American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

NAVAL FICTION. Most American authors who have written good naval fiction have drawn, in part, on personal experience. For instance, dissatisfied with the portrait of nautical life in Sir Walter Scott’s The Pirate (1821), James Fenimore Cooper* penned a more realistically detailed portrait of ships and the sea in The Pilot* (1824), basing his descriptions partly on his own three years as a midshipman in the U.S. Navy. This novel, which features Revolutionary War hero John Paul Jones,* was the first of Cooper’s many nautical romances. In contrast, White-Jacket* (1850), a semiautobiographical novel that author Herman Melville* based on his yearlong enlisted service aboard the American frigate United States, is a kind of social criticism. The book realistically manifests the harsh, often unjust conditions of the American bluejacket. Melville’s other work of naval fiction, Billy Budd,

Sailor,* written just before Melville’s death and published posthumously in 1924, goes beyond realism. The artificial situation posed by Melville in this dark chronicle—in which Captain Vere of a seventy-four-gun British naval vessel is apparently forced to condemn the “innocent” Billy Budd, a seaman who has struck his superior officer dead—is clearly allegorical.

In Mutiny on the Bounty (1932), Charles Nordhoff* and James Norman Hall (not naval veterans but both World War I pilots) brought to life the cruelty of William Bligh of H.M.S. Bounty, a cruelty that, on a voyage to the South Seas that took place in the late eighteenth century, had provoked Bligh’s first mate Fletcher Christian and most of his crew to mutiny.* The two sequels to this work, Men against the Sea (1934) and Pitcairn’s Island* (1934), trace fictionally the further history of Bligh and the mutineers.

Nordhoff and Hall based their work on extensive historical research; so did naval officer and author Edward Ellsberg.* In Captain Paul (1940), Ellsberg sketched adeptly the brilliant sea battles of the Revolutionary War hero John Paul Jones. Besides the battles, Ellsberg gets across the huge difficulties that were imposed by self-serving bureaucrats and profiteers who wouldn’t give Jones the ships or the orders he deserved. Yet another researcher who wrote of the navy was army veteran Francis van Wyck Mason.* Among many works of historical fiction, Mason sketched Confederate* naval* adventures such as those in Proud Flags (1951) and Our Valiant Men (1956).

Most of the best naval fiction has been written since 1940. In 1941 Marcus Goodrich’s* Delilah appeared to rave reviews. The novel is set on the coal-burning destroyer Delilah in the Philippines in 1916-1917 (a destroyer like the one in which Goodrich had served) as the United States clings to an increasingly precarious neutrality. The ship’s mission is to head off a Moro uprising on a remote island. An exceptional novel twenty years later concerning the same general period was written by a former naval chief petty officer, Richard McKenna.* In The Sand Pebbles (1962) the protagonist is an enlisted man enraptured with steam engineering but disdainful of main- deck naval life. Besides accurately picturing the navy of the Yangtze Patrol, in which the author had served, and the historical situation of American gunboat diplomacy, McKenna convincingly portrays the psychology of a crew under great stress and the growth of a young enlisted man into awareness of the great world outside his engine room.

The novels written about World War II are just as adventure-filled but somewhat less philosophical. The best, Herman Wouk’s* 1951 novel The Caine Mutiny, convincingly pictures the coming-of-age of an immature young officer on an inglorious destroyer-minesweeper in the Pacific (the kind of vessel in which Wouk had spent the war) who supports a quasimutiny against his paranoid skipper, the infamous Captain Queeg.* The real villain of the novel, however, is the novelist Torn Keefer, in whom Wouk pictures presciently an intellectual contempt for the military that flowered only in the Vietnam era but (as the novel would seem to suggest) had been latent for decades.

Of the other naval fiction about World War II, some of the best has been written by career mariners such as Captain Edward L. Beach,* whose classic submarine novel Run Silent, Run Deep (1955) had a fine sequel, Dust on the Sea (1972). Beach portrays dramatic submarine attacks with flair and with meticulous technical accuracy but also realistically portrays a commander’s troubles with subordinates and superiors. Also drawing on deep personal experience is Away All Boats* (1954), a novel by a career merchant mariner who joined the navy on the outbreak of the war; Kenneth Dodson’s description of operations aboard an amphibious ship that takes part in many wartime invasions is autobiographical. Recently, following a naval career that concluded with a tour as superintendent of the Naval Academy, Admiral William P. Mack* has written several novels about destroyer operations in the war. His first book, South to Java (1987), succeeds in picturing such episodes as the dramatic 1942 destroyer attack against Balikpapan, in which Mack himself had participated.

