Story type: Essay
The National Marine League asks, What are the ten best books of the sea? Without pondering very deeply on the matter, and confining ourself to prose, we would suggest the following as our own favourites:
Typhoon, by Joseph Conrad
The Nigger of the “Narcissus,” by Joseph Conrad
The Mirror of the Sea, by Joseph Conrad
Captains Courageous, by Rudyard Kipling
The Brassbounder, by David W. Bone
Salt of the Sea, by Morley Roberts
Mr. Midshipman Easy, by Captain Marryat
The Wreck of the “Grosvenor,” by Clark Russell
Moby Dick, by Herman Melville
An Ocean Tramp, by William McFee.
If one is allowed to include books that deal partially with salt water, one would have to add “Treasure Island,” “Casuals of the Sea,” by McFee, and “Old Junk,” by Tomlinson. The kind of shallow-water sea tales that we love to read after supper, with our feet on the nearest chair and a decent supply of tobacco handy, are the delicious stories by W.W. Jacobs. Dana’s “Two Years Before the Mast,” which is spoken of as a classic, we have never read. We have always had a suspicion of it, we don’t know why. Before we tackle it we shall re-read “The Water Babies.” We have always found a good deal of innocent cheer in the passages in John Woolman’s Journal describing his voyage from Philadelphia to London in 1772. Friend Woolman, like the sturdy Quaker that he was, was horrified (when he went to have a look at the ship Mary and Elizabeth) to find “sundry sorts of carved work and imagery” on that part of the vessel where the cabins were; and in the cabins themselves he observed “some superfluity of workmanship of several sorts.” This subjected his mind to “a deep exercise,” and he decided that he would have to take passage in the steerage instead of the cabin. Having our self made use of the steerage aforetime, both in the Mauretania and humbler vessels, we feel a certain kindred sympathy for his experiences. We have always enjoyed his remark: “The wind now blew vehemently, and the sea wrought to that degree that an awful seriousness prevailed.”
To come to poetry, we suppose that the greatest sea-poet who never ventured on anything more perilous than a ferry-boat was Walt Whitman. Walt, one likes to think, would have been horribly sea-sick if he had ventured out beyond the harbour buoy. A good deal of Walt’s tempestuous uproar about the glories of America was undoubtedly due to the fact that he had never seen anything else. Speaking of Walt reminds us that one book of the sea that we have never read (for the best of reasons: it has not been written) might be done by Thomas Mosher, the veteran tippler of literary minims. Mr. Mosher, we understand, “followed” the sea in his youth. Not long ago, when Mr. Mosher published that exquisite facsimile of the 1855 “Leaves of Grass,” we asked him when and how he first came in contact with Whitman’s work. He said:
I don’t suppose there was anything particularly interesting about my first acquaintance with Whitman, which at 14 years of age I made in my old family mansion situated at Smith’s Corner, America. I had been taking “The Galaxy” from its start, only a few months previous to the date I mention. I can still see myself in the sitting room of the old house. Smith’s Cor., America, I will remind you, is a portion of Biddeford, Me. An extra “d” has got into the old English name–which, by the way, only a year later I passed through after a shipwreck on the Devonshire coast. (That was in 1867.) No one ever told me anything about Walt.
These amateurish speculations on maritime books are of no value except for the fact that they elicited an interesting letter from an expert on these matters. William McFee wrote us as follows:–
“The first thing I laid my hands on this evening, while hunting for some forgotten nugget of wisdom in my note-books filled with Mediterranean brine, was that list of books for a projected sea library. Perpend….
The Sea Farer's Library
Tom Cringle’s Log Michael Scott
Two Years Before the Mast Dana
Midshipman Easy Marryat
Captains Courageous Kipling
The Flying Cloud Morley Roberts
The Cruise of the Cachalot Frank T. Bullen
Log of a Sea Waif Frank T. Bullen
The Salving of a Derelict Maurice Drake
The Grain Carriers Edward Noble
Marooned Clark Russell
Toilers of the Sea Hugo
An Iceland Fisherman Loti
The Sea Surgeon D’Annunzio
The Sea Hawk Sabatini
“A good many of these need no comment. Attention is drawn not to the individual items, but to the balance of the whole. That is the test of a list. But there is a good balance, a balance of power, and a balance of mere weight or prestige. It is the power we are after here. Regard for a moment the way ‘Tom Cringle’ balances Dana’s laconic record of facts. No power on earth could hold ‘Tom Cringle’ to facts, with the result that his story is more truly a representation of sea life in the old navy than a ton of statistics. He has the seaman’s mind, which Dana had not.
