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.