It would be impossible to overstate the importance of the sea. From her unknowable depths, she’s given us the means by which we nourish our bodies and souls, as well as the monsters which haunt our imaginations. A mundane trip off the well-trafficked coast of South Carolina is enough to gain an appreciation for the sea in a literary sense; try not to be moved after rollicking atop waves or dropping into mountain range valleys with razor schools of barracuda for company.
Such a fish was the ultimate Axis foil of a violent Hemingway, by virtue of tying up both his fishing lines and his attention whilst a Spanish vessel and possible U-boat sailed off Cuba in the author’s beloved Gulf Stream, patrolled by a drunken Ernest and his equally soused friends aboard the fishing yacht Pilar.
Hemingway’s private navy barely ranks among the most exciting accounts of authors at sea contained within Sam Jefferson’s Sea Fever: The True Adventures that Inspired our Greatest Maritime Authors, from Conrad to Masefield, Melville and Hemingway; the old bull was a sport fisherman first and foremost, after all, and there are actual naval heroes, clipper captains and whalers to be had in this book. Herman Melville, Joseph Conrad, James Fenimore Cooper, Jack London and Robert Louis Stevenson’s time at sea is detailed within Sea Fever, where Jefferson provides a necessary insight into their canons.
Oceans of ink have been spilled regarding the works of Sea Fever’s authors, and Jefferson wisely leaves well enough alone when it comes to literary criticism; indeed, not much more could be said, one thinks, about The Old Man and the Sea or Heart of Darkness, and Jefferson wisely does not even try. Instead, he focuses his talents and energies on retelling the actual moments which inspired said works.
Jefferson’s subjects range from the everyday to the esoteric, a fine blend of famed writers with nautical leanings and earlier forebears who are little remembered now away from Charing Cross Road or some obsessive’s shelf. Conrad, Melville and Hemingway are all authors of obvious renown and, in the case of the first two, widely known for their time at sea. In setting these men alongside sailors whose works have slipped below the popular ken—including Captain Frederick Marryat, true Napoleonic naval hero; Tobias Smollett, the satirical surgeon afloat; and Arthur Ransome, the carefree corespondent of Bolshevik Russia and Baltic yachtsman—and highlighting the surprising seafaring history of authors, like Cooper and London, more famed for their tales than maritime works, Jefferson presents a healthy mix of seminal innovators, famous enthusiasts and true sailors who at some point turned to the written word.
He does so with a rather blithe approach to exposition, coming across as downright breezy. Jefferson has sprinkled enough jargon throughout the prose that one is throughly convinced of his expertise, but the most vivid moments Jefferson wisely leaves to the authors themselves. Their first-hand accounts and excerpts sit in italicized blocks, the leaning and language often moving with the celerity of a ship at full sail.
Jefferson and the authors tell stories of courage and fear, from Marryat’s predatory cruising of the tempestuous Bay of Biscay and London’s youth as an oyster pirate in the chilly gloam of the Golden Gate to John Masefield’s terrifying—and perhaps psyche-shattering—rounding of Cape Horn, threshing Southern maw of the planet’s most hellacious seas. Hemingway’s sporting lif is contrasted with Conrad’s sterling merchant career, which reached its apex when he took command of a clipper of his own, and Stevenson’s relationship with the South Seas—in a mirroring of Melville—is all the more interesting already knowing the later’s slicked-with-whale-rendering, cannibal-occupied career amongst the same spits and hiccups of, as Melville himself put it in Moby Dick, “the tide-beating heart of the earth.”
Sea Fever takes its name from a Masefield poem, and it is an apt one at that; all within its pages, the author included, smolder deep inside for the ocean. It is a testament to Jefferson’s curatorial ability and joyful expository pen, as well as the famed words of his subjects, that could make readers long, sickly, for the sea.