“Then again ‘Captains Courageous’ and ‘The Flying Cloud’ balance each other with temperamental exactitude. Each is a fine account of sea-doings with a touch of fiction to keep the sailor reading, neither of them in the very highest class. ‘The Cruise of the Cachalot’ is balanced by the ‘Log of a Sea Waif,’ each in Bullen’s happier and less evangelical vein. I was obliged to exclude ‘With Christ at Sea,’ not because it is religious, but because it does not balance. It would give the whole list a most pronounced ‘list,’ if you will pardon the unpardonable…. I regret this because ‘With Christ at Sea’ has some things in it which transcend anything else Bullen ever wrote.
“Now we come to a couple of books possibly requiring a little explanation. ‘The Salving of a Derelict’ is a remarkably able story of a man’s reclamation. I believe Maurice Drake won a publisher’s prize with it as a first novel some years ago. It was a winner among the apprentices, I remember. ‘The Grain Carriers’ is a grim story of greedy owners and an unseaworthy ship by an ex-master mariner whose ‘Chains,’ while not a sea story, is tinged with the glamour of South American shipping, and is obviously a work written under the influence of Joseph Conrad. ‘Marooned’ and ‘Typhoon’ balance (only you mustn’t be too critical) as examples of the old and new methods of telling a sea story.
“‘The Sea Surgeon’ is one of a collection of stories about the Pescarese, which D’Annunzio wrote years ago. They are utterly unlike ‘II Fuoco’ and the other absurd tales on which translators waste their time. In passing one is permitted to complain of the persistent ill-fortune Italian novelists suffer at the hands of their English translators.
“Assuming, however, that our seafarer wants a book or two of what is euphemistically termed ‘non-fiction,’ here are a few which will do him no harm:
“Southey’s ‘Life of Nelson.’
“‘The Influence of Sea Power Upon History,’ Mahan.
“Admiral Lord Beresford’s ‘Memoirs.’
“The Diary of Samuel Pepys, F.R.S., Secretary to the Admiralty in the Reign of Charles II and James II. It is most grievously overlooked that Samuel was the first to draft a naval Rate Book, which is a sort of indexed lexicon of everything one needs ‘for fighting and sea-going efficiency.’ And it is a pleasure, chastened by occasional fits of ill-temper, to discover that the present British Naval Rate Book hath in it divers synonyms coeval with Samuel and his merry monarchs. As when the present writer tried to order some hammer-handles and discovered after much tribulation that the correct naval equivalent for such is ‘ash-helms.’ Whereupon he toilfully rewrote his requisitions ‘and so to bed.’
“Another suggestion I might make is a volume to be compiled, containing the following chapters:
I. “Landsmen Admirals,” Generals Blake and Monk.
II. “A Dutch Triumvirate,” Van Tromp, De Witt and De Ruyter.
III. “Napoleon as a Sea Tactician.”
IV. “Decatur and the Mediterranean Pirates.”
V. “The Chesapeake and the Shannon.”
VI. “The Spanish-American Naval Actions.”
VII. “The Russo-Japanese Naval Actions.”
VIII. “The Turko-Italian Naval Actions.”
Conclusion. “Short Biography of Josephus Daniels.”
“Only deep-water sailors would be able to take this suggested library to sea with them, because a sailor only reads at sea. When the landward breeze brings the odours of alien lands through the open scuttle one closes the book, and if one is a normal and rational kind of chap and the quarantine regulations permit, goes ashore.”
Gruesome as anything in any seafaring pirate yarn is Trelawny’s description (in “Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron”) of the burning of Shelley’s body on the seashore near Via Reggio. The other day, in company with two like-minded innocents, we visited a bookshop on John Street where we found three battered copies of this great book, and each bought one, with shouts of joy. The following day, still having the book with us, we dropped in to see the learned and hospitable Dr. Rosenbach at his new and magnificent thesaurus at 273 Madison Avenue. We showed him the book, because every time one shows the doctor a book he can startle you by countering with its original manuscript or something of that sort. We said something about Shelley and Trelawny, in the hope of starting him off. He smiled gently and drew out a volume from a shelf. It was the copy of “Prometheus Unbound” that Shelley had given Trelawny in July, 1822, with an inscription. As the poet was drowned on July 8, 1822, it probably was the last book he ever gave away.
