple items of genitality and orgasm. . . .

(Dr.) Melvin Rubenstein
Saint Louis, Missouri

To the Editor:

Mr. Solotaroff . . . makes a case that I found myself calling into question. It is summed up in the sentence: “The threat of ‘the terrible failure of the life of man’ that lurks at the Captain’s table is far less that of genocide than of sloth and gastritis.” This is to miss the point by stating it. Miss Porter has a keen sense for the puerile character of the vehicles for the evil that broke forth in Germany, . . . which severely qualifies Mr. Solotaroff’s attack. He has failed to see that “the force of that monstrous romanticism, of the potential for active evil in the character of German nationalism,” is a structure independent of personalities, albeit working through them. . . . Apparently upset over Miss Porter’s failure to develop heroic figures of evil, e.g., in the mode of Shakespeare, . . . Mr. Solotaroff fails to appreciate the distinction upon which the novel is based—that the characters are haphazard and random vehicles for evil, subject to forces to which they respond without self-awareness. This accounts for the force of their unconscious brutality.

The attempt to identify an author’s voice in his work . . . is almost always a disastrous critical maneuver. . . Mr. Solotaroff’s remarks about the “presence and pressure of Miss Porter’s sensibility” are not persuasive. Here again he fails to see how the given characters are defined by their unconscious response to the forces of disorder and destruction. . . . An attempt to characterize and express a sick age . . . should not be indicted for neglecting the healing powers that may or may not also be operative. We may be tired at this point of such examination of the pathological—perhaps the book is twenty years too late—but Miss Porter at least raises the question of the possible death of the prophetic spirit in our time. . . .

Paul A. Lee
Harvard University Cambridge, Massachusetts

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To the Editor:

Bless Solotaroff for his audacious demolition of Ship of Fools. In my social circle we have timidly revealed to each other a now unanimous conviction that the critics have “hoaxed” the reading public. The self-flagellating and masochistic school of writers and critics have pandered profitably to an element in our society which apparently enjoys occasional cathartic whip-lashing. . . .

Murray Baron
New York City

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To the Editor:

It was a pleasure to read the blunt, nononsense Solotaroff piece on Ship of Fools. I got the same kind of pleasure out of Dwight Macdonald’s job on By Love Possessed a few years back.

Now, both Katherine Anne Porter and James Gould Cozzens have produced substantial and estimable work in the past. They have written seriously and without compromise and have never before hit the golden jackpot. . . .

I don’t begrudge the authors the jackpots, if only for their past efforts. But I do think it is salutary when an honest critic cuts through the reviewers’ nonsense of equating pretension with importance, misanthropy with depth. . . .

George Sklar
Los Angeles, California

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To the Editor:

. . . It is refreshing to find someone who has taken the time to really analyze this book, without having succumbed to the bedazzled outpourings of the critics who, in this instance at least, have lost their critical faculty.

. . . There is no plot whatsoever to Ship of Fools. There is only a throwing together of a conglomerate number of people whom Miss Porter has given no redeeming features, seeing only their weaknesses. . . . There should be room in a novel which an author has shaped over a period of twenty years, to include at least one or two characters whose lives might add up to something more than unrelieved sordidness and degradation. . . .

Beatrice Hirsch
Long Beach, New York

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To the Editor:

Until I read Theodore Solotaroff’s sober, correct, and courageous analysis of Ship of Fools I had lost all hope concerning the competence or the sanity of American literary criticism. . . .

That this book lacks the essential quality of a novel in that not a single character has real growth and that it has no clear development of plot has already been noted by others. My further objection is that in her antipathy toward human beings this writer can detect neither joy, nor laughter, nor decency. . . .

As for the character of the Jew, Löwenthal—did any of the anti-Semitic Germans on that ship hate Löwenthal with more enthusiasm than the author? Here is a Jew, crude, ignorant, course, obnoxious, despicable. . . . The human race whose frailties this writer pursues so avidly, and for whose imperfections she sorrows so deeply—since it has such a friend in Miss Porter, has it any need of an enemy?

Alfred Brant
New York City

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To the Editor:

. . . That Miss Porter wrote a novel without compassion is no defect. It’s an innovation. Do we ask compassion too of the abstract artist and the modern composer?

In an era of smugness and complacency . . . the hatchet job Miss Porter did on humanity deserves applause for its message, “we are all to blame.” There are plenty of books to restore our faith in the future of humanity. From Ship of Fools we can turn to them with no illusions that we are lovable as we are.

Julia Edwards
New York City

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To the Editor:

Miss Porter understands the complexites of people, the good and evil in them, and the shades of gray. In her book she clearly makes the point that every one of us—Jew and Gentile, German and Mexican, doctors, countesses, the comfortably off and the poor, the young, the old and the middle-aged—has his problems. Because she is a great artist she makes us feel it keenly; sometimes in reading about it we’re uncomfortable. . . . Sometimes the book seems pitiless. But Miss Porter is never without compassion—or hopeless. Mr. Solotaroff forgets, to point to only a few omissions, that there is an innocent, newly married couple who remain completely unaware of anything but their own happiness; he forgets the truths that come out of the mouth of the professor’s wife; he forgets that the gentile German thinks longingly of his wife just before the ship docks at Bremerhaven; and he forgets the man who jumps overboard to save whoever (or whatever) is drowning.

It is Mr. Solotaroff, not Miss Porter, who makes the encounter of Lowenthal (an unattractive Jew) and Freitag (the gentile married to a Jew), “the dramatic center of the novel.” . . . To say that the implication of this encounter is that “the fate of Germany and its Jews reduces to the encounter of two particularly obnoxious breeds of inhumanity. . .” is to misinterpret completely what is in the pages of Ship of Fools itself.

And where does Mr. Solotaroff’s find grounds for the accusation that Miss Porter shows a “contemptuous and morbid attitude toward human sexuality?” It is the neurotic, often “morbid” characters in the book who have “sick” sexual attitudes, not Miss Porter.

I know it is almost irresistible to snipe when someone is as far out front as Miss Porter, but Mr. Solotaroff’s is not an Elizabeth Hardwick, or even a Dwight Macdonald.

Cyrilly Abels
New York City

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To the Editor:

. . . I enjoyed Mr. Solotaroff’s comments on Ship of Fools. . . . Perhaps the main difference between Ship of Fools and The Magic Mountain . . . might be that after finishing The Magic Mountain one felt a surge of hope, a faith in man; after finishing Ship of Fools one felt if not catatonic, completely hopeless and faithless. . . .

Pauline J. Schechter
Rockaway Beach, New York

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To the Editor:

I recently glanced through On Moral Courage by Compton Mackenzie. . . . On page 122 I found the following remarks by Katherine Anne Porter quoted from an article in Encounter: “When I first read it. . . I thought it a dreary, sad performance with some passages of unintentional, hilarious low comedy, one scene at least simply beyond belief in a book written with such inflamed apostolic solemnity. Nowhere in this sad history can you see anything but a long, dull grey, monotonous chain of days, lightened now and then by a sexual bout. I can’t hear any music, or poetry, or the voices of friends or children. There is no wine, no food, no sleep, no refreshment, no laughter, no rest and quietno love. I remembered then that this is the fevered daydream of a dying man . . . indulging his sexual fantasies.” (Italics mine.)

Miss Porter’s remarks refer to Lady Chatterley’s hover. I thank you very much for Mr. Solotaroff’s brilliant article. He, with much excellent argument, and Miss Porter unintentionally, hit the nail on the head.

L. H. Grunebaum
Scarsdale, New York

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