After the usual crisis obsession with the news wore off for me after President PineSol speculated about disinfectant injections and ultraviolet enemas, I turned to my favorite information delivery device — the good old book. Here’s what I’ve been reading and not reading the past six weeks.
Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel. Apparently this is a bestselling post-apocalyptic flu book. I thought it sucked but I finished it. Cormac McCarthy she ain’t.
TheStand: Stephen King. I’ve read it twice before and it’s still one of his best, but this time I didn’t make it very far.
Travels in Siberia, Ian Frazier: this as part of my research into my own book about Bethuel Handy’s shipwreck on the Siberian coast in 1858. A masterpiece of travel writing and one man’s obsession with an amazing place. That led me to ….
Great Plains, also Ian Frazier: a nexploration of America’s great middle ground. I’m half-way in.
The Baroque Cycle, Neal Stephenson. On the recommendation of my brother in law I started this uncompleted trilogy again. I’m in the first volume, Quicksilver, set in Boston and London during the plagues of 1666 and 1721. Loving it.
Barry Lyndon, William Makepeace Thackeray. Stanley Kubrick pulled this obscure gem off the shelf and made my favorite film from it. The book is brilliant.
I’m in Los Angeles this week, and not having posted anything in a long time, noted a couple things to share this morning:
Plovers return to Santa Monica beach after 70 years: (my hotel room is sur la plage and has killer sunset views) Here’s a piece in Longreads about how fencing off a section of sand the size of a soccer field and planting some beach plants like rosa rugosa led to the return of the first plover within four months. Turns out people like their beaches clean and groomed, but clean beaches don’t stack up enough seaweed for sand fleas and flies to thrive, and without the bugs, no birds.
2. Om Malik has some thoughts on watches and the changing nature of time in the era of the Apple Watch (which I do not own being of the Android persuasion). Great quote of Lewis Mumford to the effect that the signature machine of the industrialized modern age was the clock.
3. The Bullshit Web: Nick Heer at Pixel Envy writes about the clutter and crap that drives sensible people to install adblockers. I picked this up from the always excellent Project VRM mailing list.
“The combination of huge images that serve little additional purpose than decoration, several scripts that track how far you scroll on a page, and dozens of scripts that are advertising related means that text-based webpages are now obese and torpid and excreting a casual contempt for visitors.”
4. Alfred Lee and Corey Weinberg write in The Informationabout slowly changing policies by startups to extend the window of time beyond 90 days for edeparting employees to exercise stock options by departing. The piece hit a nerve as I just let a bunch of options go unexercised, seeing no sensible reason to go deeply out of pocket and then wrestle with the tax consequences for some future hope they’d actually be worth more than they cost. It would have been far better if I could have dawdled on the decision, but in the heat of starting a new gig there was no way. Moral of the story — unless you’re in the founding class, options remain a chimera for most employees for private tech companies.
5.Best of Enemies – downloaded this great documentary off of Netflix for the flight to the west coast. William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal were invited to debate during the 1968 conventions and the sparks flew. A harbinger for the current shouting head phenomena that is the basis of modern political debate. After watching that I headed to Esquire’s “Classic” archives to read Buckley’s 12,500 word essay about his famous meltdown. Next on the reading list is Vidal’s version of events, which spawned one of the ugliest lawsuits and literary feuds in history. Vidal calls Buckley a “Crypto-Nazi.” Buckley calls him a “queer” and threatens to sock him in the nose. All hell breaks loose.
In the 1990s, as the maritime novels of Patrick O’Brian emerged from obscurity to the top of the bestseller lists, I took the advice of my good friend and neighbor Phil and invested in the first few volumes of the 20-volume epic. For some reason I never had the attention span to march through them all, as O’Brian was still living and writing new volumes at the rate of one per year up to his death in 2000. Maybe I was distracted by work or fatherhood, but my reading tastes were then focused on the history of the Byzantine empire and not the exploits of a Royal Navy Post Captain and his learned, naturalist-spy-surgeon during the first two decades of the 19th century during the Napoleonic Wars.
