American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

LIGHTHOUSE LITERATURE. The literature surrounding lighthouses throughout North America encompasses light stations and lightships on both U.S. coasts, on the Great Lakes,* in the southern Delta area, in Alaska and Hawai’i and across Canada. Much of it, both historical and imaginative, concerns the trials of lighthouse keepers as well as the historical and cultural significance of lighthouses themselves.

In 1939 the government discontinued the U.S. Lighthouse Service, which had governed the maintenance of the country’s lighthouses since 1789, and turned over control of the light stations to the Coast Guard. George R. Putnam presents the events of his own career as commissioner of the Lighthouse Service in Sentinel of the Coasts: The Log of a Lighthouse Engineer (1937). Other literature detailing the lives of keepers often describes the isolation and heroism of lighthouse crews and their families. Edward Rowe Snow’s* Famous New England Lighthouses (1945) presents vivid anecdotes of heroic feats of keepers in that region, including Ida Lewis, a revered Rhode Island lightkeeper who alone saved twenty-three people from drowning during her career at Lime Rock. Lewis and other female lightkeepers are described in greater detail in Mary Louise Clifford’s Women Who Kept the Lights: An Illustrated History of Female Lighthouse Keepers (1993).

In addition to the historical corpus, much imaginative literature involving lighthouses and keepers exists. Herman Melville’s* “Agatha” letters (1852) feature Agatha as the daughter of a lighthouse keeper. Earlier this century, Joseph Crosby Lincoln* published the popular The Woman Haters (1911), a novel concerning the keepers at the Eastboro Twin Lights, and Rugged Water (1924), a novel and subsequent Paramount motion picture (1925) that detailed the experiences of two men at the Setuckit Life Saving Station. More recently, Howard Norman published The Bird Artist (1994), an evocative, laconic novel set in the remote hamlet of Witless Bay, Newfoundland. The novel charts the courses of two tormented love relationships and a murder against a backdrop of fogs, squalls, and devouring seas. The two female protagonists are strong and mercurial; one of the male lovers is a sketcher of marsh birds and the other is a seductive, charismatic lighthouse keeper. James Michael Pratt’s The Lighthouse Keeper (2000) chronicles a saga of three generations weathering storms in a lighthouse off the coast of Massachusetts.

Lighthouses served as the setting for plays in the nineteenth century (e.g., William Busch’s Maid of the Lighthouse [c.1870]) and throughout the twentieth (e.g., Owen Davis’ Lighthouse by the Sea [1903], H. Austin Adams’ Ception Shoals [1917], Willard Robertson’s The Sea Woman [1925], Ray Bradbury’s* The Foghorn [1975], and Jaime Meyer’s Harry and Claire [1989]). These often include troubled or enigmatic characters. Busch’s youthful play is a pseudo-Shakespearean tragicomedy, its Roman setting and aspects of its plot recalling Cymbeline (1623). It involves a love affair between Marina, the foster daughter of a lighthouse keeper, and Patricio, whom she rescues from a shipwreck.* Her father, Britano, opposes the match. In the course of the action, Patricio's brother Brutus steals a locket with Marina's picture and attempts to woo her in the person of his brother. Ultimately, the lovers triumph over Brutus' evil designs, and the lighthouse keeper gives his blessing to his daughter’s marriage.

’Ception Shoals likewise has Eve, the sexually innocent ward of her Uncle Job, sequestered in a desolate lighthouse off the California coast. She saves a young man on a nearby shoal and falls in love with him. When her uncle attempts to thwart the match, she kills him. Written under the influence of Freudian psychology, the production was most remembered for the entrance of the sultry actress Nazimova (playing Eve) in a dripping wet bathing suit. Davis' Lighthouse by the Sea is notable for a sensational scene in which the granddaughter of a lighthouse keeper walks the tightrope of a thin wire to relight the signal. Robertson's The Sea Woman presents Molla, a frustrated heroine involved in lighthouse love and death. After losing her innocence, Molla sets fire to the lighthouse, killing herself and the man who made her pregnant. The Foghorn, a brief, evocative, two-character drama, is set in a remote lighthouse and features a whalelike sea beast whose cries plaintively echo those of the foghorn.

Harry and Claire brings lighthouse literature into the New Age. Walter Mitty-esque Harry is a lighthouse keeper, and Claire is the woman he keeps. He plays at being a sea captain and dreams of an alluring shoreside waitress, Elsa, who swims out to make his dreams a reality in the second act. Claire is blind and possessed of somewhat erratic clairvoyance. There are also a hot-air balloonist named Captain Bob and a talking goldfish. Thematically, author Meyer is engaged with the idea of floating free versus being anchored, of trust and disbelief. Structurally, like many examples of the lighthouse drama preceding it, the play is a romance of fantastic figures in quest of their hearts’ desires. [See also DRAMA OF THE SEA; LIFESAVING LITERATURE]

Melanie Brown and Attilio Favorini