American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

NAVAL MEMOIRS. Since the nineteenth century, many authors have written naval memoirs or other personal accounts of naval service that have significance beyond the historical or the naval.

In Journal of a Cruise (1815), for example, Captain David Porter* traced in lively prose his highly successful raids in the Essex upon the British whale fishery in the Pacific during the War of 1812. Charles Nordhoff (grandfather of the coauthor of Mutiny on the Bounty of the same name) wrote in Man- of-War Life (1855) a highly readable account of his teenage enlisted cruise to China and Japan aboard the American ship of the line Columbus. This book was commercially more successful than James Fenimore Cooper’s* Ned Myers; or, A Life before the Mast (1843), a memoir of Myers’ life taken down by his friend Cooper that has a partially naval subject and is less strident than Herman Melville’s* semiautobiographical novel White-Jacket* (1850), although all these books manifest the harsh (indeed, often life- threatening) circumstances of the American bluejacket.

Other older works of note are Frederick Palmer’s Autobiography of George Dewey (1913) and Captain William Harwar Parker’s Recollections of a Naval Officer, 1841-1865 (1883), about an American naval officer who became the superintendent of the Confederate States Naval Academy. But the gem of all these older accounts is Rear Admiral Charles E. Clark’s memoir, My Fifty Years in the Navy (1917). When the Civil War broke out, and he with other Naval Academy midshipmen* had to choose between the Union and Confederacy, Clark chose the Union. Through his subsequent career he saw a great variety of shipboard duty, much of it historically important: he was with Farragut at the Battle of Mobile Bay, was present at the bombing of Valparaiso, and was the captain of the Oregon as that vessel helped to batter the Spanish fleet into submission at Santiago during the Spanish-American War. Clark’s charming memoir puts the best light upon a naval ethos in which the relation of officer to enlisted was sometimes conceptualized as that of father to son, though it often resembled (in its customary floggings, poor pay, and other oppression) that of master to slave.

In the twentieth century, a number of authors wrote autobiographically about their naval duty. Most of these works are about World War II, although there are exceptions: Admiral Daniel Gallery’s* humorous memoir Eight Bells and All’s Well (1965) traces his naval career from 1917 to 1960, and William J. Lederer’s sometimes hilarious recollections, All the Ships at Sea (his first book, written in 1950, while he was a navy captain), reaches back to his enlisted service in the 1920s.

Of literary-quality memoirs about World War II itself, a few are by naval professionals, such as Under the Red Sea Sun (1946), in which Admiral Edward Ellsberg* masterfully recounts his recall to do naval salvage work, and Submarine (1952), a partly autobiographical and somewhat amateurish book by which Captain Edward L. Beach* initiated his writing career. Commander Edward Peary Stafford’s two engaging recollections, Little Ship, Big War: The Saga of DE 343 (1984) and Subchaser (1988), are also worth noting.

Other memoirs have been written by academics, looking back. Among these is Alvin Kernan’s Crossing the Line (1994). Here a literary expert portrays memorably his youthful and enterprising enlisted experience as an aviation ordnanceman, service in which Kernan participated in highly significant events: he was on the Enterprise during the Battle of Midway and later was on the carrier Hornet when it was sunk. In Samuel Hynes’ Flights of Passage (1988), a literature professor captures well his youthful experience as a Marine Corps pilot, both during flight training and in the midst of the Pacific War. Historian Louis R. Harlan’s memoir All at Sea (1996) narrates convincingly a young man’s coming-of-age as an officer aboard a small amphibious craft that deployed to several theatres of war. Perhaps the most philosophical of all these reflective works is English professor Robert Edson Lee’s delightful To the War (1968), in which the author attempts to come to terms with his “on the fringe” wartime experience as a “hull repair specialist.”

Of course, many other American authors had naval service in the war and described it at less than book length. Of special note are James Michener’s* The World Is My Home: A Memoir (1992), which devotes some ninety pages to his official duties (and many unofficial activities) while an administrative officer in the South Pacific, and Sloan Wilson’s* memoir What Shall We Wear to This Party? (1976), which devotes similar space and some fine description to his service in the U.S. Coast Guard, including arduous patrol duty in the North Atlantic and successive command of three Coast Guard vessels.

Selections from these works, from some of the full-length memoirs mentioned earlier, and from short autobiographical recollections of writers such as Louis Auchincloss, Russell Baker, Ben Bradlee, Alex Haley,* Samuel Eliot Morison, Carl Rowan, Lewis Thomas, C. Vann Woodward, and Herman Wouk* appear in Robert Shenk’s edited Authors at Sea: Modern American Writers Remember Their Naval Service (1997), a compendium of naval service during World War II.

Robert Shenk