Attitudes and Latitudes: At Sea in a World of Words
An address to the O’Gara Honor Society of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, Kings Point, N.Y., September 22, 2011.
Good afternoon. Many thanks for turning out for this honors class lecture. For me this week is something of a homecoming because my first boss was Frank Braynard, the founder and motive force behind this museum and its collection. I first worked for Frank as a volunteer for OpSail ’76, the tall ships parade held to celebrate the U.S. bicentennial and which thanks in large part to his generous and open spirit was watched live by six million people. I worked for him again on Harbor Festival ’79, a parade of working vessels from cruise ships and box ships to dredges and tugs.
Convincing shipping executives to divert their vessels a few miles up the Hudson for a small entertainment might seem a hopeless task. But it was Frank’s genius to convince people that impossibility and opportunity are actually the same thing. He didn’t know the meaning of the word “No,” and however bad things might actually get, until his dying day whenever anyone asked him how he was doing, the reply was always an enthusiastic “Never better.”
Even as he was convincing businessmen that a parade of working ships was the perfect way to honor their industry and themselves, he was also convincing the Academy and the government to establish the American Merchant Marine Museum here in the Barstow Mansion.
Either one of these projects would have been enough for most people. But Frank wasn’t most people, and when he set his mind to something, it was as good as done, whether it was OpSail, or his history of the Leviathan, the world’s greatest ship, which he started writing in 1979 and whose six volumes he knocked off in four years.
Frank was a man of his word and a man of action, though not an action figure by any means. As a child, he was asthmatic and he didn’t start school until he was about eight years old. But when he saw something that needed doing, he went ahead and did it, regardless of the odds. To overcome opposition, he simply riffed on the old joke about the problems of using English as a universal language in the shipping industry. If someone said “make fast” and he didn’t want to, he would simply translate it to mean “go quick.
If anything might have troubled him about Kings Point, which he loved dearly, it would have been the Academy’s motto: Acta Non Verba, “Deeds Not Words.” Frank was all about inclusion and the Non would have bothered him. He would have much preferred a motto that read Acta Et Verba: “Deeds and Words.” He knew that the two are not mutually exclusive. After all, the whole point of telling stories is to talk about what we’ve done. Stories and ideas—the things we create with words—are what inspire us to go out and do something else.
Today, I want to talk about how to bridge the perceived gap between the word and the deed. In particular, I want to suggest how you, as ambassadors of the United States working with and among representatives of far more cultures than most people ever encounter, can make life easier, more productive and more interesting for yourselves.
When I wrote the article “Beyond the Dead White Whales,” my intention was to critique the way Anglo-American maritime literature is usually presented, and to identify the source of the standard romantic interpretation. My concern is not with the quality of the works that are considered emblematic. Most of the works selected for anthologies and courses are well worth reading regardless of one’s vocation, and many are considered classics not only of maritime literature but of English and even world literature as a whole. And I don’t want to pretend that these books haven’t put me under their spell. I would be lying if I said that my own interest in maritime history wasn’t piqued by reading Herman Melville and Joseph Conrad, or when I was younger still Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons books and even Edward Lear’s The Owl and the Pussycat.
While pinpointing the source of the romantic approach is a positive step, I wanted to be more affirmative by throwing a wider net. This could be accomplished easily enough by turning to the work of other English and American writers, or even by simply looking at the same writers through other lenses like tragedy or comedy.
But I wanted to write about how other people have thought about the sea and seafaring: people who write from somewhere other than Great Britain or the United States, and people who lived in an era other than the last two or three centuries.
I can think of several reasons why this is relevant to future merchant mariners like yourselves, but I’ll settle an idea that I’ve borrowed from Professor Smith, who divides maritime historians into two camps: utilitarians and traditionalists. In the Smithian universe, utilitarians play to an audience outside of academia, including the general public and policymakers, and many have experience at sea. Traditionalists tend to be scholars most comfortable focusing on research, teaching and preparing the next generation of scholars.
Another way of putting it might be to say that Professor Smith’s utilitarians are interested in deeds and traditionalists are interested in words.
The fact is that we are all more or less both acta and verba, and no one recognizes this more than educators. This is why instead of being allowed to study only mechanical aspects of marine engineering or steel maintenance and repair in the marine environment, you are required to fulfill the terms of the academy’s core curriculum, which consists of courses in professional utilitarian and traditional academic subjects, including English and history. While it may sometimes seem that the humanities side of the core curriculum is nothing more than a sop to an accreditation committee, it is rooted in the medieval curriculum of the seven liberal arts: grammar, dialectic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. The idea behind this was that while specialization was necessary for certain tasks—say ship design or engine repair—a healthy society requires people armed with a foundation of general knowledge.
