American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

JUVENILE LITERATURE. The first books written expressly for adolescent readers were intended to shape the morals of the young. However, religious tracts and cautionary tales held little appeal for minds eager for adventure and realism. Young readers in the mid-nineteenth century turned to authors such as James Fenimore Cooper,* who wrote exciting books and lived exciting lives.

Cooper’s sea stories, including The Pilot* (1824), The Red Rover* (1827), and The Wing-and-Wing (1842), were early adopted by young readers as their own; Cooper’s books remained on lists for children into the twentieth century. When Two Years before the Mast* (1840) by Richard Henry Dana Jr.,* was published, children claimed it as well. Herman Melville’s* Redburn: His First Voyage* (1849) was based on Melville’s merchant marine experiences. Jack London’s* Cruise of the Dazzler (1903) and The Sea- Wolf* (1904) became equally popular.

A little-known American author indirectly inspired Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883). James F. Bowman, an editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote The Island Home; or, The Young Castaways (1851). It served as a model for The Coral Island (1858) by Robert Michael Ballantyne, a Scot. The favorite author of young Stevenson, Ballantyne influenced his life and writings.

Realistic stories for children gained acceptance between 1850 and 1900. A flood of books poured out to eager readers. William Taylor Adams,* a New England teacher and children’s magazine editor writing as “Oliver Optic,” produced over 116 books from 1855 to 1910. At least half of these related to the sea or sailing, beginning with The Boat Club; a Tale for Boys (1855). Other Optic titles include The Sailor Boy; or, Jack Somers in the Navy (1865), Cringle and Crosstree; or, the Sea Swashes of a Sailor (1870), and The Dorcas Club; or, Our Girls Afloat (1875).

Series books in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries included large numbers of sea tales. Another prolific children’s author, Edward L. Stratemeyer, wrote the Ship and Shore series, including The Last Cruise of the Spitfire (1894) and, writing as “Arthur M. Winfield,” The Rover Boys on the Ocean (1899). Some children’s authors wrote from personal experience. Charles Fosdick, writing as “Harry Castlemon,” drew on his years in the navy when writing Frank on a Gunboat (1864) and other books in the Gunboat series.

Pirate* stories held a special fascination for the young. Frank R. Stockton’s* Buccaneers and Pirates of Our Coast (1898) and Howard Pyle’s* Book of Pirates (1921) are enduring examples of tales of real pirates. Pyle, who illustrated his books, ranks among the best of American illustrators.

Over 300 magazines for children were started in the United States from 1800 to 1900. About forty were still publishing at the turn of the century. As some ceased publication, new ones began. St. Nicholas Magazine, published from 1873 to 1939, introduced children to many authors of sea literature. Tales of shipwrecks* and sea journeys, articles on shipbuilding, sailing, seamanship, sea animals, and weather were all part of the appeal that carried St. Nicholas into the twentieth century. London’s Cruise of the Dazzler appeared there in 1902. Stockton contributed often. Pyle’s historical novel in which the pirate Blackbeard is a central character, Jack Ballister’s Fortunes (1895), was first published there.

Changing attitudes toward children’s books were apparent by 1920. Publishers established separate children’s departments. Children’s Book Week was celebrated nationally in 1922, and the first John Newbery Medal for the Most Distinguished Contribution to American Literature for Children, awarded that year, focused attention on children’s literature.

Charles Boardman Hawes was awarded the Newbery Medal posthumously in 1924 for The Dark Frigate (1923). His sea stories include The Mutineers (1920) and The Great Quest (1921). Newbery winner Armstrong Sperry, whose novel Call It Courage (1940) received the medal in 1941, sailed by schooner to Tahiti as a young man, and his books Hull Down for Action (1945) and Storm Canvas (1944) reflect the experience of that and succeeding journeys. When Howard Pease, a writer of adventure stories, needed new material, he shipped out as crew on a freighter. His books The Tattooed Man (1926), Secret Cargo (1931), and Black Tanker (1941) all contain central mysteries. So, too, does Ice to India (1955) by Keith Robertson, about a colorful villain, a dangerous mission, and a boy’s initiation into seamanship.

The Seashore Book (1912) by E. Boyd Smith offered information through pictures and text of ships, shipyards, shipwrecks, and whaling. I Like Diving (1929) by Tom Eadie, a professional diver, and On the Bottom (1929) by Edward Ellsberg,* a naval commander, were accounts of the raising of the submarine the S-51. Random House in the popular Landmark Series of nonfiction books covered years of naval history, including Clipper Ship Days (1952) by John Jennings,* The Monitor and the Merrimack* (1951) by Fletcher Pratt, The Sinking of the Bismarck (1962) by Richard Neuberger, John F. Kennedy and PT 109 (1962) by Richard Tregaskis, and Battle for the Atlantic (1953) by Jay Williams.

