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The Wine-Dark Trance

AMERICAN SEA WRITING A Literary Anthology Edited and with an introduction by Peter Neill; The Library of America: 672 pp., $35

November 05, 2000|JOHN BALZAR | John Balzar is the author of "Yukon Alone: The World's Toughest Adventure Race." He is a national correspondent covering the oceans for The Times

The words of Melville's Ishmael echo through time: "Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off--then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can."

Lately, it seems we all feel the urge. Cruise ships are packed, and so the shipyards are building more. Crowds, following the smell of saltwater, have transformed civic aquariums into a boom industry. Sebastian Junger's "The Perfect Storm" has been on the bestseller lists for so long you have to wonder who hasn't read it. Other sea tales are crowding the lists, too. The late Patrick O'Brian succeeded in getting millions of us to sail backward a couple of centuries through 20 consecutive volumes.

Why this infatuation with the sea? I've listened to conversations in the ward rooms of research ships, on the beach in Honolulu and around the dinner table with oceanographers. There are many opinions, often reflecting the turns of pop culture. My own idea is this: It's a matter of scale.

If our world feels ever more claustrophobic, the sea provides the last unbounded space and mystery on the planet. And as technology and specialization isolate us, ships provide stage sets for old-fashioned drama. Sea stories tend to confine, compress and clarify the human condition by putting people in intimate, even ritualistic, encounters with nature--and, thus, with themselves. After a long-ago voyage across the Atlantic, Washington Irving observed: "The temporary absence of worldly scenes and employments produces a state of mind peculiarly fitted to receive new and vivid impressions."

The written record of this nation, of course, started with a sea story. The anthology "American Sea Writing" begins there, with colonist William Strachey's wide-eyed account of storms at sea during his 1609-1610 voyage to Jamestown--a story that Shakespeare was said to have drawn upon for "The Tempest." "Our clamors drowned in the winds, and the winds in thunder," wrote Strachey. "Prayers might well be in the heart and lips, but drowned in the outcries of the Officers; nothing [was] heard that could give comfort, nothing that might encourage hope." Modern sailors can wholly grasp the predicament: Many have endured it as Strachey did. It is this unchanging vulnerability of humans against the vastness of the ocean that endows sea tales with their lasting force.

Chronologically arranged, Peter Neill's collection turns the pages knowledgeably on all the wide-eyed American seafaring since then, losing its compass heading only as it approaches the modern age. Anthologies too often read as shortcuts, snippets that invariably fall far short of the whole. This volume is a joyful exception. It gains power from the long sweep of time and builds its own narrative-like drive. It is not only a literary smorgasbord but also a coherent history. From slavery to war, from work to wanderlust, the American experience is told from a single perspective, the sea--but in the changing language and with the evolving sensibilities of nearly four centuries.

Author and historian Neill, the president of the South Street Seaport Museum in New York City, edited the 77 selections without making distinction as to epochs. But the work divides easily into thirds--the age of discovery, which is the smallest and in some ways the most surprising; the 19th century, which is the longest and embraces the rip-roaring heyday of sea stories; and the 20th century, in which Neill allows for the nation's broadening views of the ocean--but pays a price in diluting the theme.

The opening of "American Sea Writing" covers the 17th and 18th centuries in a scant 48 pages. The reader hardly feels rushed, though, thanks to Neill's selections, which range from the obvious, William Bradford's account of the Mayflower, to the wholly surprising, a cultural primer and linguistic lexicon of the coastal Narragansett Indians, written in 1643 by Puritan Roger Williams.

Slavery, too, is told as a sea story. Olaudah Equiano writes of being kidnapped from West Africa in 1756 at age 11. He tries to fathom the cruelty of his captors, who are as merciless to one another as they are to their human cargo. But his bewilderment is far deeper: "I could not help expressing my fears and apprehensions to some of my countrymen: I asked them if these people had no country but lived in this hollow place [the ship]: they told they did not, but came from a distant one." Equiano later bought his freedom, joined expeditions to the Arctic and elsewhere, wrote a popular book, "The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano" and toured Great Britain to promote it.

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