The Traces We Leave Behind

(She Blows! catch-up post, three of three.)

One last note—for now, anyway—about She Blows! And Sparm at That! I never knew my novelist great-grandfather, although my dad did; but in many parts of the novel, while reading it, I had this strange, quasi-mystical sense that I was reading something written by someone I was connected to. Maybe this is unavoidable; maybe reading fiction by an ancestor—as with reading fiction by a friend or relative, as with reading the diary of a dead person whom you knew—you’re partly, secretly, selfishly looking for mentions of you, or clues and hints of you. This kicked in very early in the book, since one of the narrator’s older brothers, for example, happens to be named Tom.

Like a lot of people do—and like a whole lot more people really ought to—I worry about the ephemerality of digital storage media. That is to say, I think a lot about things like the fact that barring a range of possible but statistically unlikely disasters, the copy of She Blows! that Emily got me on AbeBooks.com, now 84 years old (the novel was originally published in 1922, but the Riverside Bookshelf edition came out in 1926), will in all likelihood outlive all sorts of things—this Web site; AbeBooks.com; the Google Books version of the book—or at least the servers on which titles in the Google Books library currently exist; the ability of the laptop on which I’m typing these words to function; the Web as we know it; and, of course, me.

So I think it’s these two things—a search for familial clues, combined with a sense that the physical book is under threat (and that, as a consequence, democracy and civilization are under threat), combined also with the amateur genealogist’s love of the discovery of concrete documentation, or even the promise of the possibility of documentation, that make me love the last paragraph of chapter six of She Blows! For context, right before this, some of Timmy’s shipmates manage to harpoon a whale, which then takes off for the horizon, dragging their small boat behind it, faster than the main whaling ship, the Clearchus, can chase it. This is Timmy’s first whaling trip, and he’s worried about the fate of his friends, so he asks another crewmember, Aziel Wright, how the Clearchus will ever catch up; Wright replies that the whale will have to tire within twenty or so miles of running, and even though night is falling, the men on the boat have flares, so not to worry. This is what follows:

I nodded, and thanked him. There was nothing else that I knew enough to ask him, although I was still unsatisfied, and I ran below to get it all down in my journal. At the time I made mere notes, in a fragmentary way, while my impressions were fresh. I wrote up the notes later. I have that journal by me now. As I look over the scrawled and stained pages, and read the disjointed sentences, the whole thing comes back before me as if it had happened yesterday. I sent the journal home from time to time, as I had planned to do, as long as I had opportunities, and managed to carry home the part covering the last part of my cruise. My father and my mother preserved my old journal as if it were a precious thing. I found it nearly thirty years later with my father’s most valuable papers.

From pp. 60 – 61 in the Riverside Bookshelf edition, and pp. 62 – 63 in the original Houghton Mifflin, according to Google Books.

Queer Doings

(She Blows! catch-up post, two of three.)

Another thing I wrote about last November, in my first note about one of my great-grandfather’s books, the one with one of the best titles ever, was that it had inadvertent gay overtones—which, again, is not to say that men did not have sexual relationships with each other on long sea voyages, which obviously they must have (I’m sure there are other examples of this in both fiction and scholarly writing, but one great recent one that I know of is Austin Bunn’s amazing story “The Ledge,” which ran in One Story in January 2006).

But most of the sexual overtones of She Blows! have to do with the juvenile and, I think, homophobic sense of humor that sometimes seems like it’s nearly completely overtaken our culture; the way everything can be read as code for something dirty—cf. Beavis and Butthead; the persistence of Amanda Huggenkiss and her colleagues (Mike Hunt, et al.); “Joey, do you like movies about gladiators?“; etc.

In spite of my nostalgic sense that whatever we might have gained by American culture becoming one gigantic frat movie, we’ve also lost something, I still can’t help but think it’s funny that the hero of She Blows! is named Timmy Taycox, and that the older, grizzled whaling veteran on the ship who befriends Timmy is named Peter Bottom, and that the book has the occasional great paragraph like this one (to give you some context, the Annie Battles is the name of the whaler that Timmy and Peter’s ship, the Clearchus, is in constant competition with, as they circumnavigate the glove in search of pods of whales):

“Now, what do you make of that?” [Peter] cried. “They’re holding her there, and the Battles’ crew ain’t making any sort of objection that I c’n see. It’s a queer vessel and a queer crew and queer doings, and Cap’n Coffin’s the queerest of the lot, if you believe what they say of him—which I don’t. There goes Mr. Wallet over the side, and that’s queerer yet. Mebbe he thinks he can clear up the queerness, but I miss my guess if that’s what he thinks.”

From p. 152 in the Riverside Bookshelf edition, and p. 169 in the original Houghton Mifflin, according to Google Books.

My Great-Grandfather’s Place in the Canon

(She Blows! catch-up post, one of three.)

