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American Sea Writing: A Literary Anthology

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American Sea Writing

American Sea Writing

Library of America
The sea has been more than just a scenic backdrop in Classic Literature. It has played the part of a character since the time of the Odyssey, and the waves are part of what our myths and legends are made of.

As the waves take on almost human characteristics of vengeance and retribution, we seem to dream of them. In many ways, they seem to shape our world and consciousness.

Untamed Territory

In his Introduction, Editor Peter Neill explains, "Unlike the American West, which is now crisscrossed with superhighways and dotted with town and cities, the oceans that bracket the nation will never be tamed." To explore the depth of sea writing, Neill has collected works that cover the span of American experience -- from William Strachey, William Bradford, and Cotton Mather, through the explorations of Lewis and Clark to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Mary Rowland, Mark Twain, Edgar Allan Poe, Stephen Crane, Jack London, Eugene O'Neill. He covers them all -- the masters of American literature (along with a few you've probably never heard about).

In these works, the fury and power of the sea emerges out of the masses of some 666 pages of text. Out of almost 70 writers, Neill creates a sort of masterwork, intertwined with Cooper's invented sea novel, the stuff from terrible and wonderful personal experiences, tales of whaling, surfing, and surviving...

Here, Melville writes, "For ever and ever, to the crack of doom, the sea will insult and murder him, and pulverize the staliest, stiffest frigate he can make..."

Of course, the power of the sea is ever-evident. The anthology begins and ends with stormy waters. The first account is form 1612; and historically, we know that the work influenced Shakespeare's "The Tempest." The works continue through the years up to John McPhee's "Looking for a Ship," where he examines more contemporary seafaring. Even with modern technology, the sea still offers challenges beyond anything we can predict or control. The see is still full of mystery... A ship, with all the mates on board, can still disappear with one great swell -- never to be seen again.

With all the masses of literature we have about the sea, Peter Neill explains that the greatest difficulty he encountered in writing the book was "figuring out what to leave out." He says, "as we worked, the volume swelled to impossible proportions and demanded terrible triage." What a piece of work that must have been -- trying to decide what to put in the book and what to leave out (of novels, journals, stories, poems, and so much more).

Tales of Wonder and Imagination

Amidst all the death and destruction -- of Herman Melville's "Moby Dick," Stephen Crane's "The Open Boat," the death of William Bradford's wife (suicide?), the death of the cockswain in James Fenimore Cooper's "The Pilot," and countless other tales--there are many wonderful and whimsical wonders from the sea as well ... In "Foot-Prints on the Sea-Shore," Nathaniel Hawthorne writes, "be it owned, after all my solitary joys, that this is the sweetest moment of a Day by the Sea-Shore." William Beebe writes of a fish, "In my memory, it will live throughout the rest of my life as one of the loveliest things I have ever seen."

To write an effective and powerful anthology, Peter Neill had to have a theme, a strand that streamed through all the works (of life, death, beauty and utter dark, ugliness). In "The Marginal World," Rachel Carson writes of a common thread: "the spectacle of life in all its varied manifestations as it has appeared, evolved, and sometimes died out." But, there's also "meaning and significance," which is elusive.

In this anthology, you'll find an adventure ... at least a taste of it. You may never be the same, as you dive into the depths with the monsters and the mayhem of the sea.

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