The National Marine League asks, What are the ten best books of the sea? Without pondering very deeply on the matter, and confining ourself to prose, we would suggest the following as our own favourites:
Typhoon, by Joseph Conrad
The Nigger of the “Narcissus,” by Joseph Conrad
The Mirror of the Sea, by Joseph Conrad
Captains Courageous, by Rudyard Kipling
The Brassbounder, by David W. Bone
Salt of the Sea, by Morley Roberts
Mr. Midshipman Easy, by Captain Marryat
The Wreck of the “Grosvenor,” by Clark Russell
Moby Dick, by Herman Melville
An Ocean Tramp, by William McFee.
If one is allowed to include books that deal partially with salt water, one would have to add “Treasure Island,” “Casuals of the Sea,” by McFee, and “Old Junk,” by Tomlinson. The kind of shallow-water sea tales that we love to read after supper, with our feet on the nearest chair and a decent supply of tobacco handy, are the delicious stories by W.W. Jacobs. Dana’s “Two Years Before the Mast,” which is spoken of as a classic, we have never read. We have always had a suspicion of it, we don’t know why. Before we tackle it we shall re-read “The Water Babies.” We have always found a good deal of innocent cheer in the passages in John Woolman’s Journal describing his voyage from Philadelphia to London in 1772. Friend Woolman, like the sturdy Quaker that he was, was horrified (when he went to have a look at the ship Mary and Elizabeth) to find “sundry sorts of carved work and imagery” on that part of the vessel where the cabins were; and in the cabins themselves he observed “some superfluity of workmanship of several sorts.” This subjected his mind to “a deep exercise,” and he decided that he would have to take passage in the steerage instead of the cabin. Having our self made use of the steerage aforetime, both in the Mauretania and humbler vessels, we feel a certain kindred sympathy for his experiences. We have always enjoyed his remark: “The wind now blew vehemently, and the sea wrought to that degree that an awful seriousness prevailed.”
To come to poetry, we suppose that the greatest sea-poet who never ventured on anything more perilous than a ferry-boat was Walt Whitman. Walt, one likes to think, would have been horribly sea-sick if he had ventured out beyond the harbour buoy. A good deal of Walt’s tempestuous uproar about the glories of America was undoubtedly due to the fact that he had never seen anything else. Speaking of Walt reminds us that one book of the sea that we have never read (for the best of reasons: it has not been written) might be done by Thomas Mosher, the veteran tippler of literary minims. Mr. Mosher, we understand, “followed” the sea in his youth. Not long ago, when Mr. Mosher published that exquisite facsimile of the 1855 “Leaves of Grass,” we asked him when and how he first came in contact with Whitman’s work. He said:
I don’t suppose there was anything particularly interesting about my first acquaintance with Whitman, which at 14 years of age I made in my old family mansion situated at Smith’s Corner, America. I had been taking “The Galaxy” from its start, only a few months previous to the date I mention. I can still see myself in the sitting room of the old house. Smith’s Cor., America, I will remind you, is a portion of Biddeford, Me. An extra “d” has got into the old English name–which, by the way, only a year later I passed through after a shipwreck on the Devonshire coast. (That was in 1867.) No one ever told me anything about Walt.
These amateurish speculations on maritime books are of no value except for the fact that they elicited an interesting letter from an expert on these matters. William McFee wrote us as follows:–