One wonders what may have become of the log of the American clipper that Shelley and Trelawny visited in the harbour of Leghorn shortly before Shelley’s death. Shelley had said something in praise of George Washington, to which the sturdy Yankee skipper replied: “Stranger, truer words were never spoken; there is dry rot in all the main timbers of the Old World, and none of you will do any good till you are docked, refitted, and annexed to the New. You must log that song you sang; there ain’t many Britishers that will say as much of the man that whipped them; so just set these lines down in the log!”
Whereupon Shelley autographed the skipper’s log for him, with some sentiments presumably gratifying to American pride, and drank some “cool peach brandy.” It was his last drink.
We ourself, just as much as Shelley, enjoy visiting ships, and have had some surprising adventures in so doing. We remember very clearly our first call upon William McFee, when he was First Assistant Engineer in S.S. Turrialba. But getting aboard vessels is a much more complicated and diplomatic task than it was in Shelley’s day. Even when armed with Mr. McFee’s autographed card, it was by no means easy. We went dutifully up to the office of the United Fruit Company at Pier 9, to apply for a pass, and were surveyed with grim suspicion. Why, we asked gently, in these peaceful times is it so difficult to visit a friend who happens to be in a ship? Prohibition, said the candid clerk, and a whole province of human guile was thereby made plain to our shrinking mind. Mortals incline readily to sin, it seems, and apparently evil and base men will even go so far as to pretend a friendship with those who go down to wet territory in ships, simply for the sake of–well, we cannot bring ourself to mention it. “How do you know Mr. McFee wants to see you?” we were asked. Luckily we had Mac’s card to prove it.
We had long wanted to see Mr. McFee in his sea-going quarters, where he writes his books and essays (so finely flavoured with a rich ironical skepticism as to the virtues of folk who live on shore). Never was a literary sanctum less like the pretentious studios of the imitation litterateurs. In a small cabin stood our friend, in his working dungarees (if that is what they are called) talking briskly with the Chief and another engineer. The conversation, in which we were immediately engulfed, was so vivacious that we had small chance to examine the surroundings as we would have liked to. But save for the typewriter on the desk and a few books in a rack, there was nothing to suggest literature. “Plutarch’s Lives,” we noticed–a favourite of Mac’s since boyhood; Frank Harris’s “The Bomb” (which, however, the Chief insisted belonged to him), E.S. Martin’s “Windfalls of Observation,” and some engineering works. We envied Mac the little reading lamp at the head of his bunk.
We wish some of the soft-handed literary people who bleat about only being able to write in carefully purged and decorated surroundings could have a look at that stateroom. In just such compartments Mr. McFee has written for years, and expected to finish that night (in the two hours each day that he is able to devote to writing) his tale, “Captain Macedoine’s Daughter.” As we talked there was a constant procession of in-comers, most of them seeming to the opaque observation of the layman to be firemen discussing matters of overtime. On the desk lay an amusing memorandum, which the Chief referred to jocularly as one of Mac’s “works,” anent some problem of whether the donkeyman was due certain overtime on a Sunday when the Turrialba lay in Hampton Roads waiting for coal. On the cabin door was a carefully typed list marked in Mr. McFee’s hand “Work to Do.” It began something like this:
Main Engine Pump-Link Brasses
Fill Up Main Engine Feed Pump and Bilge Rams
Open and Scale After Port Boiler
Main Circulator Impeller to Examine
Hydrokineter Valve on Centre Boiler to be Rejointed
The delightful thing about Mr. McFee is that he can turn from these things, which he knows and loves, to talk about literary problems, and can out-talk most literary critics at their own game.
He took us through his shining engines, showing us some of the beauty spots–the Weir pumps and the refrigerating machinery and the thrust-blocks (we hope we have these right), unconsciously inflicting upon us something of the pain it gives the bungling jack of several trades when he sees a man who is so fine a master not merely of one, but of two–two seemingly diverse, but in which the spirit of faith and service are the same. “She’s a bonny ship,” he said, and his face was lit with sincerity as he said it. Then he washed his hands and changed into shore clothes and we went up to Frank’s, where we had pork and beans and talked about Sir Thomas Browne.
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