Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Literature of the Sea

If I can no longer go to sea, at least I can still read about it. The genre of literature concerning the sea is a narrowly specialized one, and the books are often not easy to locate, but reading of mankind’s experiences aboard ships at sea is nonetheless a richly rewarding endeavor.

I suppose it all began in ancient Greece with Homer’s Odyssey. This prototype has been read, studied, analyzed, and dramatized since the beginning of literary time. Nothing written since has even come close to matching the Odyssey’s unique phantasmagorical blend of navigation and meteorology with the histrionics of humans and the caprices of the gods.

In more recent centuries, the source of most of my reading, the emphasis has shifted to empirical realism, both in fiction and nonfiction. Some well-acclaimed classics have emerged from this tradition, even in a young country like the United States. Two such masterpieces by American merchant seamen are Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years before the Mast and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.

One of my favorite writers is the famous seaman-turned-author Joseph Conrad (1857-1924). Born far from the sea in Poland and shipping out initially in the French Merchant Marine, he learned English as his third language while in his twenties. After retiring from the sea he composed many volumes of such elegant prose in English that the uninitiated would never guess that it was an acquired and not his native language. Such great books of his as Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness, The Mirror of the Sea, The Arrow of Gold, Youth, Nostromo, and numerous other novels and short stories have been my companions for countless hours. Not a devoutly religious man, but nonetheless deeply philosophical and introspective, Conrad focused extensively on the human condition, bristled at the injustices and inequalities in life, wondered why it is the way it is, and suggested that it could be better. He posed many more questions than answers, and challenged his readers to contemplate some very serious issues. He wrote beautifully of the sea. He also wrote eloquently of the brotherhood of mankind, of
the subtle but invincible conviction that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts. . .which binds men to each other, which binds together all humanity—the dead to the living and the living to the unborn.1
Conrad bequeathed to us twenty-six volumes of largely secular wisdom that nonetheless points unmistakably to a God who cannot but be displeased with much of his children’s conduct. Subtle yet clearly recognizable to any thinking person, the essentials of his thought were collected and anthologized in a lovely little volume titled Wisdom and Beauty from Conrad by Mother Harriet M. Capes, a Catholic nun and woman of God.

Captain Sir David William Bone (1874-1953), a Scot, was a younger contemporary of Conrad and an established, well-respected author in his own right. Writing while he was still sailing, he composed several works of both fiction and nonfiction. Unfortunately, his popularity as a writer has declined, and his books are now difficult to find. Nonetheless, his first work, The Brassbounder, remains a thoroughly enjoyable and very informative tale of the hard life aboard a sailing ship voyaging from Scotland to California and back. Three additional novels followed over the years, as well as two very interesting histories of the British Merchant Marine in the two World Wars. His final book, Landfall at Sunset, is a fascinating personal memoir published in 1952. It is the story of a man who saw the best and the worst of the world in his extensive travels in both peace and wartime, yet who never lost his appreciation for the simple beauties of life. I particularly like his description of an early morning arrival in my home area while assigned to the passenger liner Transylvania of the Anchor Line:
To come in from the eastward with the sun is a fine and dramatic entry under any circumstance, and it is nowhere more impressive than when Sandy Hook and the nebulous glimmer of the Port of New York appear ahead and the open Atlantic lies astern. The coastline of Long Island to starboard appears almost unreal in its fairy beauty: the bare sandy shore is but faintly visible, and the long chain of seaside lights not yet sufficiently defined to stand out barren as in the broad of day. Anon, the sun comes up and the blue haze that lingers over the Hook and the entrance to the Channel dissolves at the onset of his rays.2
As I read this I can practically see it, as if I were aboard the Transylvania myself. Wisdom and beauty from Bone, as it were.

Other career seamen of the same era also wrote their memoirs upon retirement. These men worked in an age when travelling overseas was more personal than it is today. Passengers sailed aboard named ships and spent many days in the company of the Masters, mates, and engineers who ran these vessels. Repeat customers often got to know their seamen-hosts quite well, and many of the Captains in particular developed a substantial following among their passengers. With no modern-day entertainment aboard ship, to pass the time people entertained each other and thereby got to know each other. This usually involved fine dining, lavish parties, extensive conversation, tours of the bridge and engine rooms, and so on, which engaged the ships’ officers socially with their passengers.

