Sea Fever – Review

Sam Jefferson. Sea Fever. New York: Bloomsbury, 2015. Print.

Sea Fever carries the subtitle The true adventures that inspired our greatest maritime authors, from Conrad to Masefield, Melville and Hemingway. The subtitle says it all. Sea Fever is a collection of biographical sketches of eleven novelists emphasizing each of the author’s experience with the sea.

This is a British publication, so some of the authors might be less familiar to American readers. Sea Fever does make a number of interesting revelations.

The chapters are arranged alphabetically from Childers to Stevenson. They are only incidentally about the books the authors wrote unless the work specifically reflects the author’s experience at sea.

Erskine Childers only wrote one novel, The Riddle of the Sands. He was a yachtsman, however, and his knowledge of the north coast of Europe held him in good stead with that political novel. It was published in 1903 but predicted the German threat that would lead to World War I.

Childers’ most exciting adventure in his yacht was running guns for Irish revolutionaries in 1913. Cane Brinton’s The Anatomy of Revolution notes that romantic revolutions go through predictable stages including one where in the words of a Frenchman, “the Revolution devours its children.” (The name Childers is a variation of the word children.) So Childers, an Englishman who supported Michael Collins and Irish independence, was sentenced to death in 1922 by an Irish court presumably because he was not the right kind of revolutionary.

The chapter on Joseph Conrad is perhaps the most detailed because Conrad spent nearly twenty years as a merchant sailor and sea captain. Sea Fever does a good job of describing the ships and routes that Conrad sailed. One interesting tidbit was that in 1893 the novelist of John Galsworthy and traveled as a passenger aboard the Torrens when Conrad was first mate. Jefferson especially makes a connection with Chance, “Youth,” and Heart of Darkness. And Conrad actually sailed on a vessel named the Narcissus.

Two anecdotes Sea Fever shares about James Fenimore Cooper shed some light on Cooper’s motivation to write. Cooper served as a merchant mariner and then as a midshipman in the U. S. Navy from 1806 to 1809. Besides learning sea lore, he also learned to hate the British who were busy impressing American sailors into the Royal Navy—one of whom was Cooper’s best friend whom he never saw again. That illegal kidnapping of Americans was the main cause of the War of 1812.

In 1823 when Cooper was already in his thirties and not apparently interested in a literary career, he read Walter Scott’s The Pirate. Back then Scott was considered the world’s greatest novelist. Cooper did not like The Pirate because it was clear that Scott knew very little about sailing or life at sea. He told his wife the could write a better sea story than The Pirate.

She said, “Why don’t you?”

He wrote The Pilot, which was well received, and his new career was born.

I find it ironic that Mark Twain’s famous humorous essay “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” criticizes Cooper for being unrealistic, the same critique Cooper made toward Scott.

When writing about Hemingway, Jefferson focuses on his love for deep sea fishing, especially going after billfish in the Gulf Stream. There is a detailed description of the Pilar, Hemingway’s fishing boat. Jefferson also tells some stories of wild fishing adventures, some of them wild because Hemingway liked to drink and carried a submachine gun on the boat. Of course, there are direct tie-ins to The Old Man and the Sea.

Jack London’s life story has a lot to do with the sea. He learned sailing as an oyster pirate, robbing oyster beds in San Francisco Bay while a teen. Although Sea Fever does not mention it, that might be why London was attracted to Socialism and Communism. The oyster beds had been public, like clam beds on Cape Cod, but then some wealthy entrepreneurs bought exclusive rights from the local governments.

Sea Fever also suggests the limits of Socialism. London’s unhappy first marriage was an attempt “to prove his theory at the time that it was better to make a cold-hearted decision on finding a partner based on compatibility than forging a match based on passion…” (134) Very “scientific” or “empirical,” but it did not work any more than Socialism does. London sailed on a sealer, inspiration for The Sea Wolf. After his happier “passionate” second marriage, he ordered a yacht to follow Melville’s journeys in the South Seas.

Frederick Marryat’s story was quite salty, having fought well in the Napoleonic Wars. He never received due credit for his work because his commanding officer was very competent but also outspoken, and that never goes wells with the brass. In his lifetime he was second to Dickens in book sales in England and influenced Melville and Conrad “among others.” (148)

John Masefield’s poem “Sea Fever” may be the best lyric poem in modern English describing the person with salt water in his veins. (I like the Old English “The Seafarer” the best.) Masefield was a “Conway Boy,” training to be merchant sailor, but when he actually got a chance to sail, he was terribly seasick, so he never returned to work on board a ship, though the sea continued to appeal to him. The other thing that Masefield picked up from his experience at sea were sea chanteys. Those may form the rhythms, even subconsciously, to some of his poems.

Sea Fever devotes most of its discussion of Melville to his experiences on whaling ships in the Pacific and when he jumped ship to spend time with the natives on the island of Nuku Hiva, which he described in slightly fictionalized form in Typee. We are reminded that Typee was Melville’s first and most successful novel during his lifetime. Moby Dick would not become important until the 1920s. Sea Fever just makes a passing reference to the Essex, which seems unusual. Elsewhere we wrote that Melville met the son of a crewman of the Essex and obtained a copy his story.

Arthur Ransome’s sailing adventures are mostly around the Baltic and North Seas. He sailed the Baltic between Riga and Tallinn (Jefferson calls it Reval, its German name) a few times. One interesting curiosity, in the middle of the Gulf of Riga is the tiny island of Ruhnu (or Runo or Ronu). The inhabitants until 1944 did not speak Latvian or Estonian or even Finnish or Russian, but a medieval Swedish. This is a reminder that the name Russia comes from Rus, or the Scandinavian “rowers” who first organized the Slavic peoples on the Volga, Dnieper, and Moscow Rivers.

Sea Fever calls Tobias Smollett “the father of the nautical novel.” Smollett served in the Royal Navy in the early 1700s and took part in the disastrous siege of Cartagena, New Spain (Colombia). He left the navy with little faith in the ability of its flag officers. His Roderick Random satirizes the foibles of the navy of his time.

Robert Louis Stevenson would sail the Pacific Ocean later in his life, but his famous sea novels Treasure Island and Kidnapped were written before he had any formal experience at sea. When he did hire a yacht to cruise the South Pacific, like London, he wanted to follow in the same manner the route of Melville. Of course, he ended up residing in Samoa for the rest of his relatively brief life.

Though his personal experience may have been limited when he wrote his two sea novels, Jefferson does not imply that Stevenson showed ignorance of the sea the way that Scott’s The Pirate did. Stevenson’s family trade for several generations was building lighthouses. Robert was about the only male in the family who did not pursue that as a living. While he may not have gone on any long voyages like some of the other authors, he knew coastal sailing and from observing lighthouse construction would have been aware of the nautical life.

Sea Fever does give some solid background for some of the novels of the sea written by the men listed here. There are a few typographical errors, but nothing too major—is Yonkers really upstate New York? Was Queen Victoria really on the throne in 1806?

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