They That Go Down to the Sea in Ships…and Write

Tales of the sea abound. You cannot navigate the vast sea of literature and be a textual landlubber. Perhaps, it begins with The Odyssey. Homer describes the ship cutting across the “wine dark sea” and the poetry and humanity and engineering feat of sailing becomes a constant in literary studies.  Even our English literature reaches back to the haunting poem of “The Seafarer” or to the ships bearing Beowulf to the rescue of the Danes.  When the great northern heroes of ancient lore or myth died, they were sent off to sea in flaming boats to their destinations.  Tolkien borrowed from this when his broken and aging heroes boarded ships bound to the Undying Lands.

James Fenimore Cooper wrote the first, or one of the first, naval novels. It was titled The Pilot and like other Cooper writing ventures, it opened the latches to a host of books.  Cooper, in his earlier years, failed as a student and went to sea.  Herman Melville was and still is the master of the art. His books such as Typee and Redburn were based on his own personal experiences at sea.  Not only did Moby Dick float on water, but so did his Mississippi River-based novel The Confidence Man.  The English poet John Masefield wrote beautiful lyrics about ships and waters (“I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky….”)  C. S. Forester wrote the Horatio Hornblower series chronicling the tales of a young British officer during the Napoleonic Wars, which were to a large degree for the British, naval wars. In more recent times, Patrick O’Brien also wrote at least 20 novels where the setting was also the Napoleanic era naval war.  He may be best known for the book and movie Master and Man.  

The idea of a boat on the waters captures one of the main ingredients of literature. That is, the imaginary world. A fictional story has to have a Narnia, a Middle Earth, a Yoknapatawpha County in which the story can occur, and that world can be created and contained on the decks of a sailing vessel.  It doesn’t matter so much as to whether the place is actual or imaginary, whether it is recognizable or not, but there is no story without setting. And, literature cannot embrace vast numbers.  Literature is not demography.  Russian authors like Tolstoy and others tax us with their vast arrays of characters, but even the stories with many people with many situations have to narrow their focus to a few.

Ships are near perfect vessels for conveying a story from the embarcation port of the writer to that of the destination port, the reader. The setting is confined mainly to the decks of the ship and the characters grow out of the crew or passengers. (I never watched it–thankfully–but the television series “Loveboat” followed this same pattern.)

The ships can be large (as in The Posiden Adventure); they can be submarines (as in The Hunt for Red October); they can be ancient (as in The Odyssey or The Aeneid); they can be historically based  (as in The Caine Mutiny, which is set in World War II); they can be purely imaginary (as in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader) ; they can travel through space (such as those of the Star Trek and Star Wars sagas); they can be as small as a two man raft (as in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn).  Ships and voyages can fill an epic poem (again, The Odyssey), an epic novel (Moby Dick), a short story (Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat”), a poem (Longfellow’s “The Secret of the Sea”), or a song (as in Gordon Lightfoot’s incredible “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”).  Such stories might be as mysterious as “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner” or as faith-inspiring and historical as the story of the Mayflower or as tragic and unforgettable as the maiden voyage of the Titanic.  And when literature locks arms with its old mate, history, the stories abound with such tales as the the English Sea Dogs against the Spanish Armada, the three ships Columbus and his crew manned, Magellan’s world encompassing voyage, Nelson at Trafalga, the American navy at such places as Coral Sea and Midway, and the British in their successful pursuit and destruction of The Bismark (another great story captured by in song).

Ships can reflect the microcosm of the world, society, and humanity. A story about a crew who were all equal in rank and the same in personality would not only be uninteresting, but would not be remotely human. There is so much that is metaphorical and analogical about people being together on a voyage by ship, crossing the sea of life, going from one port of understanding to another port of deeper and better understanding. The journey can represent life as a whole, the path from youth to manhood, or redemption. We can flee on ships (Jonah), seek riches on ships (Treasure Island), outgrow selfish and spoiled childhood (Captains Courageous), seek revenge on a ship (Captain Ahab in Moby Dick), or seek understanding on a ship (Ishmael in Moby Dick).

In recent weeks, I have read two marvelous short novels about men and ships. They were Billy Budd, Sailor by Herman Melville and The N-Word of the Narcissus by Joseph Conrad. (I also read Melville’s Benito Cereno, but I shall not be discussing that interesting work here.) Both books are short, powerfully descriptive, and rich in character studies.

Good literature is immune to spoilers. By that, I mean that a good novel does not depend upon the reader finding out how the story ends. The surprise ending may be fun or fulfilling, but it is the development, the style, the word-crafting that makes the story. We all know how Dicken’s Christmas Carol ends, but it is the story unfolding along the way, the gentle transformation of Scrooge, the universal nature of the past, the present, and the future that makes the story. In spite of all that, I will refrain from telling how Melville’s and Conrad’s stories end.