Although this curriculum changes constantly to reflect shifts in our understanding of the world, the underlying principle remains the same. Nonetheless, there is a tendency to view the liberal arts as something that caters to the needs and desires of intellectual elites. There are exceptions to every rule, but by and large this is not the case. One of the most radical efforts to shape the humanities side of liberal arts curriculum to explicitly practical ends took place at Columbia College. This was the development of Columbia’s “Introduction to Contemporary Civilization in the West,” the centerpiece of that college’s core curriculum, which consists of courses in philosophy and literature, a program later expanded to include the history of art and music. Here’s the thing: The origin of Columbia’s core curriculum is every bit as practical as the origin of the Academy’s program in marine engineering systems.
When the United States entered World War I, the university developed a “war issues” course geared to the uniformed Student Army Training Corps. As university president Nicholas Murray Butler acknowledged after the war, the course effectively made Columbia “a part of the apparatus of the Government of the United States for the preparation and training of men to carry on that war and for the better organization of our natural resources to aid the combat.”[1
With the war over, professors began pushing for a new course, modeled somewhat on “war issues,” for obviously different but no less practical ends. As dean Herbert Hawkes explained, “The issues of peace are vastly more complicated than the issues of war, but they are far more important as a field of instruction for our college youth. The college course which does nothing to enable a man to meet the arguments of the opponents of decency and sound government fails at the most crucial point to fulfill its opportunity.” You can’t get much more utilitarian than that.
If you let your minds drift out of this pleasant building by the Sound and back into the polarized political world of today, you will realize that as a politician or pundit you can get more mileage out of ridiculing climate science than you can get driving a Chevy Volt. And you may think it was always like this. It wasn’t.
Intellectualism in this country used to be prized, not despised, as the merest glance at our history shows. We can ignore obvious models like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, or the ambidextrous President Garfield. According to a popular story, one could ask Garfield a question in English and he could write his answer in Greek with his left hand and in Latin with his right—simultaneously. But three more modern examples demonstrate the close ties between the life of the mind and political careers in the United States once upon a time.
President Theodore Roosevelt’s lust for adventure is well known, not just hunting big game, but test-driving a Holland-class submarine while president—just out here off Oyster Bay—and steaming up the Amazon. He also wrote more than thirty-five books, including The Naval War of 1812, which positioned him to cap his career as president of the American Historical Association in 1912. This was the same year that Woodrow Wilson became president of the United States, having spent eight grueling years cutting his teeth in academic politics reforming Princeton University.
Then there is Eisenhower, who, between his stint as Commander of Allied Forces in Europe during World War II and the presidency spent four years running Columbia University. When he took that job, he said he did so because he believed in promoting “the American form of democracy” through education—the sort of education you get through Columbia’s core curriculum and in particular its Contemporary Civilization course.[3
Unlike many professional courses, CC is not taught from a textbook. Stranger still, it does not have its own dedicated faculty. Classes are taught by professors drawn from more than fifteen different academic departments from anthropology and architecture through Middle Eastern studies and on to sociology and Spanish. Many of these professors have a lot of reading to do before they start teaching.
It should go without saying that this approach does not lend itself to a uniform approach to the material. Still less does it create a class of people who think alike, as some people suspicious of liberal arts educators—including some liberal arts educators—like to believe.
But the obvious question is: How on earth is such a course supposed to make the college—any college—“a part of the apparatus of the Government of the United States?” In the first place, a lot of the books traffic in ideas that run completely counter to those we hold dear. Beyond that, there isn’t a lot of coherence to the reading list. But coherence is beside the point.
Assigning Plato’s Republic and the Declaration of Independence and Marx’s Das Kapital and Adam Smith on the Wealth of Nations is not about telling students what to think, because none of those four agree on anything—and the reading list is a lot longer than that.
The point is to show people that they can think, that there are many different ways to think, that thinking takes a lot of effort, and that there are no shortcuts. You can’t fit your mind with a bulbous bow or a winged keel, and there are no pocket calculators for ideas. If you have to think, you have to use the brain you were born with. And while thinking is an act, you can’t do it without words.
It’s important to stress here that while you may think that a bachelor of science from a service academy is better preparation for “the real world” than a bachelor of arts from a liberal arts school, you shouldn’t count on it. As few people as there are who have seriously thought about political philosophy or the English novel, they far outnumber the people who have even heard of fluid dynamics, much less know what they are. And that is why the Flat Earth Society and its sister institutions are alive and well.
One of the most persistent criticisms leveled against the liberal arts has to do with the perception that it promotes the intellectual tradition of dead white males at the expense of people from other cultural backgrounds and traditions. Part of me thinks this misses the point entirely, but the part that wrote “Beyond the Dead White Whales: Literature of the Sea and Maritime History” agrees wholeheartedly. And while I like to think of myself as more of a traditionalist, in Professor Smith’s formulation I am a straight-up utilitarian, because in the end I am much more interested in transforming the way students and the general public think than I am in talking to academics, though I wouldn’t mind changing their minds, too.
