Long, long ago, when the world and I are were both much younger, I was asked to help take an ancient, dilapidated and decaying boat up the Atlantic coast and deliver it to its new owners in one of the wealthy and fashionable little scenic ports in Maine. It was a forty-something-foot single-screw motor yacht that might once have been the last word in luxury several decades earlier, but by the time I saw it, the unforgiving sea, inexorable time, and human neglect had taken a fearful toll.
The young man who had been hired to deliver the boat had all the skills in the world to do the job himself and I think he asked me and my best friend, R……, to help him more out of fear than need; the damn thing really was a wreck and probably should have been scuttled. I was no wise old sea-dog by any means, but even I recognized that if you can see daylight between the deck and the hull and between the deck and the transom, it’s probably not a seaworthy boat. I was so convinced the thing would go down with all hands that I decided to keep a ship’s log that could be published in Life or some other magazine. I forgot to take into account that if we went down, the log would go down with us, but no matter.
Fortunately, the good Lord loves fools, drunkards, and little children and we qualified on two out of three counts. We not only survived, but we were eventually able to deliver the thing to its new owner.
En route, there were numerous adventures, some humorous, some that had us promising the Almighty all kinds of things we could never possibly deliver. But in a commercial fishing port somewhere in southern Maine, a working port neither wealthy nor fashionable, we had one of those encounters that lingers in the memory bank.
We pulled in to a temporary mooring in front of a building that held the harbor master’s office on the ground floor and a restaurant on the second. The idea of having the first meal in several days we hadn’t cooked ourselves was irresistible, so we got permission to tie up overnight at a private mooring owned by a fisherman who would be out at sea for another day or two, and then we picked up three lobster dinners and a case of beer and settled in for the night.
T….. was sleeping by himself in a forward cabin, and R…… and I were sharing an aft cabin. In the middle of the night I heard a thump up by the bow and then an unknown man’s voice cursing. My first thought was that it was some locals come to have a little fun with the southern boys and I slipped out of my bunk and into my blue jeans. Then I heard the voice again, clearly drunk, but good-natured.
“Wake up! Wake up, lad! I’ve come to tell you tales of the sea!”
I decided T….. could deal with that without my help and I climbed back into my bunk. I must have fallen asleep instantly because the next thing I knew, a man with the largest, hardest, and most calloused hands I have ever felt was shaking my hand and bawling, “Wake up, lad! I’ve come to tell you tales of the sea.”
I woke up laughing.
He was the closest I shall ever come to meeting Long John Silver. Massive, built along the lines of a Charolais bull, he took up most of the space in our little cabin, but his personality was such that he could have filled Carnegie Hall: loquacious, flamboyant, amiable, charismatic, and a highly entertaining story-teller. He was drunk, but also curiously in control of himself, and he had brought—as a sort of hospitable gesture—an unopened gallon jug of Mogen David Black Elderberry wine. I kid you not. When he left, several hours later, the jug was empty and the next day T….. and R…… and I were the three most severely hungover young men anywhere on the Atlantic, ocean or coast.
The tales he told were mostly of the sea, but some covered his adventures as a logger in the Pacific Northwest, and some covered his experiences in the Korean War where he had been wounded by machinegun-fire. I can vouch for the truth of the last because I was sitting next to him when in mid-story he suddenly stood up and dropped his trousers to show us the three holes where 6.5X50mm-caliber rounds had gone through his thigh.
But it was when he left, somehow miraculously keeping his balance standing up in a dingy no longer than he was tall as he paddled himself back to shore, that he called over his shoulder, almost as an afterthought, “If you want to read about me, you can read it in The Reader’s Digest, My Most Unforgettable Character…” and he called out the year and the month.
We survived the hangovers, we survived the voyage, and R…… looked up the appropriate issue of Reader’s Digest when we all finally made it back to Virginia. It turned out that our gregarious Mogen David sailor had been quite a bit more than he had revealed in the cabin of that decaying yacht, despite his many yarns. In more or less chronological order he had been: a professional golfer; a bootlegger; a convicted murderer (three murders in a single incident involving some highjacked rum); a convict; the first man ever to volunteer as a human guinea pig for experimental vaccines during World War Two; the man vaccinated more than any other with experimental vaccines; a soldier in the Korean War after he was granted a pardon for his services as a guinea pig; a logger; a crabber off the coast of Alaska (the single most hazardous profession there is, I am told); and finally, when we met him, a lobsterman off the coast of Maine.
He was, in short, the quintessence of maritime adventure.
I was reminded of him when I went on a Joseph Conrad kick lately.
Joseph Conrad is one of those extraordinary, singular anomalies in the annals of literature. Born into Polish nobility during turbulent and troubled times, he was raised partly in the Ukraine, partly in the Warsaw Citadel where his father was imprisoned, partly with his parents in exile in one of those northern Russian towns you hope you never have to see, and mostly—following the death of his parents—in Poland by an uncle.
He was a sickly child and a poor student. His first language was Polish, his second was French, and while he was introduced to English at eight by his father, who was translating Shakespeare to earn money, and while he read English-language novels (notably Charles Dickens, Sir Walter Scott, and James Fenimore Cooper) he never really learned the tongue he is so famous for until he was already in his twenties and working for the British Merchant Marine. Yet by 1895, when he was only thirty-eight, he published his first novel, Almayer’s Folly.
