William Mcfee by Christopher Morley

Story type: Essay

M’Phee is the most tidy of chief engineers. If
the leg of a cockroach gets into one of his
slide-valves the whole ship knows it, and half
the ship has to clean up the mess.


The next time the Cunard Company commissions a new liner I wish they would sign on Joseph Conrad as captain, Rudyard Kipling as purser, and William McFee as chief engineer. They might add Don Marquis as deck steward and Hall Caine as chief-stewardess. Then I would like to be at Raymond and Whitcomb’s and watch the clerks booking passages!

William McFee does not spell his name quite as does the Scotch engineer in Mr. Kipling’s Brugglesmith, but I feel sure that his attitude toward cockroaches in the slide-valve is the same. Unhappily I do not know Mr. McFee in his capacity as engineer; but I know and respect his feelings as a writer, his love of honourable and honest work, his disdain for blurb and blat. And by an author’s attitude toward the purveyors of publicity, you may know him.

One evening about the beginning of December, 1915, I was sitting by the open fire in Hempstead, Long Island, a comparatively inoffensive young man, reading the new edition of Flecker’s “The Golden Journey to Samarkand” issued that October by Martin Secker in London. Mr. Secker, like many other wise publishers, inserts in the back of his books the titles of other volumes issued by him. Little did I think, as I turned to look over Mr. Secker’s announcements, that a train of events was about to begin which would render me, during the succeeding twelve months, a monomaniac in the eyes of my associates; so much so that when I was blessed with a son and heir just a year later I received a telegram signed by a dozen of them: “Congratulations. Name him Casuals!”

It was in that list of Mr. Secker’s titles for the winter of 1915-16 that my eyes first rested, with a premonitory lust, upon the not-to-be-forgotten words.


Who could fail to be stirred by so brave a title? At once I wrote for a copy.

My pocket memorandum book for Sunday, January 9, 1916, contains this note:

“Finished reading Casuals of the Sea, a good book.
H—- still laid up with bad ankle. In the P.M. we
sat and read Bible aloud to Celia before the open fire.”

My first impressions of “Casuals of the Sea, a good book” are interwoven with memories of Celia, a pious Polish serving maid from Pike County, Pennsylvania, who could only be kept in the house by nightly readings of another Good Book. She was horribly homesick (that was her first voyage away from home) and in spite of persistent Bible readings she fled after two weeks, back to her home in Parker’s Glen, Pa. She was our first servant, and we had prepared a beautiful room in the attic for her. However, that has nothing to do with Mr. McFee.

Casuals of the Sea is a novel whose sale of ten thousand copies in America is more important as a forecast of literary weather than many a popular distribution of a quarter million. Be it known by these presents that there are at least ten thousand librivora in this country who regard literature not merely as an emulsion. This remarkable novel, the seven years’ study of a busy engineer occupied with boiler inspections, indicator cards and other responsibilities of the Lord of Below, was the first really public appearance of a pen that will henceforth be listened to with respect.

Mr. McFee had written two books before “Casuals” was published, but at that time it was not easy to find any one who had read them. They were Letters from an Ocean Tramp (1908) and Aliens (1914); the latter has been rewritten since then and issued in a revised edition. It is a very singular experiment in the art of narrative, and a rich commentary on human folly by a man who has made it his hobby to think things out for himself. And the new version is headlighted by a preface which may well take its place among the most interesting literary confessions of this generation, where Mr. McFee shows himself as that happiest of men, the artist who also has other and more urgent concerns than the whittling of a paragraph:–

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Of art I never grow weary, but she calls me over the world. I suspect the sedentary art worker. Most of all I suspect the sedentary writer. I divide authors into two classes–genuine artists, and educated men who wish to earn enough to let them live like country gentlemen. With the latter I have no concern. But the artist knows when his time has come. In the same way I turned with irresistible longing to the sea, whereon I had been wont to earn my living. It is a good life and I love it. I love the men and their ships. I find in them a never-ending panorama which illustrates my theme, the problem of human folly.

