American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

KENT, ROCKWELL (1882-1971). Rockwell Kent, painter, writer, adventurer, graphic artist, and political activist, was born in Tarrytown Heights, New Jersey. He trained as an architect at Columbia University and studied painting under William Merritt Chase, Robert Henri, Abbott Thayer, and Kenneth Hayes Miller. In 1905 Henri introduced the young socialist to the rugged cliffs of Monhegan Island, off the Maine coast. Kent lived there for a time, painting, reading, lobstering, building houses, doing odd jobs, and gaining an affinity for the sea that is reflected in his travels, art, and writing.

He had made two trips to Newfoundland before going to Alaska in 1918. In Resurrection Bay near Seward, Alaska, Kent lived on Fox Island with his nine-year-old son and an old Swede who ran a fox and goat ranch. Kent and his son often rowed the twelve miles from town to the island that winter, nearly swamping amid cross currents and squalls. The result of this Alaskan sojourn was his first book, Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska (1920), based on his letters and journals. Two New York shows that exhibited his Alaska artwork initiated his rise to fame.

Kent’s next sea adventure took him to Chile, where he bought an old lifeboat for twenty-five dollars, named it Kathleen after his wife, and prepared it for a sail round Cape Horn.* Kent eventually attempted the venture in another small sloop, but, due to poor weather, made it only into Franklin Sound. He told that story in his second illustrated book, Voyaging Southward from the Strait of Magellan (1924). In 1948 Kent illustrated A Treasury of Sea Stories and included an evocative sketch of Joshua Slocum* rounding Cape Horn in the Spray.

Kent’s best-known illustrated book, N by E (1930), chronicles his sail to Greenland in the thirty-three-foot Direction, the first yacht from America ever to attempt such a voyage. He describes the boat’s stormy wreck in a windswept fjord, his overland trek to seek help for the three-man crew, and his painting in Greenland. The history of the Direction as well as some of the story that Kent omitted are told in The Saga of Direction: A Cruising Cutter’s First Fifty Years (1978) by Charles H. Vilas. Later trips to Greenland resulted in two more illustrated books, Salamina (1935) and Rockwell Kent’s Greenland Journal (1962).

During the Direction voyage, Kent was finishing one of his most ambitious projects, the three-volume Lakeside Press edition of Moby-Dick* (1930). When the project began in 1926, editors gave Kent not only his choice of books to illustrate but also carte blanche regarding design details. With its 280 illustrations, the book is considered one of the finest produced in this country and contains the most complex illustrations of Herman Melville’s* classic novel. Young William Faulkner* was so impressed with Kent’s work that he bought an illustration of Ahab* from him, which remained on the wall of his Rowan Oak library the rest of his life. The drawings induced Sterling Hayden* to run away to sea, subsequently dedicating his autobiography, Wanderer (1963), to Kent and to another sailing radical, Warwick Tompkins. Elizabeth Schultz devotes an entire chapter to Kent’s illustrations in her book Unpainted to the Last: Moby-Dick and Twentieth-Century American Art (1995).

Always associated with radical causes, Kent was subpoenaed by Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1953, whose committee was intent on destroying several of Kent’s “subversive” books housed in overseas government libraries, including Wilderness and N by E. This incident and the popularity of abstract expressionist style over Kent’s dramatic realism damaged his reputation and reduced his ability to obtain the commercial work that he depended to finance his painting.

More recently, Kent’s artistic reputation is on the rise, along with that of other American realists such as Winslow Homer and Edward Hopper. Kent even appears as a character in Jane Urquhart’s* novel The Underpainter, the fictional memoirs of a minimalist painter who became Kent’s friend and also studied under Robert Henri. [See also THE ARCTIC; CRUISING LITERATURE]

FURTHER READING: Johnson, Fridolf, ed. Rockwell Kent: An Anthology of His Works. New York: Knopf, 1981; Kent, Rockwell. It’s Me O Lord. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1955; Traxel, David. An American Saga: The Life and Times of Rockwell Kent. New York: Harper and Row, 1980.

Doug Capra