By mid-twentieth century the growth of children’s libraries and the variety of children’s books created an ever-growing population of readers. Picture books for young children, mostly imported from Europe before 1930, increasingly were published in America. New printing methods improved the process. In 1938 the Caldecott Medal for the most distinguished picture book of the year was established.

Holling C. Holling, with his wife, Lucille, wrote and illustrated Seabird (1948) and Pagoo (1957), the adventures of a hermit crab. Perhaps best known is Paddle-to-the-Sea (1941), the story of a carved wooden boat as it travels from the Great Lakes* to the ocean. Holling’s full-page watercolor illustrations and Lucille’s highly informative border drawings make the books exceptional.

In 1958 the Caldecott Medal was awarded to Robert McCloskey for Time of Wonder (1957), a beautiful, highly evocative picture story of an approaching storm on the island where the McCloskey family spent their summers. McCloskey’s Bert Dow, Deep Water Man (1963) and One Morning in Maine (1952) also take place there. Luther Tarbox (1977) is a rollicking tale about a lobsterman by Jan Adkins, who, like McCloskey, illustrated his own books. Adkins also produced The Craft of Sail (1973) and Wooden Ship (1978).

As the age of sail receded into memory, authors based sea fiction on historical events of that era. Cornelia Meigs, descendant of naval heroes, set The Trade Wind (1926) just before the American Revolution and Clearing Weather (1928) just after. The northern blockade of southern ports during the Civil War is the setting for Stephen Meader’s historical novel Phantom of the Blockade (1962). Eric Haugaard’s Orphans of the Wind (1966) is set at the time of the American Civil War. In The Death of Evening Star (1972), Leonard Fisher re-created strange events aboard a whaling ship through the diary of a ship’s “boy.”

Biography and fictional biography chronicle lives of seamen, naval heroes, pirates, and explorers for young readers. In 1956 Jean Latham was awarded the Newbery Medal for Carry On, Mr. Bowditch (1955), the story of Nathaniel Bowditch,* who, bound out to sea at the age of twelve, became a scientist, mathematician, and author of the standard guide for modern navigation.

Media coverage popularized some books. A Night to Remember (1955) by Walter Lord, about the sinking of the Titanic,* was popular with young readers, and Exploring the Titanic (1991) by Robert Ballard was published at several reading levels. The round-the-world journey of sixteen-year-old Robin Lee Graham in his sloop Dove, covered by National Geographic, attracted young readers to Dove (1972), which was adapted to film in 1974. Reading Rainbow, a television program for children, featured books about the sea, including The Little Red Lighthouse* and the Great Grey Bridge (1974) by Hildegarde Swift, Keep the Lights Burning, Abbie (1985) by Peter and Connie Roop, and Sailing with the Wind (1986) by Thomas Locker.

Gary Paulsen, twice Newbery winner, chronicled a boy’s survival at sea in The Voyage of the Frog (1989). Theodore Taylor wrote of shipwrecks and sea adventure in The Cay (1969), Timothy of the Cay (1993), Teetoncey (1974), and The Odyssey of Ben O’Neal (1977). Katherine Paterson depicted the life of the Chesapeake watermen in Jacob Have I Loved (1985).

Traditionally, girls accepted male protagonists, but boys avoided books with girls as main characters. A milestone was reached when boys and girls clamored to read The True Adventures of Charlotte Doyle (1990) by Avi, the exciting adventures of a girl’s Atlantic crossing. It received the Newbery Medal, as did Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins (1960), which also features a female protagonist, a shipwrecked Indian girl who survives for years on a Pacific island.

In the 1980s and 1990s concern for the ocean environment replaced the lure of the sea adventure. The Voyage of the Mimi, a television series with computer software, a book, Voyage of the Mimi (1985), and curriculum for schools, successfully combined oceanography, adventure, and ecology. Recent juvenile titles on a maritime theme include Steve Schuch’s A Symphony of Whales (1999), about how 3,000 beluga whales trapped in the Bering Strait were saved, and Joseph Brodsky’s poem Discovery (1999), about America’s earliest explorers: fish, birds, and men.

FURTHER READING: Bingham, Jane. Fifteen Centuries of Children’s Books. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1980; Collier, Laurie, and Joyce Nakamura. Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults. Detroit: Gale 1993; Smith, Myron J., Jr., and Robert C. Weller. Sea Fiction Guide. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1976.

Ann M. Ouellette