Mr. McFee, you see, has some excuse for being a good writer because he has never had to write for a living. He has been writing for the fun of it ever since he was an apprentice in a big engineering shop in London twenty years ago. His profession deals with exacting and beautiful machinery, and he could no more do hack writing than hack engineering. And unlike the other English realists of his generation who have cultivated a cheap flippancy, McFee finds no exhilaration in easy sneers at middle-class morality. He has a dirk up his sleeve for Gentility (how delightfully he flays it in Aliens) but he loves the middle classes for just what they are: the great fly-wheel of the world. His attitude toward his creations is that of a “benevolent marbleheart” (his own phrase). He has seen some of the seams of life, and like McAndrew he has hammered his own philosophy. It is a manly, just, and gentle creed, but not a soft one. Since the war began he has been on sea service, first on a beef-ship and transport in the Mediterranean, now as sub-lieutenant in the British Navy. When the war is over, and if he feels the call of the desk, Mr. McFee’s brawny shoulder will sit in at the literary feast and a big handful of scribblers will have to drop down the dumb-waiter shaft to make room for him. It is a disconcerting figure in Grub Street, the man who really has something to say.

Publishers are always busy casting horoscopes for their new finds. How the benign planets must have twirled in happy curves when Harold Bell Wright was born, if one may credit his familiar mage, Elsbury W. Reynolds! But the fame that is built merely on publishers’ press sheets does not dig very deep in the iron soil of time. We are all only raft-builders, as Lord Dunsany tells us in his little parable; even the raft that Homer made for Helen must break up some day. Who in these States knows the works of Nat Gould? Twelve million of his dashing paddock novels have been sold in England, but he is as unknown here as is Preacher Wright in England. What is so dead as a dead best seller? Sometimes it is the worst sellers that come to life, roll away the stone, and an angel is found sitting laughing in the sepulchre. Let me quote Mr. McFee once more: “I have no taste for blurb, but I cannot refuse facts.”

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William M.P. McFee was born at sea in 1881. His father, an English skipper, was bringing his vessel toward the English coast after a long voyage. His mother was a native of Nova Scotia. They settled in New Southgate, a northern middle-class suburb of London, and here McFee was educated in the city schools of which the first pages of Casuals of the Sea give a pleasant description. Then he went to a well-known grammar school at Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk–what we would call over here a high school. He was a quiet, sturdy boy, and a first-rate cricketer.

At sixteen he was apprenticed to a big engineering firm in Aldersgate. This is one of the oldest streets in London, near the Charterhouse, Smithfield Market, and the famous “Bart’s” Hospital. In fact, the office of the firm was built over one of the old plague pits of 1665. His father had died several years before; and for the boy to become an apprentice in this well-known firm Mrs. McFee had to pay three hundred pounds sterling. McFee has often wondered just what he got for the money. However, the privilege of paying to be better than someone else is an established way of working out one’s destiny in England, and at the time the mother and son knew no better than to conform. You will find this problem, and the whole matter of gentility, cuttingly set out in Aliens.

After three years as an apprentice, McFee was sent out by the firm on various important engineering jobs, notably a pumping installation at Tring, which he celebrated in a pamphlet of very creditable juvenile verses, for which he borrowed Mr. Kipling’s mantle. This was at the time of the Boer War, when everybody in trousers who wrote verses was either imitating Kipling or reacting from him.

His engineering work gave young McFee a powerful interest in the lives and thoughts of the working classes. He was strongly influenced by socialism, and all his spare moments were spent with books. He came to live in Chelsea with an artist friend, but he had already tasted life at first hand, and the rather hazy atmosphere of that literary and artistic Utopia made him uneasy. His afternoons were spent at the British Museum reading room, his evenings at the Northampton Institute, where he attended classes, and even did a little lecturing of his own. Competent engineer as he was, that was never sufficient to occupy his mind. As early as 1902 he was writing short stories and trying to sell them.