Maritime fiction and nonfiction has long been a personal favorite, beginning with the Hornblower series by C.S. Forrester, Melville’s Moby Dick and Typee and Omoo, the accounts of the first solo circumnavigators like Joshua Slocum, Bernard Moitessier, Sir Francis Chichester; the Atlantic oarsmen, Blythe and Ridgway and Robert Manry’s account of crossing the Atlantic in the 13-foot Tinkerbelle. At the top of the maritime stack has always sat Joseph Conrad, maybe my favorite writer in the English language, particularly for Lord Jim and The Nigger of the Narcisssus. From my earliest introduction to the shelf of sailing yarns at the Cotuit Library in the 1960s by the patient Ida Anderson to my college major in American maritime history, I have always been a sucker for a good sea story.
So last winter, as I whittled away at a 1:16 scale model of a New Bedford whaling boat, I found myself in a maritime history kind of mood, feeling truly an armchair sailor, and without giving it much thought decided to pick up the first volume in O’Brian’s 20-volume, 6,900-page saga — Master and Commander —and read it during my morning and evening commutes across Boston harbor on a Kindle.
By the time I paid my book tax to Amazon for the third time I realized I was screwing myself with ebooks, as I would losing the opportunity to collect the full set to share with my sons and fill out yet another bookshelf in the home library. So I went on eBay, poked around, and found a complete set of paperbacks and hardcovers for $60. With Amazon gouging me over $10 per electronic edition, I was ahead as soon as I hit the buy button. A heavy box arrived a week later from some used book dealer and I’ve been buried in it ever since.
For the past nine months I’ve been savoring the series and using it as a springboard to dive deeper into the history of the Royal Navy, the War of 1812, the Enlightenment’s blossoming of the Royal Society as naturalists and scientists devoured their discoveries and explored the globe. Yes, like most I had associated a lot of the series with the movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, but the experience was much more than any two hour film could hope to deliver (and I liked the movie a lot).
Like the critics who embraced the novels, I consider it a masterpiece of not just maritime literature or historical fiction, but one of the most ambitious and finely realized epic masterpieces of the English language. The depth of the language, the nautical nomenclature, the interweaving of actual historical events with the fictional characters and their personal backstories is nothing short of a masterpiece. While I whipped through the first volumes, I found myself slowing down, savoring the experience as winter turned to spring, reading a few pages on the train every morning and evening, index card marked with obscure vocabulary and nautical terms to look up later and add to my running O’Brian lexicon list. Then, these past few weeks, as the stack of books dwindled, I started to feel sad that it was all coming to an end; and last night it did. The twentieth volume — Blue at the Mizzen — ending sweetly with a piquant closure that leads me to believe the two familiar men – Captain Jack Aubrey and Doctor Stephen Maturin would evermore sail on.
Yes, there is a 21st book — it consists of the first 60 pages of the next book which O’Brian started at the age of 85 before his death in January 2017. I have it ready to go, fascinated by the prospect of reading a master novelist’s handwritten first draft and corrected typescript, just as I was when I once handled a page of Conrad’s palimpsest for the Narcissus and saw how the master struck out redundant words and experimented until he found the magical bon mot.
I believe it’s a cruel act of intellectual dishonesty to skip over an unfamiliar word while reading without noting its existence and tracking down its definition. Starting in high school I got in the habit of reading with a pencil and parking new vocabulary in the flyleaf of the book or on an index card/bookmark for future research with a dictionary.
Kindle made in-line dictionary look ups a breeze just by pressing on a word and waiting for the installed digital dictionary to pop-up a definition. I am increasingly growing anti-Kindle since I’ve been reading the entire “Master and Commander” series by Patrick O’Brian this past spring and summer. After three Kindle books I finally gave up forking over $12 to Amazon every time I wanted the next volume of the 21-volume series and went to E-Bay to buy a complete collection from a used book dealer for $50 with the added benefit of having it on my bookshelf for others to read or me to re-read someday.
