Wednesday, December 21, 2011

So You Wanna Be A Writer? Join the Merchant Marines!

Who among us hasn’t felt the urge to chip paint, swab the poop deck, or keep the midnight watch over a commercial shipping vessel at one time or another? Who can honestly say he’s never heard the call of the sea?

One thing’s for sure, many a great author has been groomed on the high seas. The literary world is replete with writers who have tackled a stint in the merchant marines: Joseph Conrad, Ralph Ellison, Herman Melville, Allen Ginsburg, Jack Kerouac, Alex Haley, Saul Bellow, Langston Hughes, Louis L’Amour, Eugene O’Neill, there are simply too many to name… One could throw in Jack London, who worked a sealing vessel, Arthur Conan Doyle, who was a ship's surgeon, or Ernest Hemingway, who hunted U-boats in the Caribbean. They probably all dreamed, like Conrad’s Lord Jim, of a life filled with adventure:

“He could see the big ships departing, the broad-beamed ferries constantly on the move, the little boats floating far below his feet with the hazy splendor of the sea in the distance and the hope of a stirring life in the world of adventure.

“On the lower deck, in the Babel of two-hundred voices, he would forget himself and beforehand live in his mind the sea life of light literature. He saw himself saving people from sinking ships, cutting away masts in a hurricane, swimming through a surf with a line, or as a lonely castaway, barefooted and half-naked, walking on uncovered reefs in search of shellfish to stave off starvation. He confronted savages on tropical shores, quelled mutinies on the high seas and in a small boat upon the ocean kept up the hearts of despairing men. Always an example of devotion to duty, and as unflinching as a hero in a book.”
What’s not to love about any of that? Sign me up! But Conrad quickly follows that passage with this dampening dose of reality:
“After two years of training he went to sea, and entering the region so well known to his imagination, found them strangely barren of adventure. He made many voyages. He knew the magical monotony of existence between sky and water. He had to bear the criticism of men, the exactions of the sea, and the prosaic severity of the daily task that gives bread, but whose only reward is in the perfect love of the work. This reward eluded him. Yet, he could not go back, because there is nothing more enticing, disenchanting and enslaving than the life at sea.”
So, it’s not all rainbows and butterflies. So what? It still sounds like a nice gig, if you can get it. And the literary merits have been proven time and time again. Like the great authors named above, you could pluck your ideas and experiences from exotic foreign ports and use the long hours at sea to let your material marinate and develop for our benefit. 

So go ahead. Set sail for literary distinction. Be a writer, be a merchant marine.


  1. Saul Bellow? A jew from Chicago at sea? I had no idea.

    Speaking of Saul Bellow, I was completely befuddled this last year when I read The Adventures of Augie March, supposedly one of the better novels ever written. I didn't like it all. It was very bland, just detail after boring detail.

    I LOVED Herzog though. Loved it. It's genius.

    Can anyone help me with Augie March?

  2. Merchant Marine: it's not just for white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants anymore.

    Can't help you out with Augie, though. I've yet to read it.

  3. The Merchant Marine has never been just for whites. Look at any nautical novel from Moby Dick to Two Years Before the Mast, diversity has always been a vital part of life at sea. There are definitely certain countries that have always had strong nautical roots, but those include many that are non-white. I recently spent 6 months at sea as a deckhand on a containership and made a goofy little short documentary about the experience if you might like to see what it is like these days
    While most of the officers were white, most of us unlicensed crew were of different races: Phillipinos, Puerto Ricans, African-Americans, etc.
    I wish more young people would look into the Merchant Marine before spending money on colleges they can't afford. It is a good way to get real life experience and see some of the world, while earning money.
    Reading Langston Hughes bio The Big Sea right now, which led me to look up his history with the sea, fascinating read so far

  4. Also, don't forget Mark Twain! Who worked as a pilot, and who's pen name is a reference for...a river depth term that pilots used I think...right? And I don't think Kerouac ever caught a ship unfortunately, although he did try in San Francisco. Did he?

    1. Thanks for the comments, Martin. I will definitely check out your documentary. As for Kerouac, I recently read his posthumous novel, "The Sea is My Brother," which wasn't very good but still shed a little light on his very brief stint in the merchant marine.

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