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Travellers’ Tales

ISSUE:  Winter 1928

Navigator: The Story of Nathaniel Bowditch. By Alfred Stanford. New York: Wm. Morrow and Company. $2.50. Trader Horn. Edited by Ethelreda Lewis. New York: Simon and Shuster. $4.00.

We are eternally rearing Halls of Fame and filling them with heroes of our own choosing. In protestant Prussia Luther has the place of honor whereas in Romanistic Bavaria he is rigidly excluded from the Walhalla of Ludwig I at Regensburg. History is the science that seeks to weigh the relative merit of great men, and the critic of historical works should honestly seek for such as are worthy to approach the altars of Clio. Historians being human must necessarily be swayed by some prejudice—even such towering giants as Gibbon and Hume have not escaped censure on that score. But along with possible prejudice, the true historian searches his authorities fearlessly and presents them in a spirit of truth, as he sees it, The Life of Lincoln by Nicolay and Hay is no more history than Abbott’s “Napoleon” or Emil Cohen’s (Lud-wig’s) “William II.” Nicolay had no historical or scholarly training, but commercialized the accumulation of notes which he had made as one of the President’s clerks. As to Hay he was primarily a poet and rhapsodized about Lincoln as he did about Jim Bludsoe and Little Breeches. The ten volumes however are on my shelves and I consult them— but always with caution. On my same shelves are the sixty-six volumes of the “Dictionary of National Biography”— a glorious monument for its munificent founder, the late George M. Smith of the London publishing house bearing his name. No nation has ever produced a more worthy record of its important people, and this one is unique in that it owes nothing to governmental subsidy. My second-hand set cost me $185.00 and I may conclude from that fact that the work today is fully appreciated by historians, however much it may have burdened the exchequer of its original promoter. In the doing of this great work the Editor comments, in the final volume, on the vagaries of our Clio. There are so many important Englishmen about whom very little is known; and, so many more comparatively, unimportant ones about whom everything is known in wearisome detail!

Just now there is a revival of interest in the theme dear to Hakluyt. We collect ancient charts; we hang models of Spanish galleons in our drawing rooms; and we buy books that narrate life amongst facile nymphs where lusty mariners are cheerfully marooned. As a boy I read “Typee” and “Moby Dick”—for they were in my father’s library and I was fond of exploring it. But oddly enough I never in those days met any who had read them or even heard the name of Herman Melville. Some thirty years ago, however, my chance came. I met in the library of the Century Club, my friend Arthur Stedman, who then was literary adviser of the publishing house that subsequently reduced Mark Twain to poverty. Arthur Stedman lamented to me that he could think of no good books to include in a series devoted to high class but entertaining literature. I suggested “Typee” and “Moby Dick”—he had not heard of either! And we were talking in the birthplace and final home of Melville! Needless to say, Mr. Stedman published the tales—and a failure followed! Was there any connection between those two events? I asked Mark Twain about it —he laughed, and laid the whole blame on himself—he was his own publisher!

And now at last we have a tale written about the great Salem navigator, the immortal Bowditch. It is fiction, this book of Alfred Stanford, but it is fiction suckled on sound historical material. History has need of the novelist as the stage requires help from the scene painter and the designer of costumes. The times of Marlboro are better understood after enjoying Thackeray’s “Henry Esmond”; and American seamanship one hundred years ago is glorified with historical fidelity in the pages of Fenimore Cooper—for instance “The Two Admirals,” “The Pilot,” “Red Rover,” “Wing and Wing,” “Myles Wallingford,” and “The Water Witch.” The truthful teller of romance can serve history far more effectively than the professed historian who caters to popular legends. Far better the educational fiction of Defoe than the misleading biographies of Roosevelt.

Bowditch has found in Alfred Stanford a very young and very sympathetic interpreter; one who pictures the home life of Salem in that golden age when Americans made their fortunes by free trade throughout the world—to say nothing of honest smuggling, privateering, slave-running—any kind of sea-faring that was dangerous and lucrative. By all means note this book—buy it if you have the price—but in any event commend its vivid pages to our blase Wall Street fraternity who think that American greatness is a product of the McKinley Tariff Bill.

As to that story of the marvelous Johannesburg pedlar, “Trader Horn,” it’s an impossible book to classify today. The author is to me unknown and the lady who has evoked his latent genius finds no place in the London “Who’s Who,” although John Galsworthy, who furnished the Introduction, refers to her as THE South African Novelist and epitomises her book as “Gorgeous”! America is full of Trader Horns; I have one in my little hamlet on the Hudson. I’ve met them also in far Eastern ports and Kipling found them at every turn. But only a Kipling can do what Mrs. Lewis has bravely attempted; for that master of many crafts and reader of all good books would have blue pencilled mercilessly and produced a few short stories worth reading and re-reading. Trader Horn reminisces of half a century ago and mentions many places; also many names of notable folk, such as Edwin Booth, Paul du Chaillu. But we hear little that is new or that has not been told on better authority by such men as Carl Akeley, Sir Frederick Lugard, Sir Harry Johnston, Sir Roger Casement, Mungo Park, Paul de Chaillu—to mention only the few that spring to mind at this moment.

The authoress has done her share of the work admirably —as well as it could be done by one so young. It was my loss to have been prowling about South Africa before she was born—but had I been there in the place of Mr. Galsworthy I would have pointed out from the pinnacle of my many years that a garrulous and lousy inmate of a Johannesburg lodging house may prove immensely entertaining by reason of his quaint phraseology,—when a fresh breeze is blowing and we to windward of his roving reminiscences. But all this needs immense boiling down. Uncle Remus talked ten thousand words a day, but the man who immortalized him selected those only that are now current throughout the world—and Genius lies in selection.


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