Now, as I read the adventures of Captain Aubrey and Doctor Maturin on the train to and from Boston and Providence, I have moved to a combined print/digital vocabulary exercise. O’Brian is incredibly erudite and his introduction of delightfully archaic 19th century medical, botanical, and maritime words has proved too good to be true for this long suffering word addict.
Here’s how it works more or less. Basically it means opening a note on your phone and filling with new words and their definitions. Duh.
See a word in the text like “missish”
Turn to the phone and look it up
Copy the definition from the search result
open an Evernote file on the phone from a “Vocabulary Widget”
Type “Missish” and paste in the definition
Save and continue reading.
This results in a serious word collection that beats whatever “word of the day” app you may subscribe to, honors the author and makes you smarter and extremely insufferable when you announce on a sunny day that you are going “apricate” on the deck (e.g. “catch some rays”)
William Safire was a hell of a writer. He was the Nixon-era speechwriter who gave Vice President Spiro Agnew the wonderful line “nattering nabobs of negativity,” won the Pulitzer Prize for his New York Times columns covering the misdeeds of Bert Lance, and then ended his career with a wonderful weekly column in the Times: On Language
I miss that column, where he would chronicle with great affection and little judgment the vicissitudes of the English language from street slang to bitter battles over the Oxford comma or whether or not to spell judgment or judgement. On the cusp of language in the news, he doubtlessly would have been in his element with “covfefe” last week, but he also could play the part of grammar cop without coming off as too much of a priss or traditionalist locked in the past.
“I welcome new words, or old words used in new ways,” he once wrote. “provided the result is more precision, added color or great expressiveness.”
In these days of fake news, crushing corporate bullshit, politically tempered speech and constant assaults on the First Amendment from both the right and the left, it’s frightening to think we lack a modern day Safire to call bullshit when the powers that be prevaricate, obfuscate, and spackle over the cracks of truth with their verbal wormings. Safire was a language maven — to use his preferred term — in the tradition of Mencken, Orwell and Bierce. Today we get “content marketers” and “brand message consultants” instead.
Safire’s career as a public relations man and presidential speech writer put him in the unenviable job of having to anticipate Murphy’s Law and prepare for the worst case scenario as any crisis communications pro is trained to do. In 1969, as the Apollo 11 mission sent the first men to the moon, it was Safire who took it upon himself to draft a statement for President Nixon to deliver to the nation via TV in the event the astronauts were stranded on the moon with no hope of rescue.
It’s been called one of the most beautiful speeches never delivered. Here’s the full text:
H. R. Haldeman
July 18, 1969.
IN EVENT OF MOON DISASTER:
Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.
These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.
These two men are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.
They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by their nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown.
In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man.
In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.
Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.
For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.
PRIOR TO THE PRESIDENT’S STATEMENT:
The President should telephone each of the widows-to-be.
AFTER THE PRESIDENT’S STATEMENT, AT THE POINT WHEN NASA ENDS COMMUNICATIONS WITH THE MEN:
A clergyman should adopt the same procedure as a burial at sea, commending their souls to “the deepest of the deep,” concluding with the Lord’s Prayer.
Over the holidays I read Siegfried Sassoon’s George Sherston trilogy, having been tipped off to the novels by my summer’s reading of William Manchester’s biography of Winston Churchill and the strong endorsement of the previously unknown literary gem as one of the most beloved and high-impact pieces published between the two world wars. I’ve known about Sassoon since college when I read Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memoryas well as Robert Grave’s autobiography, Goodbye to all That.
Siegfried Sassoon was one of a select group of young English poets who went to war spouting the florid language of Kipling and Tennyson and returned (if they survived) utterly gutted by the horror of mechanized war. Sassoon survived. So did Graves. But others, such as Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen did not.
