American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

MR. PENROSE: THE JOURNAL OF PENROSE, SEAMAN (1815).

One of the first novels composed in America, Mr. Penrose: The Journal of Penrose, Seaman was written by William Williams (1727-1791) during the thirty years of his adult residency in the colonies, roughly 1745-1775. Born in Bristol, England, where he also died, Williams was sent to sea by his parents because he could not excel as a scholar. He lived for a few years as a castaway in the Caribbean* before settling in Philadelphia, where he made a name for himself painting portraits, landscapes, and theatrical scenes, taught drawing, and gave flute lessons. He painted and ornamented ships for Thomas and James Penrose of Philadelphia, renowned shipbuilders, whom he complimented by using their family name for the hero of his only novel.

When Williams arrived in London from New York, where he had lived for probably half a dozen years, he took with him the completed manuscript, which was published posthumously in a severely bowdlerized edition in four volumes as The Journal of Llewellin Penrose, a Seaman by his benefactor Thomas Eagles in 1815. A pirated German translation appeared two years later, followed by a shortened, single-volume edition in English by Eagles’ son John in 1826. The original manuscript was discovered by David Howard Dickason, who published it in Williams’ own style and idiom, adding an introduction, in 1969.

The novel tells the tale of a Welsh sailor, Llewellin Penrose, who is shipwrecked,* imprisoned by Spaniards, and deserted by his mates. He lives on the Mosquito Coast of Central America for twenty-seven years, where he dies, having refused repeated opportunities to return to civilization. In the lively, good-humored, and absorbing narrative, Penrose marries and fathers children (including a daughter named “America”), has various misadventures with Native Americans and Europeans, suffers natural disasters, and painstakingly develops a utilitarian personal philosophy against adversity, his modus vivendi.

The narrative resonates to other sea literature. Luta, Penrose’s first wife, a comely Native American of seventeen who dies in childbirth, is a “Green Grove” who anticipates both lusty Fayaway in Herman Melville’s* Typee* (1846) and the elusive Yillah in his Mardi* (1849). A Scots sailor in Penrose’s community hurls his harpoon at a pod of killer whales with the ruthless vigor of Captain Ahab*; when a whale’s tail crushes the sailor’s canoe, the man disappears. Most significantly, however, Williams’ journal is a rousing and realistic travel tale in the tradition of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719).

Jill B. Gidmark