American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

MIDSHIPMAN LITERATURE. The definition of midshipman literature is tied to the definition and status of the midshipman, which have changed over the years.

In the early years of the United States, a midshipman was a naval officer-in-training, or, as a passed midshipman, a junior officer, at the bottom of the commissioned ranks. He might be as young as nine or older than thirty. With the founding of the U.S. Naval Academy (initially the Naval School) in Annapolis in 1845, its students became naval cadets, who upon graduation spent a period of time with the fleet as midshipmen before advancing to higher rank. Since 1912, Naval Academy students have been called midshipmen; upon graduation they become ensigns (navy) or second lieutenants (marines).

Midshipmen of the pre-Naval Academy sort are important in various works of naval literature set prior to 1845. These are mostly novelizations of the early careers of such naval heroes as Stephen Decatur. From 1851 until the creation of naval Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) in 1925, the Naval Academy was the only source of U.S. Navy midshipmen, and it remains the primary source today. Hence, American midshipmen literature is largely connected with the U.S. Naval Academy. Most such literature is juvenile literature,* fiction for boys. The novels typically have young male protagonists either going through the Naval Academy or (if set prior to 1912) having recently graduated. Many of the authors were associated with the Naval Academy either as staff or graduates. One of the earliest such novels is Joe Bentley: Naval Cadet (1889), by H. H. Clark, Naval Academy chaplain, who later wrote Midshipman Stanford (1916). The period from the Spanish-American War (1898) to the end of World War I was especially fertile, with over two dozen boys’ novels featuring midshipmen published, many in series. All show the lot of the midshipman as wholesomely adventurous. These include series by Cyrus Townsend Brady,* Yates Stirling, and Edward L. Beach Sr.* and two books by Richmond P. Hobson, all academy graduates. Harriet Irving Hancock’s four Dave Darrin novels, one for each year at Annapolis, were all published in 1911. Academy professor William O. Stevens produced two in 1912-1913, and the 1920s saw four juvenile novels from Fitzhugh Green, another graduate.

The best-known author from this period, though the books themselves are little known today, was Upton Sinclair, who (under the pen name Ensign Clark Fitch) produced a series of midshipman novels and tales between 1898 and 1903, all following the adventures of young Clif Faraday. These include Clif the Naval Cadet, or, Exciting Days at Annapolis (1903). The tales were published in True-Blue Magazine, then republished separately. Academy graduate Robb White produced Midshipman Lee of the Naval Academy in 1938.

George Bruce’s Navy Blue and Gold (1936) became a very successful movie (1937), starring Robert Young and James Stewart. Space Cadet (1948), by Academy graduate and major science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein, became a television series. Though set in the future, its Space Academy is clearly based on the Naval Academy. While nearly every other Naval Academy novel is set in a time roughly contemporary with its publication, Midshipman Plowright (1969), by James T. Pole, an academy professor, rather successfully novelizes the school’s earliest days in 1845.

The 1980s saw significant new approaches to the old material. Perhaps the most powerful midshipman novel to date is graduate James Webb’s A Sense of Honor (1981), set during the Vietnam War. Conversely, the only thoroughly comic midshipman novel is graduate David Poyer’s* The Return of Philo T. McGiffin (1983). In Anne D. LeClaire’s mystery Every Mother’s Son (1987), the protagonist must find the cause of her midshipman son’s death. In Plebe (1997), graduate Hank Turowski celebrates the value of the rugged first year at the academy. [See also NAVAL FICTION; NAVAL MEMOIRS]

C. Herbert Gilliland