In these centennial anniversary years of the Great War, I realize how deficient the literature I’ve found has served the experience compared to the masterpieces that came out of World War II such as James Jones’ The Thin Red Line and From Here to Eternity, and Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead. Sure, there is All Quiet on the Western Front and Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun but until I read Sassoon’s trilogy I hadn’t fully grasped the hellishness of France and the trenches. Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August are an excellent historical introduction to the causa belli but in sum I guess the best literature about the First World War was indeed the war poetry.
Sassoon was raised by a spinster aunt in Kent’s Weald, the iconic southeastern rolling landscape that personifies the English cliche. Fussell, in his introduction to Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man rightfully points out Sassoon’s intense love affair with the landscape of Kent and his almost erotic evocation of a pre-war life spent playing cricket on village greens and learning how to ride with the fox hunt through coverts and over the fences of the local farms. Sassoon, who dropped out of Cambridge without completing a degree, had just enough of an inheritance to be idle and spend his days riding horses and getting fitted with new boots and pink hunting coats. The three books are a barely fictionalized autobiography.
Sassoon ends the first volume — Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man — when he volunteers for the infantry as a junior officer. The second volume, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer is set in the trenches of northern France and tells the story of his acts of reckless heroism, where he decided that rather than give into the fear and horror he would affect an insouciance that led his soldiers to nickname him “Mad Jack” and regard him as a good luck officer willing to take chances rather than cower in a trench.
Sassoon was wounding and returned to England, was decorated as a hero, returned, was wounded again, and during his convalescence decided to publish a protest against the war with the support of the pacifist mathematician Bertrand Russell.
“I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of agression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them and that had this been done the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.
“I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.
“On behalf of those who are suffering now, I make this protest against the deception which is being practised upon them; also I believe it may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share and which they have not enough imagination to realise.”
Sassoon sent that declaration to his commanding officer, threw his Military Cross medal into the Mersey River, and waited for a reaction. The reaction from the army was more genteel embarrassment for Sassoon than outrage. Before he could be tried for treason a friend intervened and declared Siegfried was unhinged and needed to be committed to an asylum. Sassoon was packed off to a psychiatric hospital in Scotland where he was treated by Dr. W.H.R. Rivers, the pioneering genius in the treatment of shell shock as PTSD was known at the time. Through his work with Rivers, Sassoon came to the conclusion that the only rational decision he could make was to ask for a return to the front lines of the war, and so he was returned to the front for a third time, an experience covered in the final volume of the trilogy: Sherston’s Progress which was published in 1936, completed the series that began in 1928.
These books were beloved at the time of their publication and it surprises me they aren’t still read or better known in the U.S.. In my estimation the first volume is my favorite because of its amazing affection for the culture that existed before the war. I’ve read that Tolkein’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings is a similar expression of deep love for “the shire,” that bucolic country life of England that looms so large in my American mind as the “British Cliche” but which evidently did exist and lives on in the writings of Sassoon and others.
It riles me up to no end to hear some bright-eyed know-it-all declare “what we really need is some engaging story telling to ignite our flaccid content marketing strategy.” There are an abundance of douche marketing “storytellers” ready to sell us a breathless how-to book, or charge us a hefty consulting fee before they tuck us all in, sit on the end of our beds, and crack open the white-paper edition of Go Dog Go! and put us to sleep with some nighttime fable of how to create lovable marketing content that will engage and connect us to the thought leaders that will flip our funnels and turn us from faceless users to loyal brand advocates.
But I digress.
Digression is what I’m here to write about today. Digression is a maddening art and a truly guilty pleasure that squanders time. Taken too far it can be worse than oral surgery. Done right it can delight and leave us begging for more. Who among us hasn’t sat stupefied in the presence of some absolutely horribly pedantic story teller who just. can’t. seem. to. get. to. the. goddamn. point? Yet, who can argue with Lord Byron’s brilliant epigram, about his lover, Caroline:
“Caro Lamb, Goddamn”
Or the shortest, sad story ever told, attributed to Hemingway:
“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
While brevity is the soul of wit, and short words always win out over longer synonyms, our Ritalin society can be tagged with the depressing acronym: TL;DR — “Too Long; Didn’t Read.” The art of spinning a yarn, telling a tall-tale, being a true raconteur (a person who can tell an anecdote in a skillful and amusing way) just doesn’t seem to fit when declaiming on a four-part framework for calculating the ROI of website personalization.