In 1905 his uncle, a shipmaster, offered him a berth in the engine room of one of his steamers, bound for Trieste. He jumped at the chance. Since then he has been at sea almost continuously, save for one year (1912-13) when he settled down in Nutley, New Jersey, to write. The reader of Aliens will be pretty familiar with Nutley by the time he reaches page 416. “Netley” is but a thin disguise. I suspect a certain liveliness in the ozone of Nutley. Did not Frank Stockton write some of his best tales there? Some day some literary meteorologist will explain how these intellectual anticyclones originate in such places as Nutley (N.J.), Galesburg (Ill.), Port Washington (N.Y.), and Bryn Mawr (Pa.)

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The life of a merchantman engineer would not seem, to open a fair prospect into literature. The work is gruelling and at the same time monotonous. Constant change of scene and absence of home ties are (I speak subject to correction) demoralizing; after the coveted chief’s certificate is won, ambition has little further to look forward to. A small and stuffy cabin in the belly of the ship is not an inviting study. The works of Miss Corelli and Messrs. Haig and Haig are the only diversions of most of the profession. Art, literature, and politics do not interest them. Picture postcards, waterside saloons, and the ladies of the port are the glamour of his that they delight to honour.

I imagine that Mr. Carville’s remarkable account (in Aliens) of his induction into the profession of marine engineering has no faint colour of reminiscence in Mr. McFee’s mind. The filth, the intolerable weariness, the instant necessity of the tasks, stagger the easygoing suburban reader. And only the other day, speaking of his work on a seaplane ship in the British Navy, Mr. McFee said some illuminating things about the life of an engineer:

It is Sunday, and I have been working. Oh, yes, there is plenty of work to do in the world, I find, wherever I go. But I cannot help wondering why Fate so often offers me the dirty end of the stick. Here I am, awaiting my commission as an engineer-officer of the R.N.R., and I am in the thick of it day after day. I don’t mean, when I say “work,” what you mean by work. I don’t mean work such as my friend the Censor does, or my friend the N.E.O. does, nor my friends and shipmates, the navigating officer, the flying men, or the officers of the watch. I mean work, hard, sweating, nasty toil, coupled with responsibility. I am not alone. Most ships of the naval auxiliary are the same.

I am anxious for you, a landsman, to grasp this particular fragment of the sorry scheme of things entire, that in no other profession have the officers responsible for the carrying out of the work to toil as do the engineers in merchantmen, in transports, in fleet auxiliaries. You do not expect the major to clear the waste-pipe of his regimental latrines. You do not expect the surgeon to superintend the purging of his bandages. You do not expect the navigators of a ship to paint her hull. You do not expect an architect to make bricks (sometimes without straw). You do not expect the barrister to go and repair the lock on the law courts door, or oil the fans that ventilate the halls of justice. Yet you do, collectively, tolerate a tradition by which the marine engineer has to assist, overlook, and very often perform work corresponding precisely to the irrelevant chores mentioned above, which are in other professions relegated to the humblest and roughest of mankind. I blame no one. It is tradition, a most terrible windmill at which to tilt; but I conceive it my duty to set down once at least the peculiar nature of an engineer’s destiny. I have had some years of it, and I know what I am talking about.

The point to distinguish is that the engineer not only has the responsibility, but he has, in nine cases out of ten, to do it. He, the officer, must befoul his person and derange his hours of rest and recreation, that others may enjoy. He must be available twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, at sea or in port. Whether chief or the lowest junior, he must be ready to plunge instantly to the succour of the vilest piece of mechanism on board. When coaling, his lot is easier imagined than described.

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The remarkable thing to note is that Mr. McFee imposed upon these laborious years of physical toil a strenuous discipline of intellect as well. He is a born worker: patient, dogged, purposeful. His years at sea have been to him a more fruitful curriculum than that of any university. The patient sarcasm with which he speaks of certain Oxford youths of his acquaintance does not escape me. His sarcasm is just and on the target. He has stood as Senior Wrangler in a far more exacting viva voce–the University of the Seven Seas.

