American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

McKENNA, RICHARD [MILTON] (1913-1964). Richard McKenna was a career naval enlisted man whose 1962 novel The Sand Pebbles is a classic of naval fiction.*

McKenna’s childhood in Mountain Home, Idaho, was enriched by his great habit of reading, but when he entered the navy at age eighteen, he found it difficult to keep that habit alive due to prevailing demeaning assumptions about the interests of enlisted men. Nevertheless, even while serving on U.S. Asiatic Fleet ships such as the Asheville, Edsall, Luzon, and Gold Star, he managed to keep reading; the flood of good books and educated servicemen he encountered in World War II motivated him to become a novelist.

McKenna retired from the navy as a chief petty officer in 1953. After earning a degree at the University of North Carolina, McKenna began writing science fiction stories such as those later published in Casey Agonistes and Other Stories (1973). He published a few naval stories in national magazines and then wrote The Sand Pebbles, an instant popular success. McKenna set the novel on a naval gunboat in China in the midst of the Chinese revolution in the 1920s, drawing on tales of his shipmates, on his own long experience as a machinist’s mate, and on extensive research into history and anthropology. Perhaps the most unusual feature of McKenna’s writing is his ability to evoke the mystery of a young enlisted man’s encounter with steam engineering. He also draws a powerful portrayal of the gradual disintegration of a naval crew, paints an authentic picture of U.S. gunboat diplomacy in the era, and outlines convincingly the awakening of his protagonist into the great, mysterious world beyond his ship and the naval service.

Completed portions of McKenna’s second novel and other stories were published in The Sons of Martha and Other Stories (1967) and in Robert Shenk’s The Left-Handed Monkey Wrench: Stories and Essays by Richard McKenna (1986).

Robert Shenk