Shadows on the Page

Lisa Roney
January 01, 2000

For some years during the middle of this century, Katherine Anne Porter (1890 to 1980) reigned as Grand Dame of American letters. Her one and only novel, Ship of Fools, 20 years in the making, was eagerly awaited before it finally appeared in 1962. In her later years, Porter herself—with her striking appearance, her dark and soulful eyes, her long string of pearls and gargantuan emerald ring, and her apartment brimming with antiques—cultivated a mythology of self that included a Southern plantation kind of background and a convent education in New Orleans, the elements of which had only the barest connection to the reality of her poor childhood in Texas.

Why did Porter fictionalize her own past to such a degree, when, as biographer Joan Givner points out, "her actual life was more heroic than anything she invented"?

One clue may lie in Porter's health, one of several aspects of her life about which she hedged, but one that I found little explored in the available work on Porter. By the time Porter had established her literary reputation, one of her doctors noted in a medical record that she reported no personal or family history of tuberculosis. However, she had certainly spent two years, from 1915 to 1917, in and out of Texas TB hospitals, and it seems likely that her mother died of a combination of tuberculosis and other factors, that her older brother suffered from it, and that a favorite cousin died of it as well.

In the vast collection of letters she wrote over the years, now archived at the University of Maryland, I found that Porter sometimes reported having tuberculosis and sometimes that doctors told her she merely had chronic bronchitis. This may be literally true, as diagnosis of tuberculosis was uncertain during those years and infection can go in and out of active stages. But what is certain is that Porter relocated repeatedly in attempts to find a better climate for her lungs, that she frequently experienced bouts of respiratory ailment, and that one of these in 1934 required convalescence in the renowned tuberculosis haven of Davos, Switzerland, most famously immortalized in Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain (first published in English in 1927). As late as 1938, Porter notes in letters to her future husband Albert Erskine that her doctor tells her she shouldn't marry until—or unless—"the spot on her lungs clears up." Even after the advent of antibiotics, she suffered respiratory difficulties from lungs scarred by the disease, and she lived with the constant fear and distress of TB for at least 20 years.

Tuberculosis, at the time Porter received the diagnosis, was a controversial disease around which much discourse about the social good revolved. Up through most of the 19th century, tuberculosis had been dreaded but accorded a romantic status as the disease of poets, of refinement, of the beautiful and young, even of genius. However, with the discovery of the tuberculosis bacillus in 1882, ideas about TB began to shift. Fear of the illness grew as the disease's contagion was established, but because some exposed people never developed the disease notions of genetic inferiority also gained in popularity. In addition, social reformers had begun to conduct epidemiological studies that associated tuberculosis with the poor, those living in crowded urban slums and small town boarding houses in particular. Bad genes and filthy habits both were blamed.

The sanatorium experience itself was often humiliating and stressful, its purpose as much quarantine as recuperation and its routines always rigid and often deadly dull or harsh. Many sanatorium patients expressed dismay at being confined there, entering the often lengthy limbo of waiting for a recovery that might or might not ever occur. Since the prognosis was so variable, doctors often could not back up their prescriptions of bed rest, diets replete with eggs and milk, lack of excitement, and leisurely walks in fresh air with actual results. Treatments took on a heavily moralistic tone, and patients, including Porter, often rebelled against authority.

Concerns about related issues—who is responsible for the plight of the poor, whether certain genetic constitutions are "superior," what amount of personal hygiene and caution in lifestyle is appropriate, and how to respond to authority—permeate Porter's fiction. Yet none of these issues has been before significantly linked to her health, perhaps partly because she does not write much about tuberculosis as such. One aspect of my study has been, therefore, to look for traces of tuberculosis in writing where tuberculosis is not the topic, a tricky endeavor but one that has been fruitful in this case.

For example, Porter's famous novel, Ship of Fools, is traditionally read as an anti-Nazi allegory written largely in response to the horrors of World War II. However, the sometimes contradictory attitudes and beliefs that Porter developed in response to her tuberculosis also may be traced there. Porter, after all, began working on the novel as early as the mid-1930s, well before revelations of Nazi atrocities. In addition, one of the first groups that had been targeted by the Nazis for destruction was the tubercular. It is also interesting to note the myriad similarities between Ship of Fools and Mann's The Magic Mountain, between life on board an ocean liner and that restricted to a sanatorium. Both contain an arbitrary grouping of individuals brought together by necessity; both groups are forced into mostly idleness, with a focus on dining room meals at regular times, the occasional skit or shenanigans of the badly behaved, slow promenades, and hours reclining on chaise lounges, whether on deck or on a porch. An episodic structure, a remoteness from the events of the outside world, and characters who attend to the petty differences between each other are all also shared by these two novels.

The obsessions of Ship of Fools are also TB obsessions. The most positive character, the closest the novel comes to a hero, is Dr. Shumann, a physician who is suffering from an invisible yet serious heart condition, and it is in part this ailment that renders him empathetic and almost moral. He is contrasted with the ship's captain, an empty authoritarian who spouts off about the superiority of the German people and who orders one discovered to be married to a Jew removed from his dinner table. It is the healthy, strapping Texan, Denny, who is most occupied with his personal hygiene and the vitamins that will promote his strength. And throughout the novel the middle class mostly German passengers peer over the railing and make snide comments about the lower-class people traveling in steerage. The only truly heroic action is taken by one of these lowly men, who dives off the ship and drowns rescuing a pet dog that two children have tossed overboard. Porter's themes in Ship of Fools—that often the most ordinary-seeming people contain evil, that neither malingering nor mistreatment of the weak is acceptable, that one must have the courage to take dramatic action or risk a living death—seem strongly influenced by her struggles with TB.

Even the notorious pessimism of Katherine Anne Porter's vision is more readily understood if read through the lens of a life threatened by both the illness of tuberculosis itself and by the social attitudes that made TB such source of shame that Porter would later deny even having had it. That she never publicly acknowledged the influence of TB on her work is all the more reason why we should do so today.

Lisa C. Roney earned her M.F.A. in English from Penn State in 1994, and is now working toward a doctoral degree in English, with a specialty in illness and literature. She can be reached through the department of English in the College of the Liberal Arts, 236D S Burrowes Bldg., University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-9805; Roney's book, Sweet Invisible Body, a memoir of her life with diabetes, was published by Henry Holt in August 1999.

Last Updated January 01, 2000