On retirement, then, Captain Bone and other well-known Masters of passenger ships had ready audiences when they penned their memoirs. These books became well-known in their time as well. One outstanding example is Captain of the Queens by Captain Harry Grattidge (1890-1979), who in a long career with the Cunard Line commanded both the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth. An example from across the Channel is J’ai commande Normandie by Commandant Pierre Thoreux (1890-?) of the French Line, or more properly, the Compagnie Generale Transatlantique. The most ambitious memoir writer of all was Captain Sir James Gordon Partridge Bisset (1883-1967) of the Cunard Line. In 1924 he composed Ship Ahoy!, a book of practical advice and nautical information for travellers. During his retirement in the late 1950s he penned three volumes of autobiography totaling nearly a thousand pages: Sail Ho!, Tramps and Ladies, and Commodore. Like Captain Grattidge, he also commanded both the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth.

Captain Sir Arthur Henry Rostron (1869-1940) commanded the passenger liner Carpathia of the Cunard Line, the vessel which rescued the survivors of the Titanic and delivered them to New York. His book, Home from the Sea, recounts his role in this tragic event, as well as his long career in passenger and cargo service in peacetime and his troop transport duties during the First World War. At the close of this career he made two noteworthy observations:
 Under a kind Providence I have sailed the seas for forty-six years.3
And furthermore:
The Brotherhood of the Sea strikes very deep into the hearts of all Seamen.4
These two themes, Providence and the brotherhood of the sea, are widely recognized in the literature of the sea, both in the competition between rival shipping lines and in the brutality of war at sea. Vice Admiral James Francis Calvert (1920-2009) recounted his feelings as a young officer during battle in his memoir Silent Running: My Years on a World War II Attack Submarine:
 I saw the first ship sinking, almost vertically. Dozens of men were scrambling down the sides of the ship, hanging onto lines, sliding, shouting, grasping at each other. Smoke was belching from the ship in several places. The red-and-white Japanese merchant colors fluttered from the stern.
I swung the scope around, and there—so close that I could see the facial expressions clearly—was a lifeboat crowded with seamen and soldiers. Some of them ducked behind the gunnel of the lifeboat when they saw the periscope.
I reflected on what I had just seen. I had a chance to see what horrible damage our warheads could do.
I felt a flash of pity and anguish for these men. They had had no warning of this devastating attack. They had had no chance to fight back.5
Captain Edward Latimer Beach (1918-2002), a colleague of Admiral Calvert and the author of several books on submarines, explained the feeling of “pity and anguish” very succinctly in his novel Dust on the Sea:
Even enemies must learn to recognize their ultimate brotherhood.6
A dozen years after the war, then-Commander Calvert skippered the submarine Skate on a peaceful military exploration of the Arctic Ocean. In his memoir of this expedition, Surface at the Pole: The Extraordinary Voyages of the USS Skate, he wrote introspectively of the role of Providence aboard a high-technology, state-of-the-art, nuclear-powered submarine:
The reason of man created the Skate, and only cool reason can make her work. But this is not enough. We who are in charge of this creature of reason must often lean upon our faith in a Presence beyond reason to find the strength of spirit and will to fulfill our duties.7
One of these duties was:
to see that religious services are held on board when the ship is underway on Sunday. As the one who must conduct these services, I have always found them to bring me much comfort and reward.8
Another lifelong seaman who derived “much comfort and reward” from religious faith was Captain Joshua Slocum (1844-1909). Born and raised in Nova Scotia, he pursued a long career aboard both British and American merchant ships and achieved fame by becoming the first person to sail a small boat around the world alone, something he did in his retirement between 1895 and 1898. On crossing the vast Pacific aboard his sailboat, the Spray, he wrote:
For one whole month my vessel held her course true. The Southern Cross I saw every night abeam. The sun came up every morning astern; every evening it went down ahead. I wished for no other compass to guide me, for these were true. If I doubted my reckoning after a long time at sea I verified it by reading the clock aloft made by the Great Architect, and it was right.
I was en rapport with my surroundings, and was carried along on a vast stream where I felt the buoyancy of His hand who made all the worlds.9
Captain Slocum had made many commercial transpacific voyages with entire crews for company. Regarding his complete solitude on this crossing, however, he simply stated:
I sailed alone with God.10
And evidently that was companionship enough.