Many other wartime novels are worth mentioning. James Michener’s* Tales of the South Pacific (1947), begun while Michener was a naval administrative officer in the Pacific, has some naval content, though it paints the atmosphere of the time and place more thoroughly than the naval profession. Journalist Harry Homewood wrote submarine novels such as Silent Sea (1981) and Final Harbor (1982), which succeed in telling good stories and also accurately reflect the technical side of the submarine war that Homewood knew. John Clagett’s portrait of blood-thumping service on PT boats in The Slot (1957) is highly authentic, though his later novel Papa Tango (1982), about a main character who had been tragically burned beyond recognition in a PT encounter (as Clagett himself had been), is, in many ways, more interesting. Journalist James Bassett’s novel Harm’s Way (1962), based on Bassett’s staff duty with Admiral William Halsey in the Pacific, reflects the view from the flag bridge better than that from the main deck.

Set in a different naval service are Sloan Wilson’s* three Coast Guard novels, based on his wartime command of three different ships. The best of these is Ice Brothers (1979), which has as its subject the arduous “Greenland Patrols,” and Pacific Interlude (1982), in which the protagonist has difficulties skippering a gasoline tanker in the Pacific.

Although they may picture an occasional malcontent, profiteer, or weak commander, all the novels just mentioned generally portray the navy and the war effort in a positive light. In sharp contrast is the little-known, but excellent, Goodbye to Some (1961), an antiwar novel by wartime navy pilot Gordon Forbes about flying navy Liberator bombers in the far Pacific at the war’s end. Although his buddies are always joking, the protagonist Iverson is personally terrified when he flies his 2,000-mile patrol missions, and he considers many of his fellow pilots to be glory-seeking daredevils. The book offers uniquely compelling portraits of the interaction of a group of somewhat immature young pilots and of piloting a large aircraft in combat. A mildly antiwar book with a different subject is Jan de Hartog’s* 1966 novel The Captain, in which a Dutch tugboat skipper concludes his account of disastrous convoy voyages to Murmansk by advising his son to become a civilian, not a military pilot. This novel offers an interesting view of the British navy from the bridge of a civilian vessel.

Not all American naval fiction recounts deeply serious, death-defying events. Some of it is very humorous, like Thomas Heggen’s Mister Roberts* (1946). Here the officer protagonist, beloved by the crew, desperately wants to get into the fighting but must deal instead with interminable backwater cruises and an imperious, incompetent captain. Heggen himself did manage to participate in several wartime invasions aboard an assault transport. William Brinkley’s* 1956 Don’t Go Near the Water is another comic novel about the war. Brinkley had served as a naval public affairs officer, and naturally, wartime public affairs is the focus of Brinkley’s writing. More comprehensive in terms of naval characters and operations but just as humorous are the stories of Admiral Daniel Gallery,* especially the collections Now Hear This (1965) and Stand By-y-y to Start Engines (1966), stories set in the postwar navy of the 1950s.

Many other novelists have written naval fiction about events since World War II. Michener’s brief, but elegiac, The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1953), about carrier pilots in the Korean War, is one of the few decent novels about naval aviators, despite its author’s not having been a pilot. The ex-naval aviator Stephen Coonts has written several books, beginning with The Flight of the Intruder (1986), that inimitably capture the experience of jet flying in the Vietnam era, just as the surface naval expert David Poyer* has written a series of excellent novels of modern frigate and destroyer duty during the Cold War, beginning with The Med (1988) and The Gulf (1990). Poyer also penned a good comic novel about the Naval Academy, The Return of Philo T. McGiffin (1983), his first major success. Another academy graduate, Marine Corps veteran (and later secretary of the navy) James Webb gives a lively, if controversial, academy portrait, A Sense of Honor (1981), begun while Webb was teaching English at that institution. Finally, there have been several novels about nuclear submarines. Most of them—like Edward L. Beach’s* 1978 Cold Is the Sea—are written by authors with nuclear submarine experience.

There is one significant exception: Tom Clancy’s* The Hunt for Red October (1984), like most of his subsequent fiction, is based not on personal experience but on extensive technological research and on Clancy’s own longtime naval and military interest. Clancy’s work suggests you don’t have to have been in the navy to write good naval fiction. But obviously it helps.

Robert Shenk