If I were a college president, out hunting for a faculty, I would deem that no salary would be too big to pay for the privilege of getting a man like McFee on my staff. He would not come, of course! But how he has worked for his mastery of the art of life and the theory thereof! When his colleagues at sea were dozing in their deck chairs or rattling the bones along the mahogany, he was sweating in his bunk, writing or reading. He has always been deeply interested in painting, and no gallery in any port he visited ever escaped him. These extracts from some of his letters will show whether his avocations were those of most engineers:

As I crossed the swing-bridge of the docks at Garston (Liverpool) the other day, and saw the tapering spars silhouetted against the pale sky, and the zinc-coloured river with its vague Cheshire shores dissolving in mist, it occurred to me that if an indulgent genie were to appear and make me an offer I would cheerfully give up writing for painting. As it is, I see things in pictures and I spend more time in the Walker Gallery than in the library next door.

I’ve got about all I can get out of books, and now I don’t relish them save as memories. The reason for my wish, I suppose, is that character, not incident, is my metier. And you can draw character, paint character, but you can’t very well blat about it, can you?

I am afraid Balzac’s job is too big for anybody nowadays. The worst of writing men nowadays is their horrible ignorance of how people live, of ordinary human possibilities.

A—-. is always pitching into me for my insane ideas about “cheap stuff.” He says I’m on the wrong tack and I’ll be a failure if I don’t do what the public wants. I said I didn’t care a blue curse what the public wanted, nor did I worry much if I never made a big name. All I want is to do some fine and honourable work, to do it as well as I possibly could, and there my responsibility ended…. To hell with writing, I want to feel and see!

I am laying in a gallon of ink and a couple of cwt. of paper, to the amusement of the others, who imagine I am a merchant of some sort who has to transact business at sea because Scotland yard are alter him!

His kit for every voyage, besides the gallon of ink and the hundredweight of foolscap, always included a score of books, ranging from Livy or Chaucer to Gorky and histories of Italian art. Happening to be in New York at the time of the first exhibition in this country of “futurist” pictures, he entered eagerly into the current discussion in the newspaper correspondence columns. He wrote for a leading London journal an article on “The Conditions of Labour at Sea.” He finds time to contribute to the Atlantic Monthly pieces of styptic prose that make zigzags on the sphygmograph of the editor. His letters written weekly to the artist friend he once lived with in Chelsea show a humorous and ironical mind ranging over all topics that concern cultivated men. I fancy he could out-argue many a university professor on Russian fiction, or Michelangelo, or steam turbines.

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When one says that McFee found little intellectually in common with his engineering colleagues, that is not to say that he was a prig. He was interested in everything that they were, but in a great deal more, too. And after obtaining his extra chief’s certificate from the London Board of Trade, with a grade of ninety-eight per cent., he was not inclined to rest on his gauges.

In 1912 he took a walking trip from Glasgow to London, to gather local colour for a book he had long meditated; then he took ship for the United States, where he lived for over a year writing hard. Neither Aliens nor Casuals of the Sea, which he had been at work on for years, met with the favour of New York publishers. He carried his manuscripts around the town until weary of that amusement; and when the United Fruit Company asked him to do some engineering work for them he was not loath to get back into the old harness. And then came the war.

Alas, it is too much to hope that the Cunard Company will ever officer a vessel as I have suggested at the outset of these remarks. But I made my proposal not wholly at random, for in Conrad, Kipling, and McFee, all three, there is something of the same artistic creed. In those two magnificent prefaces–to A Personal Record and to The Nigger of the Narcissus–Conrad has set down, in words that should be memorable to every trafficker in ink, his conception of the duty of the man of letters. They can never be quoted too often:

“All ambitions are lawful except those which climb upward on the miseries or credulities of mankind…. The sight of human affairs deserves admiration and pity. And he is not insensible who pays them the undemonstrative tribute of a sigh which is not a sob, and of a smile which is not a grin.”

That is the kind of tribute that Mr. McPee has paid to the Gooderich family in Casuals of the Sea. Somewhere in that book he has uttered the immortal remark that “The world belongs to the Enthusiast who keeps cool.” I think there is much of himself in that aphorism, and that the cool enthusiast, the benevolent marbleheart, has many fine things in store for us.

And there is one other sentence in Casuals of the Sea that lingers with me, and gives a just trace of the author’s mind. It is worth remembering, and I leave it with you:

“She considered a trouble was a trouble and to be treated as such, instead of snatching the knotted cord from the hand of God and dealing murderous blows.”

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