American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

LEGGETT, WILLIAM (1801-1839). William Leggett was a midshipman- turned-author who helped to develop the sea yarn into popular reading. In the course of his naval service, Leggett contracted yellow fever in the West

Indies and suffered the persecutions of a commander in the Mediterranean for his ability to quote Shakespeare. Following a duel, he was court-martialed and resigned his commission to take up journalism and authorship. His sea stories, collected in Tales and Sketches by a Country Schoolmaster (1829) and Naval Stories (1834), are deeply influenced by Washington Irving’s* sentimentality but also anticipate Edgar Allan Poe’s* Gothic sensationalism.

Leggett begins a number of his stories with a false sense of calm or tranquillity and proceeds into a nightmare of grotesque violence; his sea is a pool of primal energies, the placid surface of which is tragically inscrutable. “The Encounter” (1834) ends with a bloody collision at sea, and “The Main-Truck, or a Leap for Life” (1834) climaxes with a father’s threatening to shoot his son unless he leaps from the mainmast into the sea. Leggett stories often combine this type of melodrama with a concern for the humane treatment of sailors. His tale “Brought to the Gangway” (1834) opens with a needlessly cruel flogging and ends with a double drowning. Displaying a range of versatility in terms of narrative technique and use of vernacular speech, William Leggett, along with his contemporaries Nathaniel Ames* and John W. Gould,* developed the sea tale into a staple of popular American fiction.

Hugh Egan