When you go to sea feeling like an orphan, books become your family. Sitting here on the balcony of my rented condo in Orange Beach, overlooking the blue waters of the Gulf, listening to the pounding of the waves whipped up by Tropical Storm Eta, and looking out to sea, some of those books, those long-ago friends, come back to mind.
It’s nice to have a few moments to reminisce about the whole corpus of nautical literature which has been such a big part of my life. I was privileged to experience a life at sea two ways: by living it in person for 36 years, and vicariously through books. As I read during those long nights at sea while off watch, I developed an interest in the authors of the texts as well as in the books. They had been to sea themselves, often while they were young, and while we had little in common other than that experience, it gave them credibility in my eyes.
Although I know that excellent nautical fiction is currently being written, I am more familiar with what was readily available to the general reader a generation ago. The sea and sailors appeared very early in English fiction. Indeed, in the first great English romance, Sir Thomas More’s “Utopia,” published in 1516, a seafarer who sailed with Amerigo Vespucci, the adventurer who gave his name to “America,” recounts to the author his marvelous adventures on the sea as well as his wonderous experiences in the kingdom of Utopia. More’s “Utopia” was, of course, located in the exotic New World just being opened up to Europeans. Shakespeare, not to be left out, wrote of Bermuda and the sea in his play, “The Tempest” (1611), although some scholars have wondered if it was not actually set in America.
Daniel Defoe can probably be called the first English sea novelist, as his well-known story, “The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner” (1719), has a decided nautical flavor. For the modern reader, however, this story is probably forever conflated with Tom Hanks’ four-year sojourn on that desolate island in the movie “Castaway.” I personally thought he should have won the Academy Award for that one – if nothing else for gaining 40 and then losing 50 pounds to fulfill the title role.
Although my favorite nautical author is the Polish writer, Joseph Conrad, whose books, “Lord Jim” and “Heart of Darkness” are the “ne plus ultra” of the genre and what I teach whenever possible in my college English classes, probably the most famous Americans writing about the sea during the 19th century were James Fenimore Cooper, Edgar Allen Poe, Richard Henry Dana, and Herman Melville. While Robert Lewis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island” (1883) is perhaps the most widely read sea novel ever written, the first American to write sea tales of real merit was James Fenimore Cooper, whose “Pilot” (1824) celebrates the exploits of John Paul Jones in British waters during the American Revolution. It is filled with scenes of storm and fighting, and contains one character, Long Tom Coffin, who rivals in originality Cooper’s most famous hero, Natty Bumpo, or Leatherstocking, as he is usually called.
When I was stationed at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, back in the ‘70s, I was surprised to learn that John Paul Jones, considered to be the “Father of the U.S. Navy,” is actually buried in the basement of the Academy Chapel. How he ended up there is an interesting story in itself. After his glory days during our War of Independence, when he became famous for his possibly apocryphal quote, “I have not yet begun to fight,” while leading his ship, the Bonhomme Richard in battle against the much larger HMS Serapis, he turned his back on American naval politics and ended up as an Admiral in the Imperial Russian Navy. Later, he moved to Paris and wrote his memoirs, which inspired James Fenimore Cooper to write “The Pilot.” Dying prematurely at age 45 in 1792, he was buried in a Paris cemetery and the location was promptly forgotten. In 1899, as the United States was on the cusp of becoming a great naval power, there was great interest in finding his body and returning it to the States for proper recognition.
After a search of six years, his body was located by the American Ambassador to France. Luckily, because of his status, Jones had been buried in a lead coffin, filled with alcohol, and his body, especially the face, was perfectly preserved. The face was compared to a bust by the famous sculptor, Jean Antoine Houdon, and identified with certainty. President Teddy Roosevelt then sent the USS Brooklyn (CA-3), escorted by three other cruisers, to France to retrieve the body, and it was eventually interred in a magnificent bronze and marble sarcophagus beneath the chapel where it rests today.
As far as Cooper’s preparation for the writing of his sea novels, after his expulsion from Yale College, which he had entered at age 13, his family decided to send him to sea as a cure for his “ethical ailments,” which really consisted only of inattention to his studies and some boyish escapades. After a year’s experience as a sailor before the mast in a merchant vessel on the east coast, he entered the United States Navy as a midshipman in 1808. He had service on Lake Ontario, and on the Atlantic he served for a time in the USS Wasp under Captain James Lawrence, who uttered the famous phrase, “Don’t give up the ship,” in a losing battle with the British frigate, Shannon, off Boston, in 1813. After three years in the Navy, Cooper entered a marriage which brought his naval career to an end. Later, he did write such nautical novels as “Red Rover” (1827) and “Wing and Wing” (1842) which has its setting in the Mediterranean.
