American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

NELSON, JAMES L. (1962- ). Born in Lewiston, Maine, James L. Nelson, a former professional square-rig sailor, traces his love of the sea to his earliest memories, when he chose boats and model ships for boyhood toys. Nelson attended the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA), earning his B.A. in motion picture and television production from UCLA in 1986. After two years as an assistant editor for a Hollywood television production company, Nelson succumbed to his nautical wanderlust and spent five years serving aboard sailing ships, including the Golden Hinde, the Lady Washington, and the Revolutionary War-era replica H.M.S. Rose.

Drawing upon his firsthand knowledge of tall-ship sailing, Nelson has authored the Revolution at Sea Saga, a series of historical novels depicting the American naval struggle during the Revolutionary War. By Force of Arms (1996) introduces protagonist Isaac Biddlecomb, American smuggler and sea captain. Drawn into the escalating maritime conflict not by patriotic zeal but by the lure of economic gain, Biddlecomb suffers the loss of his ship and her illicit cargo to a Royal Navy revenue cutter and the indignity of capture and before-the-mast servitude aboard a British brig. Escape follows, but, now having been bloodied by King George’s forces, Biddlecomb joins the Revolutionary cause. At the behest of General Washington, he raids and captures British gunpowder stores on Bermuda in The Maddest Idea (1997) and delivers the badly needed powder to Washington’s army, bolstering the general’s siege of Boston. The third book of the cycle, The Continental Risque (1998), finds Biddlecomb participating with the newly formed Continental navy in its 1776 amphibious raid upon the British armory at New Providence, Bahamas. In Lords of the Ocean (1999), Biddlecomb commands the Continental brig of war Charlemagne. He transports Dr. Benjamin Franklin across the wintry North Atlantic to France, raids the English coast, and escalates the colonial war.

Self-consciously endeavoring to join the ranks of C. S. Forester and Patrick O’Brian, Nelson nevertheless forgoes his forerunners’ stylized tones. His dialogue aims for the patterns of contemporary speech, stressing the immediacy, rather than the arcane distance, of his subject matter. Unlike Forester’s Horatio Hornblower and O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey, Isaac Biddle- comb is not bred to the naval service, and Nelson’s nonperiod diction supports his main character’s newcomer status by allying him, as a fellow neophyte, with the reader.

John F. Hussey