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Literary heir to Conrad

Jan 1, 2009

To the editor: When William McFee published Casuals of the Sea in 1916, it was a literary event. Here was a man who'd been sailing the world as a second or third engineer on tramp steamers, working 12-hour days, and then, in his spare time, after reading Balzac, Tolstoy, Whitman, and Goethe in his bunk, turned out great literature. The New York Times trumpeted McFee as a "Second Conrad," describing him as a "literary find" and &mdash notwithstanding his thousands of hours tending the fires, gauges, and burners on steam plants of coal-fired ships &mdash "singularly sophisticated." It called Casuals of the Sea a book of "undeniable distinction."

McFee would ultimately leave his life as a seagoing engineer, emigrate from his native England to Connecticut, and commit to writing full time. In the span of a 50-year career, he churned out hundreds of articles and essays and some 30 novels and nonfiction books &mdash most of which had as their medium the sea and ships. McFee was, in fact, born at sea in 1881 &mdash on the three-masted schooner Erin's Isle, commanded by his father, while the ship was approaching the English coast from India. (How many sea writers can claim that!)

McFee was educated in London and then apprenticed as a mechanical engineer before hitching aboard a tramp steamer in 1906 as an engineer's assistant. He spent the next 12 years shipping out, and at the same time writing novels whose medium was the sea. Yet unlike Conrad, in addition to novels he reflected at length on the logistics, business, and history of life at sea. His nonfiction book Swallowing the Anchor is a collection of essays about transitioning from a seagoing engineer to a shore-bound writer who emigrated to the U.S. from England. The Law of the Sea is a scholarly, yet popular, telling of maritime history &mdash covering ancient laws of maritime commerce, salvage, privateering, and legislative involvement in seagoing commerce, all told with the same wry voice of the realist who knows the subject from experience.

I first discovered McFee when researching the history of maritime salvage for my book In Peril (co-written with Skip Strong). My friend, Alan Littell, contributor to Ocean Navigator and an accomplished sea writer (his novel, Courage, was published this winter by Thomas Dunne Books), steered me toward McFee as a source of nautical authenticity. Like Conrad, McFee could write with accuracy about the sea because of his personal history. Conrad served in the merchant marine in the age of sail; McFee served on steamers after sail had died. It's true enough that McFee was Conrad's heir as the dean of sea literature. Yet McFee had the misfortune to arrive on scene when steam had taken over &mdash inheriting a subject matter that slipped a notch in the popular telling in comparison to Conrad's rich medium of sailing ships.

Nonetheless, McFee would rise to the same level of fame in his lifetime as Conrad did, being inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1941 and living a comfortable life from his book royalties.

McFee was a master at description and evocative feeling, providing each scene, whether at sea or ashore, with a succinct clarity &mdash sometimes haunting, sometimes ebullient, but always with perfect pitch. Which makes it easy to peg him as a sea writer, since his descriptions of life at sea ring true to even the most jaded of seamen. The writer Christopher Morley, writing an introduction to McFee's story "The Market" in a collection published in 1921, insisted that McFee was more than "merely" a sea writer. Rather, "he treats the life of ships and sailors more as a background than as the essential substance of his tale." Interestingly, McFee would later rebuff the same criticism of Conrad &mdash that he was a sea writer &mdash in an introduction to A Conrad Argosy (1942). "It is customary to regard Conrad as a ‘sea writer,' a phrase that always embarrassed and sometimes infuriated him. We do not call (William) Turner a sea painter because he painted the sea and ships. We call him a great artist."

In Watch Below, a loosely fictionalized autobiography, McFee turned his nose up at romantics and sentimentalists and others who would presume to lend the seagoing life with jaunty flair. "To a man brought up in a shipping community," he wrote, "there is a faint feeling of nausea when reading sea poetry inspired by John Masefield or the journalism which is usually described as the yo heave ho school of writing…a mood that has very little to do with the business of shipping."

I recently asked Littell about this quality &mdash McFee's characters as seeing life at sea as serious business. "Courage and fidelity to craft were the coins of the realm," Littell told me. "McFee's masters, mates, and engineers were professional men, serious about their calling, devoted to ships that they understood to be more than artifices of steel. These were not tattooed drunks who fetched up willy-nilly in this port or that. They did not work for a wage. They worked for a curious ideal. These were blunt, unimaginative men: men who could be relied upon not to funk; men who understood what their duty was."

McFee was a big man &mdash tall, heavy, and muscular. His facial features were thick and fleshy and lent him a lugubrious, thoughtful air: big ears, an enormous proboscis, a thick, protruding lower lip, and a dark, heavy brow. In the Times review of Casuals in August 1916, James Huneker wrote that McFee had the "muscular equipment of a blacksmith." This was a deep thinker, to be sure, yet also one tough dude, someone not to be trifled with. Nor did his serious air prevent him from humor; many of his characters, like Dickens', had a keen sense of the absurd.

Like Conrad, McFee knew that to be a seamen was to be something of an enigma ashore. If you were comfortable at sea, at ease in the ranks of like-minded men accustomed to long hours and ever-present danger, then you could not fit in ashore. Yet, unlike Conrad, who was comfortable with enigma and cultivated this style through his characters and gymnastic use of language, McFee gave every effort at assimilation, both personally and in his writing. He went to great lengths to explain, on the one hand (Swallowing the Anchor) how this was possible and, on the other (Sailors of Fortune, Casuals of the Sea) how seamen had a certain "strangeness of character," who "slipped in and out of the house like a shadow."

McFee understood that for certain kinds of people, life at sea afforded the only measure of order, sense, and morality that was possible in this life. Or, as the master and chief of the steamer in Casuals of the Sea realized together, "All real trouble came to them from ashore."

&mdashContributing editor Twain Braden is a schooner captain, navigation instructor and the author of the books In Peril and Ghosts of the Pioneers

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