So why world literature? As it says in the Academy catalogue, “A ship at sea does not operate in a vacuum. It depends on a framework of shoreside activities for its operations.” It goes on to detail the many types of companies that make up the maritime industry. But what the catalog leaves unsaid is that these companies are made up of people who have not only different areas of expertise but different cultural backgrounds.
In matters of expertise, you will probably find yourselves working with people who have the same professional, utilitarian education that you do. But when you go home at night, you retreat into different cultural universes—different latitudes, different attitudes. You will soon realize, if you haven’t already, that navigating between cultures is tricky business, even if the people you are talking to don’t mistake “make fast” for “go quick.” This is true of cultural boundaries even within the United States—in New York, where there is a world of difference between the way people live and think in Flushing, Flatbush and the Flatiron District, or between the cut-offs and khaki cultures you might find on different campuses.
A foreigner isn’t likely to notice these differences in a brief stay here, and reading a history of the United States won’t necessarily be much help, either. But read a novel or two, and you’ll start to pick up on subtleties that will make it obvious that there are different cultures here, even if superficially people look pretty much the same. This is true even of novels written a long time ago, because we are all creatures of our past. We aren’t necessarily like our ancestors, but we carry more of them in our biological and cultural DNA than first meets the eye.
Reading a novel for anthropological insights may seem a bit far-fetched, but I want to leave you with two examples that illustrate my point, because they reveal a lot about cultural DNA without even drawing us too far into the text. The first is the magic realist novel Master and the Sea by José Sarney, about a poor fisherman in northern Brazil. Now, if you know anything about modern Brazil, the name José Sarney will ring a bell because there was a President José Sarney there in the 1980s. A politician since the 1950s, he is still around and his many detractors consider him one of the most corrupt people in the country. Funnily enough, this José Sarney happens to be the same guy who wrote Master and the Sea.
A while back I mentioned this book to a friend who lived in Brazil. He knew all about Sarney’s political reputation, but nothing about the book, or the fact that he is a member of the Brazilian Academy of Letters. Now, I was perfectly willing to believe that he was a corrupt politician—I knew he had been president because it said so on the back of the book, and corrupt politicians are not exactly a rarity. But how do you talk about a corrupt novelist—much less one who writes a novel in which hallucinatory demons reciting random facts about sixteenth-century history figure prominently? If I had to draw an analogy, it was like trying to convince someone that Richard Nixon was the author of Alice in Wonderland.
More to the point, however, magic realism—a blend of supernatural and realistic portrayals of human actions—is standard fare in modern Portuguese- and Spanish-American literature. At one level, what motivates the characters is not too different from what motivates characters in any other story from Greek tragedy to tenth-century Japanese novels to Shakespeare to Harry Potter or The Hunger Games. The fact that people in South America are receptive to it in ways that Americans simply aren’t suggests that reading books of magic realism might teach you something about the people you work with in Latin America that you aren’t going to pick up in a standard history of this or that country.
Turn this on its head, and it will reveal something about our culture and how we are perceived. Why doesn’t the United States produce writers of magic realism? you might ask. Is there no market for such books? What is it in our culture that is so fundamentally different? Then again, would we ever elect a novelist as president? And while people in my generation—your professors’ generation, more or less—might once have thought that magic realism and modern economies are mutually exclusive, Brazil’s economy is the seventh or eighth largest in the world and they have annual GDP growth of 5%, so that theory is out the window. Come to think of it, we might owe it to ourselves to start reading more magic realism.
My other example touches on Frans Bengtsson’s novel, The Long Ships: A Saga of the Viking Age, published in the 1940s. I didn’t write about Viking sagas in my article because they are hard to classify. The sagas are clearly rooted in some sort of historical tradition, but they were written down centuries after the events they describe, and there is a lot of debate about whether they are literature or history or a strange combination of the two. Regardless, you can be sure that the sagas deeply inform the mindset of modern Scandinavians, and their mariners in particular. No one at Maersk is going to mistake a box ship for a longship, but they are very proud of their sea-savvy ancestors who in the Middle Ages ran the show across much of Europe from the Ukraine to Ireland and Iceland.
The hero of The Long Ships was born during the reign of King Harald Bluetooth, the first king to unite Denmark, Norway and Sweden in the 900s, more than a thousand years ago. Because of this act of unification, the Swedish developers of the wireless specification that allows for cable-free connectivity between computers, mobile phones and printers decided to call their product Bluetooth, for the king who had unified Scandinavia—also wirelessly—more than a thousand years ago.
That is cultural DNA at its best, and as a marriage of the deed of invention and the word of naming, you will never do better.
 University president Nicholas Murray Butler, in the Columbia Spectator, 26 September 1919.
 Herbert E. Hawkes, “A College Course on Peace Issues,” Educational Review 58 (June-December 1919): 143.
 “the American form of democracy”: in Travis Beal Jacobs, Eisenhower at Columbia (New Brunswick: Transaction, 2001).