American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

MAYO, WILLIAM S[TARBUCK] (1811-1895). Born in Ogdensburg, New York, William S. Mayo was a successful physician and author of popular adventure fiction. His mother’s family had been in the whaling industry for generations, and his father served in the merchant marine and owned a boatbuilding business. Family lore and his father’s tales probably contributed to his desire for adventure and influenced his writings about the sea. From 1838 to 1840 Mayo sailed to northern Africa, the Barbary Coast, and Spain; although he reportedly kept notebooks of these journeys, none have been found.

Mayo’s fiction satisfied the popular appetite for exotic travel adventure. His travel experience formed the basis of his first novel, the critically acclaimed and best-selling Kaloolah; or, Journeyings to the Djebel Kumri: An Autobiography of Jonathan Romer (1849), which focuses on the protagonist’s adventures in America, at sea, and in Africa. His second novel, The Berber (1850), which features a Barbary pirate,* was based on Mayo’s travels and his study of Moorish life and customs. Romance Dust from the Historic Places (1851), a collection of miscellaneous writings, also focuses on the sea adventures of captains, pirates, and merchants. Mayo often touched on social issues and the need for reform in his sea fiction. In “The Captain’s Story” (1846) and Kaloolah, he denounced the harsh treatment of sailors. Also in Kaloolah the evils of slavery are represented through a depiction of the brutal conditions aboard a slave ship. Kaloolah has been suggested as a source for Herman Melville’s* Moby-Dick* (1851); an article by Cecil D. Eby Jr., published in the New England Quarterly, compares the two works (1962).

In 1851 Mayo married into wealth, resigned his medical practice, and pursued private business interests. In 1862 he published a thirty-three-page letter to Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of the navy, Gideon Welles, in which he presented his plan for establishing American control of the seas. He did not publish fiction again until his 1871 novel of manners, Never Again.

Christina L. Wolak