After all: story telling is the original entertainment medium. Think of Homer sitting around the fire and telling the story of brave Ulysses to a crowd of illiterate Greek kids. The heart of the story-tellers is the spoken word — not the written — and it would do us all well to remember that stories were invented around the campfire, delivered from memory by a story teller, and is the origin of the theater, the novel, film and ultimately the place from which the music of language was tested and perfected. Digression in a story is a way to build suspense, foreshadow events, explain and provide background, and show off one’s erudition. How to weave a footnote into a narrative is a delicate balancing act that few can pull off.
In this era of TED talks and the Moth Radio Hour, Podcasts, personal reminiscences, and self-indulgent blogs such as this one, this is no surfeit of stories to consume. Headlines beg for our limited attention, we get seduced by clickbait and listicles, A/B tested by algorithms to see what reptilian part of our hippocampus will cause our right index finger to flex and click. So in our quick-twitch, Adderal-amped lives, let’s consider the luxury of digression; of stretching out and letting a story teller take their time, hook our attention like an angler sets the barb in a fish’s lip, and hold us for 1,000 pages from one sentence to the next, always wanting more. Let’s follow the footnotes, spend sometime looking up a word, chasing more information, and realize we live in an age of amazing possibilities when it comes to digressing and falling down the rabbit hole of digression where incredible discoveries might be found.
My late friend Jimmy Guterman was fascinated with the impact of hypertext — links embedded in text — which could be followed by the reader down different paths. He would have laughed at the concept of corporate storytelling and punctured the conceit with some droll bon mot. He quoted, in the Harvard Business Review, Fast Company founder Alan Webber, opening a conference about content and context by saying “…Webber began the two-day event by arguing that storytelling is overrated….”
Before HTML came on the scene in 1994, Jimmy and I experimented with a hypertext project using the engine behind Microsoft’s help engine — the name escapes me — to digitize the rules governing yacht racing. Jimmy took it further into fiction, but I can’t find any examples on his blog. Experimental fiction has played with alternative plot tracks — Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch has two different possible chapter sequences. Video games — the most lucrative entertainment medium extant today — represent one of the best manifestations of interactive story-telling, the hype that was touted around “interactive television” in the 1990s, when viewers could pick different plot lines or camera angles.
Two writers embody the beauty of digression for me me. Thomas Pynchon in Gravity’s Rainbow and David Foster Wallace in nearly all of his books, but especially his masterpiece Infinite Jest. In 2005, Wallace wrote a profile of a right-wing talk radio host for the Atlantic Monthly. The print edition, which I read on an Acela to NYC, was a masterpiece in taking the principles of digital hypertext and linking onto the printed page. The editors at the Atlantic reformatted the digital edition, using color cues on words to designate footnoted material.
“Navigating the baroque structure of footnotes within footnotes on either the original manuscript or galleys would have been nearly impossible, so we worked on a printout of pages in the ingenious design of our art director, Mary Parsons.”
Here’s a link to their explanation of how they edited and formatted the piece. It presages some amazing examples of interactive journalism and storytelling such as the iconic New York Times piece on an avalanche tragedy, Snowfall.