Companionship of a different sort filled the memoir of Korvettenkapitan Peter Erich Cremer (1911-1992) who as Kapitanleutnant commanded the German submarine U-333 during the Battle of the Atlantic in the 1940s. He described in brutal detail the combat between his vessel and the British corvette Crocus on October 7, 1942, near Freetown, Sierra Leone. The Crocus machine-gunned, shelled, and twice rammed the U-333, inflicting tremendous damage and numerous casualties. After the heavily listing and flooding U-333 dived to escape her pursuer, the commander of the Crocus reported her as capsized and sunk with no survivors. This would not be the last word, though. In his book U-Boat Commander, Korvettenkapitan Cremer concluded his narration of the battle sequence with this pleasant surprise:
 Years later the Crocus’ skipper, the New Zealand Lieutenant-Commander J. F. Holm, sent me his own account of the action, which rounds off the picture.11
Lieutenant-Commander Holm wrote several paragraphs of battle narrative from the Crocus’ viewpoint. After repeating his former adversary’s side of the story, the German commander continued in more fraternal prose:
 After the war I learnt a great deal about my former opponent. This New Zealander was a splendid fellow: he had heard of the hard times in Germany and wanted to give a little help with food parcels, so he got in touch with my mother. Great was his surprise to find me among the living and he wrote to me on his own initiative:
‘Dear Sir, I hope you read English better than I German. After many attempts I got your address through the British Admiralty in London. I was more than surprised to learn that I did not sink U-333 and I am glad you managed to bring your heavily damaged boat back to the French base.’
Two men who had been at each other’s throats became friends. He came from a sea-going family from Wellington and was a captain in the merchant navy. His letter to me continued:
‘Until the end of the war I commanded the corvette Crocus. I am married and have four children. I agree with you: war is a nasty business. In fact it seems completely idiotic that in those days you and I had no other desire than to do away with each other. I consider you to be a fine fellow, as you do me.’12
Thus did two enemies “learn to recognize their ultimate brotherhood.” Beach, Conrad, and Rostron would be proud, as would Saint Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, correspondent to the Romans, and counselor to the world:
 Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love . . . Be of the same mind toward one another . . . live peaceably with all men . . . [and] Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers (Rom. 12:10, 16, 18 & 13:1).
The fraternity of the sea, under the watchful eye of the “Great Architect,” holds men together in a way that neither the competition of commerce nor the vicissitudes of war can overcome. The scripture of the sea, both historical and literary, bear this out as a small sampling demonstrates.

1 Joseph Conrad, preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus, in Frank W. Cushwa, An Introduction to Conrad, New York: The Odyssey Press, 1933, p. 224. 
2 Captain Sir David William Bone, Landfall at Sunset: The Life of a Contented Sailor, London: Gerald Duckworth & Co., Ltd., 1955, p. 173. 
3 Captain Sir Arthur Henry Rostron, Home from the Sea, New York: The MacMillan Company, 1931, p. 5. 
4 Ibid. 
5 Vice Admiral James Francis Calvert, USN, Silent Running: My Years on a World War II Attack Submarine, New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1995, p. 69. 
6 Captain Edward Latimer Beach, USN, Dust on the Sea, New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 1972, p. 345. 
7 Vice Admiral James Francis Calvert, USN, Surface at the Pole: The Extraordinary Voyages of the USS Skate, New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1960, p. 82. 
8 Op. cit., p. 75 
9 Captain Joshua Slocum, Sailing Alone around the World, New York: Sheridan House, 1976, pp. 145 & 148-149. This book was originally published in 1899 by The Century Company. 
10 Op. cit., p. 133. 
11 Korvettenkapitan Peter Erich Cremer and Fritz Brustat-Naval, U-Boat Commander: A Periscope View of the Battle of the Atlantic, tr. Lawrence Wilson, Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1984, p. 99. The German battle narrative appears on pp. 96-99 and the New Zealand account on pp. 99-100. This book was originally published in German by Verlag Ullstein GmbH in Berlin in 1982; this translation was originally published in the United Kingdom by The Bodley Head, Lt., in 1984. 
12 Op. cit., pp. 102-103.

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