Ask me if I could write Goodnight Moon or The Cat in the Hat in Polish.
Conrad followed Almayer’s Folly with eighteen other novels (nineteen, if you count an unfinished one that was published posthumously) and a memoir, A Personal Record. The book published in this country as The Children of the Sea: A Tale of the Forecastle was only his third novel. It may not be quite in the same league as The Heart of Darkness, but baby, it comes close and it explores some of the same themes. It also contains what is universally acclaimed as the most accurate and harrowing description of a violent storm and the sailors’ desperate attempts to save the boat and their own lives. That description certainly got my attention.
The real title is not The Children of the Sea. Nor was it published under that bowdlerized title in this country (by Dodd, Mead & Co.) out of sensitivity for the feelings of minorities, but rather for purely mercantile reasons, Dodd, Mead & Co. correctly assuming no one would purchase a book in America in 1897 that might be presumed from the title to be about a black man.
Which brings me to the real title and the difficulty of writing a review about this and some other works of genius.
Readers of my blog might recall that I wrote a review of Liza Mundy’s Code Girls that was banned (my review, I mean) by Amazon because I quoted the title of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s song, Woman Is the N(five letters deleted) of the World.
And that in turn brings me to the crux of the issue, not only for this extraordinarily brilliant novel by one the English language’s greatest practitioners, but for a host of other novels as well.
The N….. of the Narcissus (Conrad’s title) makes liberal use of the word that got me banned from Amazon. The book is scarcely read today and almost never taught in any classroom at any level because of that word. And apparently, in 2009, some well-intentioned, touchy-feely, up-to-the-politically-correct-minute, progressive publisher brought out a version entitled, The N-Word of the Narcissus, in which the offending word was completely excised.
Thereby excising one of the primary themes of the book.
The title character—title only, not central—is James Wait, a black man who is hired on to the Narcissus as an able-bodied seaman for a voyage out of Bombay and headed for London. (The book is loosely based on Conrad’s experiences during an actual voyage from Bombay to Dunkirk.) It turns out Wait has tuberculosis and he becomes seriously ill during the voyage, unable to work, and his condition becomes the mirror, if you will, in which the other sailors see themselves, each his own individual reflection, some responding with sympathy and concern, some with indifference, and some—in particular an odious little trouble-making Cockney—with resentful animosity, each according to his personality. Part of Conrad’s genius is that he makes Wait neither sympathetic nor even particularly pleasant, so that the indifference of some of the other sailors is understandable, and the compassion of others more pronounced. When the Narcissus is capsized and partially submerged during a storm off the Cape of Good Hope, five of the sailors risk their lives to save Wait, even though by then most of them realize he is dying.
The anonymous narrator (who is himself one of the sailors) and the other men use the forbidden word casually and frequently, so let’s look at why one of the English language’s greatest writers should have picked that particular word when there were so many other choices.
First, in the mid- to late-nineteenth century, especially among working folk, that word was common currency and it did not carry the weight it does today. Yes, it was considered even then to be condescending and vaguely belittling, but it was not an insult in the way it is today. So just as in Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness or Twain’s The Adventure’s of Huckleberry Finn, to take two analogous examples, the word is used in The N….. of the Narcissus because it was lingua franca in that time, and to condemn either Conrad or Twain for being products of their time would be comparable to condemning Shakespeare for writing in iambic pentameter.
But there is another side to both Conrad and Twain that today’s oh-so-sensitive and politically correct progressive types seem to be unable to grasp, and that side can be summed up by the correct usage of the word “irony,” meaning—as it is supposed to mean and so rarely does—an utterance intended to convey a deliberate contrast between the apparent and intended meanings expressed by the speaker or author. The N….. of the Narcissus, The Heart of Darkness, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, are all books about the essential humanity of man, with the last two specifically and clearly condemning racism. How better to show racism, be it mild or virulent, conscious or unconscious, then to show the inadvertent and unthinking attitudes of the racists you are condemning?
Think about it. In Huck Finn, it is the runaway slave, Jim, who is the moral compass of the book, who shows Huck (and through Huck, the readers) the humanity and dignity that both characters (Huck and Jim) have never been shown themselves, and the moment when Huck makes up his mind to do the “wrong” thing and help Jim escape even if he, Huck, has to go to hell for it, is the turning point—and primary message—of that book.
In The Heart of Darkness, all the whites, including the narrator, Marlow, use the word as casually as it was customarily used in those days, but Conrad is condemning the horrifying brutality of the Belgian government and King Leopold in the Congo. The white “pilgrims” and the “company managers” are portrayed consistently and variously as rapacious, callous, murderous, and imbecilic, shooting blacks for fun or working them to death. Kurtz’s last words, “The horror! The horror!” are Marlow’s (and Conrad’s) reactions to King Leopold’s policies.
And in The N….. of the Narcissus, it is the truly hateful character in the novella, the whining and odious Cockney, Donkin, who is the only one who turns against the dying Wait. The others respond like human beings, some more empathetic than others, just as all humans vary in character, each according to his essential personality and moral core, but all behaving morally.
Anyone who condemns these books as racist because of their use of a commonly used word in the time in which they were written, or who condemns them as being too upsetting or disturbing for today’s students, needs to take a long look at himself or herself in the mirror, just as Conrad’s sailors had to see themselves in the mirror of the dying James Wait.