Here’s the text as it is formatted online:
And here is what the reader sees when they click on the colored words with the [+] prompt:
For me the revelation has been reading William Manchester’s three-volume epic biography of Winston Churchill, The Last Lion on a Kindle. While e-books are a bit of a tragedy in terms of substantial additions to one’s physical bookshelf, the developers at Amazon have introduced some amazing things in the decade they’ve been perfecting the Kindle interface. For example, any Kindle user is familiar with the ability to look an unfamiliar word up in a sentence simply by highlighting the word and seeing a pop-up definition appear. That in itself is an amazing service to readers like me who are guilty of skipping past some obscure word and missing the opportunity to add something new and amazing to our vocabularies. But it’s the addition of Wikipedia that takes things to a whole new level. Consider when Manchester talks about Churchill’s relationship to the Royal Navy in the years between the two world wars and introduces “Lord Chatfield, Admiral of the Fleet.” Well, my middle name is Chatfield, I have a personal stake in finding out who the hell Lord Chatfield is, and thanks to the Kindle I get right to his entry on Wikipedia, share it with my brother Henry (who also has the Chatfield middle name), and we both get a good laugh and begin referring to each other as “Admiral of the Fleet” whenever we pull our skiffs out of the harbor.
I read Wallace’s Infinite Jest through the first time without taking the time to follow each and every foot note to the end-notes. When I finished the novel — a serious door stop at 1000 plus pages — I started to read those notes and realized what I had missed.
What we have before us, to go back to Guterman’s piece about Alan Webber, is “context within our content”, the ability to stay in the narrative but take a digressive detour out without losing our places. I think it’s incumbent on any writer to indulge their reader’s with some detours, to walk them down a side-path to some hidden spot. In all our wheel spinning in search for optimization and algorithmic textual perfection, take off your shoes, kick back, and get lost down the rabbit hole of digression. Who knows what surprise you might stub your mind on.
He died on Saturday. He wrote my favorite novel: the Mister Watson trilogy that culminated in Shadow Country. He lived a remarkable life. The first striped bass of 2014 will go back with a kiss and an ave atque vale for Peter, who thankfully has one more novel at the publisher, his final words.
I’ve blogged here about Shadow Country and I am very proud that my Amazon review of the novel is ranked #1 by other readers. I have pressed more copies of Killing Mister Watson into more friends’ hands than any other book with the possible exception of Barry Hannah’s Geronimo Rex.
Here’s what I wrote on Amazon:
“For nearly twenty years I’ve been obsessed by Edgar Watson, the Everglades Planter known as “Bloody Watson” and “Emperor Watson” for the 50-odd murders attributed to him by a century of legend and myth.
Peter Matthiessen was way more obsessed than me, writing four novels about Watson. I read the first in 1990. The last just this past December. It, Shadow Country, won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2008. It is Matthiessen’s masterpiece, and I have no qualms saying it is among the top novels in all of American literature, a book I would stack against Moby Dick, Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, Gravity’s Rainbow, White Noise ….
Matthiessen does several important things that won my admiration. First, his voice, his writing, is a very spare, zen language that is short on embellishment but poetic in its nature. Second, the structure that he brings to the narrative is very inventive. The first part of the novel is the tale of Watson’s death at the hands of more than two dozen of his neighbors who gun him down after a hurricane in the fall of 1910, hitting him with 33 bullets. That part, which formed the basis of Killing Mister Watson, is an succession of reminiscences by those on that Chokoloskee beach, a backwater Rashomon that bring some amazing vernacular, history, and drama. The book starts with the killing — and what follows is an utter mind-twister of why Watson was killed.
The second part of the novel is the story of one of Watson’s sons, Lucius, who tries to reassemble the facts and seperate them from the myths about his father, who, among other legends, was the reputed murderer of outlaw queen Belle Starr. Lucius compiles a list of those on that beach, a list which makes him a very suspicious figure to the survivors and their descendants, back-water plume and gator poachers who would prefer that Lucius not be asking so many questions. The detective work, the sheer genealogical complexity of Lucius’ quest is a reminder to the reader — this is a true story. Matthiessen’s research and attention to detail would shame a historian.
And finally, the true masterpiece in the three tales is the first person account by Watson himself, a story that begins with his childhood in the post-Civil War Reconstruction of South Carolina (in the most violent county of the state), and his subsequent abuse at the hands of a drunken white trash father, his flight to north Florida and from there a descent into the American frontier, and Watson’s lonely home on Chatham Bend, the only house between Chokoloskee and Key West, literally the end of America.
