Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Random Acts of Literature

Nearing the completion of my Master's Thesis, I've begun reading whatever I please - which, luckily for me, happens to coincide with the depths of American Literature.  I randomly picked up Two Years Before the Mast which is the 1840 account of a Harvard/Cambridge student who went aboard a ship in order to give his failing eyes a break.

Exactly.  Great plan, dude!

The book, which is based on the journal he kept during the two year voyage around Cape Horn and back, professes to give an accurate picture of the life of a common sailor (rather than the officers).  And so far as I can tell, it does so: life as a common sailor is really boring, and really repetitive, and really sucks.  

But the author slips in a few passages that sneak up on you, and here's one of them:

"The calm of the morning reminds me of a scene which I forgot to describe at the time of its occurrence, but which I remember from its being the first time that I had heard the near breathing of whales . . . We had the watch from twelve to four, and coming upon deck, found the little brig lying perfectly still, surrounded by a thick fog, and the sea as smooth as though oil had been poured upon it; yet now and then a long, low swell rolling under its surface, slightly lifting the vessel, but without breaking the glassy smoothness of the water.  We were surrounded far and near by shoals of sluggish whales and grampuses, which the fog prevented our seeing, rising slowly to the surface, or perhaps lying out at length, heaving out those peculiar lazy, deep, and long-drawn breathings which give such an impression of supineness and strength.  Some of the watch were asleep, and the others were perfectly still, so that there was nothing to break the illusion, and I stood leaning over the bulwarks, listening to the slow breathings of the mighty creatures - now one breaking the water just alongside, whose black body I almost fancied that I could see through the fog; and again another, which I could just hear in the distance - until the low and regular swell seemed like the heaving of the ocean's mighty bosom to the sound of its heavy and long-drawn respirations."

I wonder if the power of this passage doesn't lie in the fact that it was not part of the author's journal.  It is not an account of an event, but the account of the memory of an event, and it seems that in these moments the narrative really inspires.  While the minutiae of roping and swabbing is interesting from a historical perspective, these are the moments when the account escapes into literature.

Critics have recently contested that work isn't really represented in 19th Century American Literature.  Well, it certainly is here, and if 19th Century work seems interesting to you then you should maybe check this book out, and you should definitely look into Rebecca Harding Davis's unbelievable novella: Life in the Iron Mills.