A year and a day ago, I wrote a post about my great-grandfather’s novel She Blows! And Sparm at That! One of the things I wrote was that I thought he’d had some success as a writer, but that I didn’t really know for sure; I still don’t know as much as I wish I did, but I did finally notice the Publishers’ Note in the front of the edition we have (which I finally finished reading this past summer):

PUBLISHERS’ NOTE

It has seemed to the publishers that both the critical reception and the steady popularity of William J. Hopkins’s “She Blows! and Sparm at That!” not only justify but demand its inclusion in the Riverside Bookshelf. For this purpose it has been revised and materially shortened by the author, entirely reset in a new and larger font of type, and the illustrations by Clifford W. Ashley reproduced in full color. In this format, it is hoped, it will be more attractive to younger readers and its position as one of the great whaling classics more definitely assured.

Which makes me feel even worse about how long it took me to finally finish reading it—in a civilization-is-going-to-hell, we’re-all-doomed-by-our-own-short-attention-spans sort of way.

My current reading list—which includes titles like John Freeman’s The Tyranny of E-mail: The Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox and Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, among others—isn’t helping in this regard.

Eggers’s Little Gunshop

My great-grandfather, William John Hopkins—my father’s father’s father—was a novelist and short-story writer. I think his entire output was what is now called YA, but I’m not sure. We have copies of a lot of his books—The Clammer, Old Harbor, Burbury Stoke, Tumbleberry and Chick—all published by Houghton Mifflin in the early part of the last century. Actually, looking at our collection, I only just now realized that we have a copy of his book The Meddlings of Eve with his autograph on the title page—”To my wife, with love, WJH.” Maybe our collection was his and my great-grandmother’s collection?

The only one of his books I’ve ever tackled is the one with the best title: She Blows! And Sparm at That! I was reading it to Toby for a while, as there were a few months when a story or a chapter of a novel was the best thing to help him go to sleep. That changed, and so I haven’t quite finished it yet.

She Blows! is a whaling adventure. I’m guessing that at least a few of his books are also sea stories, judging from the titles. I’m also guessing that he had some success, but I wish I knew more about this, since his work is now forgotten. A Google search for the title of the book—in quotes, of course—brings up the occasional list of recommended books on whaling.

She Blows!, I’m thinking, might actually be a good book to read to an older child at bedtime, because it is—by contemporary standards for books for young people, at least—rather dry. (For a kid used to more hopped-up action, it might really have a soporific effect.) And yet, at the same time, the book is fascinating. The details of life on a whaler are astonishing—the vocabulary, the mechanics, the culture—so if you wanted to learn more about late-nineteenth-century New England whaling (the story starts in New Bedford), She Blows! would tell you a lot of what you needed to know.

Structurally, though, it’s a weird book. Not a lot happens. Or a lot happens, but the events aren’t quite related; the young hero signs up with a whaler, the boat leaves New Bedford, they get a whale, they miss the next whale, there’s weather, there’s another whale, they meet another boat, there’s another whale, they dock in a port, men get drunk, there’s a knife fight, they leave, they land on an island and meet some castaways, etc. In an e-mail to Eric and Nat recently, I called it “a nautical picaresque bildungsroman” with inadvertent gay overtones. At least, I think they’re inadvertent. Who knows? Life on a whaler probably got gay sometimes. But the inadvertence—the accidental humor of the title, for example—has to do with the ways in which American English has changed in the past hundred years.

I’ll write more in this space on the book’s gayness later. There’s at least a few quotes I want to post here, actually, but for now, I’ll start with a quote from early in the book. I’ve been thinking for years, even without having read She Blows!, that the title is so excellent that Paul Collins, editor of the Collins Library imprint of McSweeney’s, might be interested in publishing it; so I thought it was funny to come across the following. The book starts with the narrator wondering what kind of work he’s going to do, now that he’s old enough to start working; these paragraphs come right after he signs up with a whaler about to leave port (from pp. 15-16 of the 1926 Houghton Mifflin edition):

I almost danced with joy, and I promised not to fret. I knew that I should not fret at a thing that could not be done. I have never done that. I do the most and the best that I can, and am quite cheerful over the outcome. I was always the same; and what better can a man do than his best, and accept the result with a cheerful heart? But if we had made no attempt to find the captain I should have fretted at having left something undone and possibly lost a chance that I might have had.

We had been walking slowly up William Street as we talked, and it was abreast of Eggers’s little gunshop—where I had been used to go for my supply of fishlines and hooks—that my father virtually gave his consent and told me not to fret. The steep, short slope of Johnnycake Hill was just at our left—the Bourne Whaling Museum is now at the top of it—and the Custom House was but a few steps away, on the upper corner of the next street. I broke away and ran, looking back at my father with an ecstatic smile.

I copied the above quote from this page, from the American Libraries sub-section of the Open-Access Text Archive section of the Internet Archive (best known, I think, for the Wayback Machine), then did some minor editorial cleanup while comparing it to my hard copy. One caveat, if you click on that link, though—it’s the entire text of the novel, but it looks like it might not be entirely accurate. (Google Books might be a better source for a digital version of the novel in its entirety.)

More She Blows! anon.