Read it. Matthiessen won my respect decades ago with Far Tortuga, The Snow Leopard, Men’s Lives, but Shadow Country is my candidate for the Great American Novel.”
One of the most influential books in my youth was Sterling Hayden’s autobiography: Wanderer. For a young writer restless to get out of the confines of college and into the “real” world, his life’s story was an inspiration of boot-strapped pluck, luck, and determination to find some meaning on the deep blue sea. That he was a leading man during Hollywood’s Golden Era, married to starlets, called before the Communist witch-hunts of the House Un-American Committee, then revived in the 60s and 70s as an actor’s actor in Dr. Strangeloveand the Godfatherwas mere trim and icing on a life spent before the mast on a Gloucester fishing schooner and tall ships. Sterling Hayden was the real deal, a manly man who deserves a revival.
Hayden wrote two books: Wanderer is still in print and a very worthwhile read. His one and only novel, Voyage: A Novel of 1896 is out of print, but worth tracking down from a used bookstore. It is one of the better maritime novels on my bookshelf. As for his films, other than Strangelove and Godfather, his other big contemporary film was The Long Goodbye. His early stuff — beginning in 1941 after he was discovered by Hollywood on the deck of a Gloucester schooner because of some newsreel footage shot at the annual schooner races in Boston — is pretty obscure, B-movie stuff. He hated the studio system which cast him as a pretty boy/beefcake but he put up with it to finance his expensive tastes in wives and boats. Hayden was a self-admitted bad actor.
He spent World War II in the OSS, working behind enemy lines in Yugoslavia with Marshal Tito’s band of resistance guerrillas fighting Nazis. That built some admiration for the Communists which got him into hot water after the war during the Hollywood witch hunts, a period in his life he long regretted after he uncharacteristically named names.
I met him once, in Sausalito, California in the early 80s, shortly before his death in 1986, when I was tending bar in San Francisco and writing as the Bay Area stringer for Soundings, a weekly boating newspaper. I read a profile of his first mate, Spike Africa, in the San Francisco Chronicle, learned Hayden was in Sausalito and tracked him down. I was 22 and the two interviews I had with him were my first experience with true hero worship. I never wrote the profile, the editors at Sounding weren’t interested and I was too flaky to freelance the piece elsewhere, a mistake I kick myself for.
There is a great appreciation of Hayden, the sailor and writer, by Captain Paul Watson at Sea Shepherd International’s blog. I’ll borrow his quote of Hayden’s because it was the kind of sentiment that fired me up as a confused and rudderless young sophmore:
“To be truly challenging, a voyage, like a life, must rest on a firm foundation of financial unrest. Otherwise, you are doomed to a routine traverse, the kind known to yachtsmen who play with their boats at sea… cruising, it is called. Voyaging belongs to seamen, and to the wanderers of the world who cannot, or will not, fit in. If you are contemplating a voyage and you have the means, abandon the venture until your fortunes change. Only then will you know what the sea is all about. I’ve always wanted to sail to the south seas, but I can’t afford it.” What these men can’t afford is not to go. They are enmeshed in the cancerous discipline of security. And in the worship of security we fling our lives beneath the wheels of routine – and before we know it our lives are gone. What does a man need – really need? A few pounds of food each day, heat and shelter, six feet to lie down in – and some form of working activity that will yield a sense of accomplishment. That’s all – in the material sense, and we know it. But we are brainwashed by our economic system until we end up in a tomb beneath a pyramid of time payments, mortgages, preposterous gadgetry, playthings that divert our attention for the sheer idiocy of the charade. The years thunder by, The dreams of youth grow dim where they lie caked in dust on the shelves of patience. Before we know it, the tomb is sealed. Where, then, lies the answer? In choice. Which shall it be: bankruptcy of purse or bankruptcy of life?”