Although Edgar Allen Poe is more often associated with the American gothic novel, it may surprise some to learn that he also wrote of the sea. Voyages to and from England with his foster parents when he was very young, some experience in sailing pleasure boats near Charleston, South Carolina, when he was in the army, and possibly some short voyages as a passenger in coastal vessels constituted the sum of Poe’s known knowledge of the sea. What he lacked in firsthand knowledge, however, was counterbalanced by the power of his imagination and his genius for portraying strange characters in unusual situations. In addition, he wisely refrained from introducing into his work very much nautical language and scenes demanding technical knowledge for their effective portrayal.
Though he wrote several short stories about the sea, “The Manuscript Found in a Bottle” (1833) and “Descent into the Maelstrom” (1841), for example, he was the author of only one sea novel. His “Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym” (1838) gives an account of a most grisly voyage with a strangely assorted crew, and it belongs to the class of books which one with reluctance lays down until the last word in the thrillingly gruesome story is finished.
Among factual sea tales are to be found some of the classics in American nautical literature. In this realm, Richard Henry Dana Jr., perhaps reigns as king. His “Two Years Before the Mast” (1840) was the first book to treat sea life in a realistic fashion. His straightforward narrative of his voyage in the little brig, Pilgrim, around Cape Horn to the coast of California and back again led the way in establishing the merchant sailor’s real character. The cold, leaking forecastle, the freezing rain, the lashing wind in the tops, the bad food, and the harsh treatment by the captain and his mates all find their place in Dana’s story.
Like many of us, he had come into close association with sailors and the sea during some of the most impressionable years of his life, for he was only 19 when he left Harvard College at the end of his junior year because of a weakness in his eyes caused by an attack of measles. He then deliberately chose the life of a common sailor on a voyage around the South America instead of going as a passenger in an East Indiaman to the Far East; and he came out of the experience much improved in health and vision.
Dana then completed his work at Harvard and studied law. As a lawyer in Boston, and as a specialist in maritime matters, he had the opportunity to right the wrongs of many ill-treated sailors, a service to which he had pledged himself. Four years after graduating from college, he wrote, from the journal he had kept on the voyage, his “Two Years Before the Mast,” which has come to be regarded as the best book of its kind ever written.
Perhaps the most important American nautical writer of the 19th century, however, was Herman Melville. In recent years, there has been a revival of interest in his work, particularly in his masterpiece, “Moby Dick,” or the “Great White Whale” (1851), which my granddaughter, Abby, is currently studying in her Oak Grove High School Honors English class. This, according to some, is the most fascinating story of the sea ever written. It would, indeed, be a very unappreciative reader who would not feel stirred, at least, with some of the feverish enthusiasm which Captain Ahab displays in his demoniacal pursuit of the great white whale.
Melville’s “magnum opus” was preceded by some other works, the best of which are “Omoo” (1847), “Typee” (1846), “Mardi” (1849) and “White Jacket” (1850). The first three are particularly commended for their faithful descriptions of the South Seas, and they gave Melville the distinction of being the first to set foot on these islands in the name of modern literature. The experiences on which the first two are based came the way of the author after he and a companion had deserted from a whaling vessel in a harbor of the Marquesas Islands. He then spent four months among the natives in order to escape the cruel treatment he had received onboard the whaler, and he afterwards wrote Nathaniel Hawthorne that he was afraid that his name would come to posterity merely as “a man who had lived among cannibals.”
If you are interested in the history of whaling in the United States, the place to go is the Whaling Museum in New Bedford, Massachusetts. This city was the center of the industry during its heyday, when people burned whale oil in their lamps for illumination at night. The museum contains the largest number of extant whaling ship logbooks, and focuses on the history, science, art and culture of the 19th century international whaling industry.
When he was a little boy, Melville’s restless mind led him to the sea to gratify his desire for adventure, where he learned the hard lot of a seaman in various types of merchant vessels. For a little more than a year he served as a sailor on board an American man-of-war, the USS United States. Out of this experience he wrote “White Jacket,” a book that is especially noteworthy for the powerful condemnation of the practice of flogging in the navy in the 1840s. The book contributed greatly to the passage of a law which abolished corporal punishment in the naval service; for while the bill was pending, a copy of the book was placed on the desk of each member of Congress. I can only assume that most read it, as the bill passed. This, in my mind, is another example of the power of literature.
Just as the same wave can travel hundreds if not thousands of miles over the surface of the sea, only to fade away on the sand, a person’s memory rises and recedes over time. As someone much smarter once said: “Every star that shines will one day die, every journey comes to an end. And there are some things that we’ll never know, though it helps us to pretend.”
Light a candle for me.
Benny Hornsby, a resident of Oak Grove, is a retired U.S. Navy captain. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit bennyhornsby.com.