Billy Budd was still in rough, uneven form when it was published. Melville died before he finished drafting the story and it was published a good many years after his death. Nevertheless, Melville being Melville, one doubts that he would have shaped the story up too much differently from the existing form. He was not a a post-Hemingway news reporter, but a poet who wrote novels. Billy Budd, the character, was a loveable, handsome, naïve, cooperative, and congenial fellow. He was captured off of another ship and impressed on the ship where he served. He was, to use a school analogy, “voted most popular” by the other sailors. He would have been the team captain of a sports team, the escort for the Homecoming Queen, and fellow all the other guys honored and wanted to be like.

Billy Budd as portrayed in a film version of the story.

          But even Mr. Perfect, Billy Budd, had a flaw. He stuttered when under pressure and was nervously fearful of failing in his duties. His attributes which won the admiration of the crew also created vengeful scorn in one of the ship’s officers, named John Claggart. Vengefulness, pettiness, and power create the movement toward the conflict in this story.  The political and military backdrop to the story, obscurely revealed in the novel, is the fear of a ship mutiny.

         In some ways, Billy Budd is a Christ-figure. That idea has to be handled with care because no character in literature is remotely like Christ in any true sense. But just as I am called upon to mirror Christ as a husband, so literary figures mirror Christ in small ways. Billy Budd was the innocent and pure man who came into conflict with Claggart, the evil and scheming man.

All novels, even many badly written ones, mirror truths about human nature. None of us can claim even Billy Budd’s purity and innocence, but we still provoke the jealousy of the Claggarts of the world. In some cases, we are the Claggarts. We envy and resent the fortune, position, honor, and success of others. Melville reminds us of the twisted and warped and fallen world we live in. I wish I could affirm that Melville was a Christian or that he returned to the Dutch Reformed heritage of his youth. I cannot do that, but I can affirm that the Calvinistic view of the world as fallen is always present in his books. Billy Budd is both a good introduction to Melville and a good, but sad, reminder of the sinful world we inhabit.

Surely Joseph Conrad read Herman Melville. Conrad is an amazing English writer just for the mere fact that his native language was Polish. He was a seaman. From his earlier career at sea, he learned the nautical language and experience the range of characters as found on a ship’s voyage (any ship’s voyage).

One of his earlier works was The N-Word of the Narcissus. I will assume that you understand “n-word.” Conrad’s book, like Flannery O’Connor’s short stories and William Faulkner’s novels and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, used the word that custom and society allowed, accepted, and assumed. Ruben Alvarado and Wordbridge Press has re-issued the original book and replaced that other word with “N-word.” Some people have complained and screamed “Censorship.” Not so. This was not a government action. You can buy editions with the original title all the day long. You can scream the title at the top of your lungs all the day long (which I would caution against). But the Woodbridge edition was presented as “a public service.”

The Conrad novel will not be read, discussed, or distributed in many circles because its title creates concern and opposition. Our age has grown obsessed with the dangers of movies showing people smoking. Our age will allow movies, books, and songs that use almost every profanity and blasphemy imaginable. Our age feels comfortable about displaying body parts on the screen and in society. We have our limits, our own cultural taboos, and the “N-word” in almost any context is a taboo.  (The exception to the taboo, strangely enough, is in the music and lyrics of some rap artists.)

So, thanks to Wordbridge Press for putting the book out there for readers, for high school and college classes, and for any who would not read the original.

The N-Word of the Narcissus is the story of a motley crew of sailors. (I hesitate to use the phrase “motley crew” for it might imply a knowledge of the singing group of whom I know nothing.) A black man, from the West Indian islands, boards the ship, and becomes the center of attention for the rest of the book. This is not a predictable story of racial prejudice. You know that story: Whites meet and pre-judge a black man. The black man slowly demonstrates good character and kindness to the racially warped whites who finally realize their errors. I will grant that story line is a good one and necessary one, and it is the heart of what happens between “N-word” Jim and Huck Finn in Twain’s novel.

But the redemption from racism tale is not Conrad’s story.  James Wait, the black sailor, is no hero. He is not even nice. He is sick and dying, which he can’t obviously help, but he is also mean and manipulative. At many points, members of the crew risk life and limb to help Wait, but only receive rebukes and angry responses from him. This is not a racist screed, however, for the whites have their own share of sins. Donkin, another sailor, is absolutely despicable. He is lazy and conniving. The cook is incredibly heroic and selfless at one point, but a religious fanatic who is insulting when witnessing. The other sailors exhibit their own personality flaws as well.

The crew does go out of its way to help and cater to James Wait. The question is this: Is he truly sick or just using an appearance of sickness to avoid work? In his interesting introduction, Ruben Alvarado suggests that the story deals with guilt manipulation. Wait takes advantage continually of the crew’s guilt and labors for his benefit. Sadly, there are no redemptive turns in this sad tale.

Life on a ship is not easy or ideal. If the storms don’t drown you, the human relationships will break you. No happy endings in either Melville or Conrad. Both novels of the sea echo much that is true of all of life.

One thought on “They That Go Down to the Sea in Ships…and Write

  1. Pingback: Joseph Conrad and Heart of Darkness – The Heavy Laden Bookshelf

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