History, Literature

Sailor Talk: Labor, Utterance, and Meaning in the Works of Melville, Conrad, and London

I was raised in a world rich with sailor talk. My father, Captain James (‘Jay’) S. Bercaw, was a masterful storyteller. My sister Katrina, brother Seán, and I cherished sitting at his feet as he told brilliant and evocative sea stories. He had sailed twice around the world as First Mate on a square-rigged vessel, the Brigantine Yankee, under Captain Irving Johnson. Because of that experience, he dreamt of sailing around the world with his own family. My parents saved throughout their married lives and then sold everything—house, cars, furnishings—and the five of us set off on a circumnavigation of the world aboard a 38-foot ketch-rigged sailboat when I was sixteen, my sister fifteen, and my brother ten. We sailed 38,000 miles over three years and seven months, visiting 247 ports-of-call. We encountered calms, gales, a hurricane, unmarked anchorages, seasickness, and shipboard accidents (my brother Seán was stung by a Portuguese man-of-war during one swim call), but also many moments of great joy, unexpected kindness, enduring friendships, stunningly beautiful sunsets, the green flash, and wonderful and extended sailor talk. This experience instilled in me a love of the spoken word and of the sea.

First of 38,000 miles that the Bercaw family sailed in their circumnavigation of the globe aboard the 38-foot ketch Natasha. Photo courtesy of Mary K. Bercaw Edwards.
First of 38,000 miles that the Bercaw family sailed in their circumnavigation of the globe aboard the 38-foot ketch Natasha. Photo courtesy of Mary K. Bercaw Edwards.

I went on to university and earned a Ph.D. in English, but my love of the spoken word and the sea never left. I was drawn to the works of Herman Melville, a superb sailor-storyteller. Perhaps inevitably, my Ph.D. dissertation and all my early scholarship centered on Melville. The interest in Joseph Conrad came later. After graduation, I taught Literature and History aboard sail-training vessels for Long Island University. During one extended sea passage, the mate read Conrad’s “Youth” aloud as the students and I gathered around him. Hearing “Youth” as a spoken tale evoked in me an understanding of the story’s oral qualities. Later still, I read Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf and was struck anew at the spoken elements of this sailor story. I was also terrified as I was alone aboard a fishing schooner in the gathering dusk when I began Chapter 12: “The last twenty-four hours have witnessed a carnival of brutality. From cabin to forecastle it seems to have broken out like a contagion. I scarcely know where to begin.”

I am lucky in that my years at sea (I now have 58,000 miles at sea, all under sail) and my many years working aloft on the square-rigged ships at Mystic Seaport Museum have given me a visceral understanding of seafaring. I have seen with sailor’s eyes and slept in the bunks of the forecastle. I know the machinery of a sailing ship with all five senses and with hands and muscles. Yet I have never sailed around Cape Horn. I have worked aloft in bitter cold and snow and stood long, wintry night watches, but I have always had a refuge of warmth to retreat to afterwards; I have not been forced to shiver with cold in a damp and desolate forecastle. The officers under whom I have sailed have rarely acted like tyrants—and if they did, I had the option of leaving the ship. I acknowledge, then, that my knowledge, although visceral, is limited.

Mary K. Bercaw Edwards in the rigging of the 1841 whaleship Charles W. Morgan at Mystic Seaport Museum with her children Jesse (left) and Annie (right). Photo courtesy of Mary K. Bercaw Edwards.

Too often the material world of seamen is neglected by scholars: a sin of omission rather than commission, considering the challenges involved. However, writers such as Melville, Conrad, and London understood the ocean and the work of mariners not only in aesthetic, literary, and intellectual terms but also experientially and kinesthetically. They had learned about seafaring with their bodies, through such elements as body position, muscle movement, and weight as felt through nerve endings. The knowledge of the sea and seafaring that these sailor-authors gained kinesthetically, and often unconsciously, is reflected in their writing, but in a shorthand rooted in their familiarity with the spoken world of sailors.

Sailor talk is by its very nature ephemeral, making it difficult to extract from the historical record. But we can recover such talk to a surprisingly large extent from letters, journals, newspapers, and orally transmitted forms such as song and folklore. Missionary sources, too, often quote sailors. Another source is government documents in which sailors’ speech was taken down verbatim, such as consular papers—for example, when recovered deserters were questioned before the consul—and court depositions. Sailor Talk looks at how Melville, Conrad, and London transformed the spoken language of seafarers into their texts.

Mary K. Bercaw Edwards is Associate Professor of English and Director of Maritime Studies at the University of Connecticut.

Find out more about Mary K. Bercaw Edwards’s new book Sailor Talk on our website.


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