Robert Cotner, Editor


read recently in The New York Times (Nov. 20, 2002) about Signals of Distress, a 1995 novel by an Englishman, Jim Crace, being adapted for stage in an off-off-Broadway theater in New York. I wasn’t so much interested in the adaptation as in the novel itself, which I had not heard of. Set in 1836 in a small fishing village in England, the novel was praised for Crace’s rendering “most scrupulously and deliciously…the sense of place.”

Working on my own historical novel, set in 1835 Chicago, I was eager to read Crace’s treatment of the 1830s in historical fiction. And my friends at the Newberry Library bookstore had the book in my hands in a few days. It indeed is a fine book, well worth the read from both the historical perspective in England at the time and from the development of character — Crace is a master with character.

But, as so often happens in reading, the unexpected, the wholly unlooked for, made the novel even more memorable than anticipated. This came for me in the person of a minor character, one Palmer Dolly, member of an ancient family of fishermen on the northern coast of England. At 19, Palmer caught a vision of himself, not as fisherman but as mariner, and he began plotting to find a place on an American ship preparing to sail from his village shortly.

Here was clarification of a singular metaphor, so important, I thought, in our Western tradition. It was what Odysseus was truly about, as conceived by Homer and elaborated by later poets, such as Alfred Lord Tennyson. As I read the novel, I was reminded of the closing lines of Tennyson’s “Ulysses.” A hero grown old speaks to his countryman, declaring in his soliloquy, once a mariner, always a mariner:

          Come, my friends,
Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order,
Smite the sounding furrows.
For my purpose holds, to sail beyond
The sunset and the baths of all the Western stars
Until I die. It may be the gulfs will wash us down.
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Though much is taken, much abides.
And though we are not now that strength
Which in old days moved heaven and earth —
That which we are we are:
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate
But strong in will, to strive, to seek,
To find, and not to yield.

The late D. Elton Trueblood, Quaker theologian and author, quoted that stanza in his final public appearance before leaving Earlham College to retire in Landsdale, PA, in 1987. I had arranged for his final talk, and afterward I told him how much I appreciated his use of the Tennyson quote. He looked at me in his stern way and said, “Memorize it!” I did, and it has become something of a “theme” poem for me in my later years. Caxtonians will know that I quote it often.

The character in the novel illuminated the subtle, natural movement, which drives us toward the mariner life — a direction, it seems, all must go who would achieve a reasonably mature conclusion. It’s relatively safe to be a fisherman, but one must leave the hometown, the familiar port city, the shallows, as it were, to be a mariner. The journey I speak of has no known maps. We piece it together under circumstance of the trip from our own native instincts and intellect made keen by thoughtful, broad reading, wide-ranging human associations, and an always-present force, which some may call fate, others grace. A comment from Brendon Gill’s Here at the New Yorker (1975) comes to mind. Gill wrote that, contrary to his expectations, he was less secure as he grew older than he had thought he would be.

The courage it takes to age is not so much related to chronology, it seems to me, as to the unknowns in the geography of the trip. There is so much to assimilate upon this vast sea, so far from recognized markers and familiar conditions. There is much to fear: where, exactly, am I, and what does come next?

Fortunate is he who travels with a mate, sharing the excitement as well as the dreads. Happy is he who has the company of books, which, besides companionship, offer insights, if not directions, for the course pursued. Rare is he who travels with a few good friends, exploring in thoughtful conversations worthwhile ideas. Blesséd is he who has all three — and I count myself blessed!

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