M’Phee is the most tidy of chief engineers. If
the leg of a cockroach gets into one of his
slide-valves the whole ship knows it, and half
the ship has to clean up the mess.
The next time the Cunard Company commissions a new liner I wish they would sign on Joseph Conrad as captain, Rudyard Kipling as purser, and William McFee as chief engineer. They might add Don Marquis as deck steward and Hall Caine as chief-stewardess. Then I would like to be at Raymond and Whitcomb’s and watch the clerks booking passages!
William McFee does not spell his name quite as does the Scotch engineer in Mr. Kipling’s Brugglesmith, but I feel sure that his attitude toward cockroaches in the slide-valve is the same. Unhappily I do not know Mr. McFee in his capacity as engineer; but I know and respect his feelings as a writer, his love of honourable and honest work, his disdain for blurb and blat. And by an author’s attitude toward the purveyors of publicity, you may know him.
One evening about the beginning of December, 1915, I was sitting by the open fire in Hempstead, Long Island, a comparatively inoffensive young man, reading the new edition of Flecker’s “The Golden Journey to Samarkand” issued that October by Martin Secker in London. Mr. Secker, like many other wise publishers, inserts in the back of his books the titles of other volumes issued by him. Little did I think, as I turned to look over Mr. Secker’s announcements, that a train of events was about to begin which would render me, during the succeeding twelve months, a monomaniac in the eyes of my associates; so much so that when I was blessed with a son and heir just a year later I received a telegram signed by a dozen of them: “Congratulations. Name him Casuals!”
It was in that list of Mr. Secker’s titles for the winter of 1915-16 that my eyes first rested, with a premonitory lust, upon the not-to-be-forgotten words.
MCFEE, WILLIAM: CASUALS OF THE SEA.
Who could fail to be stirred by so brave a title? At once I wrote for a copy.
My pocket memorandum book for Sunday, January 9, 1916, contains this note:
“Finished reading Casuals of the Sea, a good book.
H—- still laid up with bad ankle. In the P.M. we
sat and read Bible aloud to Celia before the open fire.”
My first impressions of “Casuals of the Sea, a good book” are interwoven with memories of Celia, a pious Polish serving maid from Pike County, Pennsylvania, who could only be kept in the house by nightly readings of another Good Book. She was horribly homesick (that was her first voyage away from home) and in spite of persistent Bible readings she fled after two weeks, back to her home in Parker’s Glen, Pa. She was our first servant, and we had prepared a beautiful room in the attic for her. However, that has nothing to do with Mr. McFee.
Casuals of the Sea is a novel whose sale of ten thousand copies in America is more important as a forecast of literary weather than many a popular distribution of a quarter million. Be it known by these presents that there are at least ten thousand librivora in this country who regard literature not merely as an emulsion. This remarkable novel, the seven years’ study of a busy engineer occupied with boiler inspections, indicator cards and other responsibilities of the Lord of Below, was the first really public appearance of a pen that will henceforth be listened to with respect.
Mr. McFee had written two books before “Casuals” was published, but at that time it was not easy to find any one who had read them. They were Letters from an Ocean Tramp (1908) and Aliens (1914); the latter has been rewritten since then and issued in a revised edition. It is a very singular experiment in the art of narrative, and a rich commentary on human folly by a man who has made it his hobby to think things out for himself. And the new version is headlighted by a preface which may well take its place among the most interesting literary confessions of this generation, where Mr. McFee shows himself as that happiest of men, the artist who also has other and more urgent concerns than the whittling of a paragraph:–