Was Melville a Landlubber? A Few Greater Books of the Sea


Moby DickMelville’s epic adventure story at sea is a contender for the best novel in American literature. It deserves high line honors in any list. As a novelist, he sets the bar. But, and it’s a big but, Melville’s prose leaves the sailor in me wanting. His nautical imagery and descriptions of day-to-day life aboard a whaler in the 1840s come across like that of a greenhorn, more romantic and convenient than honest and reflective, a man anxious to unload all the knowledge crammed into his head during his first year at sea. Indeed, he lets loose with  the sort of stuff a salt unpacks over time and comes to understand as merely a whiff of greater things.

What’s interesting, I think, is how Melville (short hitch sailor) and Hawthorne (son of a sea captain) both end up turning their backs to the sea, while Emerson and his sidekick, Thoreau, echo  the lessons of the sea, their ears hard-pressed to the Quaker whaling captains who kept them in coin.

For a refreshing dip into a summertime sea, armchair admirals might want to steer toward….

TOILERS OF THE SEA by Victor Hugo – Over-the-top Hugo, no bounds to flourishes and swirls.

Conrad. Conrad. Joseph Conrad….His is the authoritative voice of the sea, none better, not ever. In his hands, the sea becomes an entryway to life and art.  Pick any one of his titles and you’re off on a journey into the deepest part of things.: The Nigger of the Narcissus; Heart of Darkness; Secret Sharer; Lord Jim; The Rover; and on and on. Also, his work, THE MIRROR OF THE SEA, is both the best place for a landlubber with a hankering for salt to begin and to end his and her tastings. Start by reading the short story, The Initiation, and end by joining Conrad in his essay-like reflections on the meaning and use of the sea and seaman in the creation of art.

Joshua Slocum

SAILING ALONE AROUND THE WORLD by Joshua Slocum……A poster boy for Emerson’s model of American self-reliance, Slocum fixes up an old oyster boat, sets sail, and becomes the first solo circumnavigator. Along the way, he encounters kings, queens, headhunters, cannibals, and spear-throwers of unknown origin, and makes peace with both sky and water gods. It’s a rip-roaring tale told by one of America’s most resourceful men and best of all, it’s fun, first page to last.

The Open Boat by Stephen Crane……This gets my vote as the best American short story.  Certainly, no one has yet to best what Crane offers in the first paragraph, the snap to his punch unrivaled…. “None of them knew the color of the sky. Their eyes glanced level, and were fastened upon the waves that swept toward them. These waves were the hue of slate, save for the tops, which were foaming white, and all the men knew the colors of the sea. The horizon narrowed and widened, and dipped and rose, and at all times its edge was jagged with waves that seemed thrust up in points like rocks.

Many a man ought to have a bath-tub larger than the boat which here rode upon the sea….

THE PILOT by James Fenimore Cooper…Even though this is the first genuine sea story in American literature, THE PILOT still holds up as a good read. Cooper plugged into the timeless nature of boats and sea and kept the juice flowing chapter first to chapter last. It’s also an exceptional introduction to the foundation of American letters. In fact, Van Wyck Brooks hits the bulls-eye ,calling THE PILOT the first utterance of what would develop into a uniquely American voice. Conrad called Cooper, “The Master,” and considered him, for good reason, one of the best storytellers ever published. THE PILOT was part of a trilogy, including THE RED ROVER and THE WATER-WITCH, and like a tripod, they offer a stable sightline into what’s coming down the pike: Poe, James, Wilson, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and among others, Joe Mitchell and more.

Donald Crowhurst

THE STRANGE LAST VOYAGE OF DONALD CROWHURST by Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall…For me, this is one of the spookiest sea stories ever told. It’s a classic study in paranoia and probably as good as any work in describing the machinery whirling and seizing and forever wobbling inside the head of an anti-hero.

Crowhurst sets out to win the  solo race around the world and ends up plotting a course to insanity. Instead of battling The Horn, Roaring Forties and Screaming Sixties, he decides to listen to race reports from his sun bathing spot off the Brazilian coast and file false positions, with him always a wee bit in the lead. At first, it’s easy to fake things, but with each passing day, he must give more and more time to protecting and perfecting the lie. Eventually, he must dedicate his life and every waking breath to maintaining the lie. It, of course, consumes him in the most frightening ways. Robert Stone patterned OUTERBRIDGE REACH after Crowhurst’s tale, but his work is no match for the real thing told by two Brit Journalists from the logs and tape recordings Crowhurst made.

RORY NUGENT’s most recent book is DOWN AT THE DOCKS.

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