Monday, January 29, 2024

The Drifter

When I was growing up there was a commercial artist in our neighborhood named Gordon Johnson, whose specialty was paintings for advertising work and book illustration. He often worked from photographs that he had local people pose for, and this scene of the sighting of the Mary Celeste probably depicts people I knew, though at this point I'm no longer sure who they were. It was done, if I remember right, as part of a series for an insurance company. I have a print copy somewhere, but the image above was found online.

The Mary Celeste incident is one of the great nautical enigmas. An American merchant sailing ship is found in the Atlantic Ocean, a bit west of Portugal, with no ship's boat, a full cargo, a logbook a few weeks out of date, and no obvious evidence of fire, shipwreck, mutiny, or piracy. No trace of the crew or the passengers (which included the captain's wife and young daughter) is ever found. The ship is boarded by sailors from the Canadian brigantine Dei Gratia and brought to port in Gibraltar. After lengthy legal proceedings it is eventually reclaimed by its owners and put back into service. (Later proprietors sank it as part of an insurance scam, but that's another whole story.)

Various explanations and impostures have been put forth over the years, some of them fairly bizarre. An early one was offered, anonymously and fictionally, by a young Arthur Conan Doyle, who mistakenly called the ship the Marie Celeste (as many have done since) and imagined a tale of conspiracy involving a psychopathic ex-slave with a grudge against the white race and the missing ear of an African stone idol. Perhaps the most amusing solution was put forward by one J. L. Hornibrook:
There is a man stationed at the wheel. He is alone on deck, all the others having gone below to their mid-day meal. Suddenly a huge octopus rises from the deep, and rearing one of its terrible arms aloft encircles the helmsman. His yells bring every soul on board rushing on deck. One by one they are caught by the waving, wriggling arms and swept overboard. Then, freighted with its living load, the monster slowly sinks into the deep again, leaving no traces of its attack.
I thought about the incident during a trip to a library, when, while looking for something else, I spotted the title Mystery Ship stamped in gold on a green binding and opened it on a hunch. The book, written by a historian named George S. Bryan and published by Lippincott in 1942, was indeed about the Mary Celeste. I brought it home on a lark and found that it was actually quite good, though it's apparently long out-of-print and mostly forgotten except by nautical historians. Bryan looked carefully at the original documentary evidence (much of which he reproduces), went over the various explanatory theories point by point, reprinted a good portion of the Conan Doyle, and dispelled much of the nonsense that had accreted over the years. (The ship's cat was not dozing contentedly when the Mary Celeste was found, there were no live chickens on board, nor were there half-eaten meals still warm in the mess.) His own tentative conclusion was that the ship was deliberately abandoned because the captain had reason to believe that it was in grave danger, either from shipwreck or from an imminent explosion of its cargo (which consisted almost entirely of barrels of alcohol). The line that may have tethered the single ship's boat failed to hold, and the passengers and crew drifted into oblivion.

I was aware of the story of the Mary Celeste from a fairly early age, though I never knew it in detail. This painting no doubt shaped how I imagined it. I've had a weakness for eerie nautical stories ever since.

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Notebook: James Boswell Imitates a Cow

John Brewer, describing a night at the Royal Drury Lane Theatre in 1769:
During the hour before the curtain rose the theatre was filled by what a bemused German visitor, von Archenholz, called ‘noise and bombardment’: the audience chatted, cheered and sang, threw fruit at one another, flirted and preened themselves. A few years earlier James Boswell, waiting with a Scottish friend for a Drury Lane performance to begin, ‘entertained the audience prodigiously by imitating the lowing of a cow.’ As he later proudly remarked, ‘I was so successful in this boyish frolic that the universal cry of the galleries was “Encore the cow! Encore the cow!”’

The Pleasures of the Imagination

Tuesday, January 02, 2024

Notes for a Commonplace Book (30)

Henry David Thoreau:
I spend a considerable portion of my time observing the habits of the wild animals, my brute neighbors. By their various movements and migrations they fetch the year about to me. Very significant are the flight of geese and the migration of suckers, etc. But when I consider that the nobler animals have been exterminated here, the cougar, panther, lynx, wolverene, wolf, bear, moose, deer, beaver, turkey, etc., etc., I cannot but feel as if I lived in a tamed and, as it were, emasculated country. Would not the motions of those larger and wilder animals have been more significant still? Is it not a maimed and imperfect nature that I am conversant with? As if I were to study a tribe of Indians that had lost all its warriors. Do not the forest and the meadow now lack expression? now that I never see nor think of the moose with a lesser forest on his head in the one, nor of the beaver in the other? When I think what were the various sounds and notes, the migrations and works, and changes of fur and plumage which ushered in the spring, and marked the other seasons of the year, I am reminded that this my life in nature, this particular round of natural phenomena which I call a year, is lamentably incomplete. I listen to a concert in which so many parts are wanting. The whole civilized country is, to some extent, turned into a city, and I am that citizen whom I pity. Many of those animal migrations and other phenomena by which the Indians marked the season are no longer to be observed. I seek acquaintance with nature to know her moods and manners. Primitive nature is the most interesting to me. I take infinite pains to know all the phenomena of the spring, for instance, thinking that I have here the entire poem, and then, to my chagrin, I learn that it is but an imperfect copy that I possess and have read, that my ancestors have torn out many of the first leaves and grandest passages, and mutilated it in many places. I should not like to think that some demigod had come before me and picked out some of the best of the stars. I wish to know an entire heaven and an entire earth.

The Journal (1856)
The above is a fuller version of a passage quoted in Dan Flores's sobering 2022 book Wild New World: The Epic Story of Animals & People in America. A few of the animals Thoreau mentions have since recovered (at least to an extent) in the Northeast, but by and large his lament is still valid. We live in an impoverished world. Sadder still, many of us aren't even aware of how much we've lost.