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1112018

Katherine Anne Porter

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I have done a desperate thing to get rid of people asking me about this God damned novel.

I simply said one evening in New York in a company of friends that it was finished,

and please never mention its name to me again. . . . [T]his thing has become such a curse to me

I can’t bear to hear about it any more.”

Katherine Anne Porter, 18901980.  American author.  Superb Typed Letter Signed, Katherine Anne, with numerous typewritten and holograph corrections, two pages (recto and verso), 8½” x 11, Charlottesville, Virginia, November 13, 1958.

This is by far the best Porter letter that we have seenan outstanding one that has never before been on the autograph market. 

Here Porter, who gained fame as a short story writer, confides to her publisher the pressures of finances and exhaustion as she struggles to complete her first and only novelthe long-awaited and highly-anticipated Ship of Fools, which she says “has become such a curse to me I can’t bear to hear about it any more.”  She sends a portion of the manuscript to Seymour Lawrence, director of the Atlantic Monthly Press, explaining that her schedule and illness have kept her from sending more.  She implores him not to reveal, contrary to what she has told friends, that she has not actually submitted the final manuscript.  In a postscript, she names various characters in the novel and tells Lawrence how portions of the manuscript fit together.

Porter writes, in full:  

I am sending you the scraps I have managed to get copied since when?  Between the schedule here, which adds to itself daily, it seems, I find now I am expected to do a two days tour of other Virginia Universities and the Womans College attached to this one; and besides my own engagements I made a long time ago.  I have just come back from an escapade to University of Texas, to Oklahoma, then a three days pause and off to New York and Portland Oregon.  This last ordeal did it; I have caught a heavy cold—the first in three and one half years, and feel somewhat outraged, as I had got to thinking my immunity was permanent.  So I have spent two days in bed, cancelled three engagements here, two yesterday, one tomorrow, for the sake of one tonight, my reading, of which this will be second of four for the semester.  It is not so much the number of engagements as the wear and tear of getting ready for them and getting to them, and getting over them.  But at any rate, I realize my predicament, and can see no way out of it except to go to the end, and this is really only a very exaggerated form of my perfectly typical experience for all my writing life:  I have to stop my writing from time to time to make a living and write again; and this time it hit very acutely at the most critical moment.  In my utter insane optimism I let my finances run down so last summer there was nothing to do but let everything go and pick up some ready money again:  ready, but not easy.  It is so exhausting I am quite benumbed, and though I know I have brought myself very near to disaster, I can’t really quite feel it.”

So I have done a desperate thing to get rid of people asking me about this God damned novel.  I simply said one evening in New York in a company of friends that it was finished, and please never mention its name to me again.  The occasion to my horror turned into a party of celebration, and the news got abroad like a fox with its tail on fire, and so, I am stuck.  It is NOT a lie, because th[e] book is finished.  But I have NOT finished copying it, and of course it cannot be called finished until the final copy is in your hands.  But I beg of you, if any one write[s] you or says anything to you, DO say, Yes, the bloody thing is finished, or just use your own language, and I still think you are going to get it in a few weeks.  But I am so deathly tired I can’t see to hit the keys, really.  Now then, don’t give me away, for I simply had to do something.  I love my friends and their solicitude and interest and loving kindness touches me, but I must free myself of pressure from some direction, this thing has become such a curse to me I can’t bear to hear about it any more.  So don’t give me away!

On Monday I am off for the University center rounds, and then to Lawrence Kansas, and that is the last hullabaloo for this month.  Next month will be Easier . . .

I am doing what I can.

                                                        Yours

                                                                     Katherine Anne

Of these pieces, the part about “Herr Baumgartner’s favorite theory was that a social occasion was a sacred duty,” comes immediately after the scene between Freytag and Hansen in their state room, last line ending “Freytag heaved a deep breath as he stepped outside, and shook his shoulders as if the old man of the sea were clinging to him.”

The part beginning, “Mrs Treadwell and her young officer were joined by other junior officers” comes immediately after the scene between Herr and Frau Baungartner [sic] in their cabin and Hans’ fright.  The last line is:  “into that soft darkness without sound and without dream.”

Continue after three line break, “Mrs. Treadwell and her young officer” etc etc

The references in the postscript are to Ship of Fools characters Karl Baumgartner, his wife Greta, and their son Hans; Wilhelm Freytag; Mary Treadwell; and Arne Hansen.

Porter wrote Ship of Fools over a span of nearly two decades.  Originally intended to be a novella, its story of a varied group of international passengers sailing from Mexico to Germany aboard a German ship was based on the people whom Porter met on her own sea voyage from Veracruz, Mexico, to Bremerhaven, Germany, on a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1931. She began writing it in 1940, and portions of it were published in periodicals such as Accent, The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, Mademoiselle, Partisan Review, Sewanee Review, and Texas Quarterly.  The book, however, seemed to defy completion.  Her initial publisher, Harcourt Brace, repeatedly announced its pending publication, and the literary world waited eagerly.  All the while, Porter was unable to finish it. 

This letter confirms Porter’s attitude toward those who pressured her to complete the novel.  She reportedly told anxious critics that “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.”  She confesses here that, feeling that she “must free myself of pressure from some direction,” she finally did “a desperate thing to get rid of people asking me about this God damned novel.” 

As it turned out, Ship of Fools did not appear until more than three years after Porter wrote this letter.  It was published by the Atlantic Monthly Press, an imprint of Little, Brown and Company, and released on April 2, 1962.  It became an instant best seller.  Two days after its release, it was in its fourth printing.  It was the Book of the Month Club selection for April 1962, and by May 7 it became a # 1 bestseller, where it remained for 26 weeks on the Publisher’s Weekly and New York Times bestseller lists.

Porter has obviously typed and corrected this letter herself.  She has signed it boldly in black, with a trace of brushing to the final “e” in “Katherine.”  The “scraps” of the manuscript that originally accompanied the letter are no longer present.  The letter has one horizontal fold, not affecting the signature, and shows a bit of handling.  Porter’s name is written in pencil in another hand in the top blank margin.  The letter is in fine to very fine condition.

Unframed.

 

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