Friday, April 28, 2017

Novel idea while waiting for BC Election results? Ellery Sedgwick's Foreword: Nordhoff and Hall's "Mutiny on the Bounty"

Mutiny on the Bounty, Nordhoff and Hall

They began it as buddies.  Nordhoff was a graduate of the Ambulance Service.  Norman Hall was a veteran of Kitchener's Army.  Just by chance he was in London during the first August days of 1914, and when the mob which went swirling round Nelson's Column to the tilt of "Good-bye, Leicester Square" was hammered into the kernel of an army, he was part of it.  Honorably discharged, he re-enlisted, this time in the French aviation service, and found the berth he had been fashioned for in the Escadrille Lafayette.  Flying was the thing for Charles Nordhoff, too, and when he joined the squadron two contributors to the Atlantic Monthly met each other for the first time, and interchanged compliments gracefully given and received.  This chance friendship, springing from a common love for letters, was riveted by the comradeship of high adventure.  Each found in the other a man whose silence and whose speech delighted and refreshed him.   From that day to this, they have shared a common destiny as brothers.

Captain Hall and Lieutenant Nordhoff both distinguished themselves.  Were I to lay stress on their military records, I should outrage the modesty of both, but somewhere in Nordhoff's trunk under a pile of dungarees you will find a croix de guerre with star, and a citation which his children will preserve.  As for Hall, I will gratify him by passing over the words that P`etain wrote, but of the dead it is seemly to speak with the living praise, and I am justified in recording that during one of his temporary deaths Hall was thus praised in public by the General of the VIIIth Army:

Brilliant pilot de chasse, modèle de courage et d'entrain qui a abattu recemment un avion ennemi, a troud une mort glorieuse dans un combat contre quatre monoplanes, dont un a `ete` descendu en flammes.  Translated

It is pleasant to remember that the writer of this sketch, mourning the same heroic death, was busily occupied in writing a memoir of the sort that might be well worth dying for, when he was interrupted by a cheerful letter from his resurrected hero, who, it seemed, just made his breakaway from a German camp.

When both men mustered from the service I saw them again on a memorable occasion.  Each wrote to me without the other's knowledge, asking for advice.  Both had lived with intensity lives high above the conflict, and to both the stridency and (as they felt) the vulgarity of post-war civilization was past endurance.  Each had ambitions, talents, and memories of great price.  To transmute these intangibles into three meals per diem was the prosaic problem put up to me.  How well I remember the day they came to Boston.  Reticent and illusive, there was something in each of them that in its pure essence I have not known elsewhere.  Conrad called it Romance.  When Romance and Chivalry come to refresh my cumbered mind, I see those two young men jsut as I saw them then.

We talked and we talked, and then we adjourned for counsel to a little Italian restaurant.  Those were the days when vino rosso was a legitimate dressing for a salad  to be eaten with an omelette. We ate, drank, and speculated of those places in the world where the dollar or its equivalent is not the sole essential medium of exchange.  I called for geography.  We opened it a Mercator's projection, and hardly were the pages pinned down by twin cruets of oil and vinegar, when both the adventurers with a single swoop pointed to the route which Stevenson had taken.  I called up Cook for information on prices, and while my companions chatted of palm trees and hibiscus - Loti season with Conrad - I did several sums in addition and multiplication.

We planned with the resolution of genius.  Then and there Hall and Nordhoff drew up the rough outline of a miraculous work on the South Seas, and when a day or two later the silent partner took it with him to New York, all the spices of the East were in the chapter headings.  One publisher was pitted against another.  For once in his life the salesman was a credit to his profession, and when he returned, the the respectable firm of Hall and Nordhoff was incorporated with a capital of $7,000 - $1,000 paid in. After all, there more to literature than pretty words and an agile pen.

Historically, the first work of the firm was the official history of the Lafayette Flying Corps.  Then came, I believe, the work of the the South Seas which as I have said, I had the honor to sell.  Nordhoff wrote by himself a capital boy's story, "The Pearl Lagoon", based on his own early life in Lower California.   Hall meantime turned out some admirably individual essays, stories, and poems, but the firm added enormously to its reputation when the story of the Escadrille was brilliantly retold as fiction under the title, "Falcons of France."   Of all aerial narratives, this, in my judgement, takes the first place both in its thrilling, realism and in that delicate understanding of the co-ordination of mind, body, and spirit which is at once a flyer's inheritance and his salvation.

A play followed - "The Empty Chair" - accepted for production on the screen.  Of this I know only at secondhand, and will not speak, though I cannot but remark how strange is that conjunction of the planets under whose influence Hall and Nordhoff are reborn in Hollywood.

Now comes the firm's latest and best bid for fame and fortune.  Reader, have you ever heard of the strange history of His Majesty's Ship Bounty?  If ever the sea cast up a saltier story, I should like to know it.  A chronicle of its events, clumsy enough in the telling, appeared - Lord, how long since:  "The Pitcairn Islanders," I think was the name of this particular volume.  Anyway, it was bound in green and stamped in gold, and for all its heavy-footed style, a boy curled up on a sofa fifty years ago wore the pages through.  There was mutiny on the good ship, as the world remembers. Lieutenant Bligh, the Commander, was lowered into his longboat to drift, God know where, and the mutineers cracked on sail for Tahiti and Fate.  At any rate, that story is the primeval stuff Romance is made of, and if Captain Hall and Lieutenant Nordhoff are not the men to write it, then, thought I, Providence has been clean wrong in all the games she has played on them from the very beginning.  I broached the idea to Hall, or perhaps he mentioned it first to me.  Anyway we both knew this was not a chance to be missed, though one thing we were certain of - that a story so perfect must be told with perfect accuracy.  A whole literature has been burgeoning about it for a century, and if the ultimate account is to go into a novel, nothing of the truth must be sacrificed.  For Romance is not capricious, it is an attitude of Fate, and Fate, my friends, is greatly to be respected.  So on a visit to London in the Spring of 1931 I sought the assistance of Dr. Leslie Hotson, who knows the British Museum as if it were the lining of his trousers pocket.  We hit on the perfect record worker, and in due time this lady and I laid hands on every scrap of the reports of the court-martial of the mutineers, hand written in beautiful copper plate.  We assaulted the Admiralty, to which our bountiful thanks are due, for within its sacred precincts Commander E. C. Tufnell of His Majesty's Navy made copies of the deck and rigging plans of the Bounty, and in his goodness even made an admirably detailed model of the ship.  Meanwhile, booksellers, the moldier the better, were put on the trail for volumes of the British Navy of the period.  Engravers' collections were searched for illustrations of Captain Bligh and the rascals he set sail with.  Item by item, a library unique in the annals of collecting was built, boxed and shipped to Tahiti.  The firm of Hall and Nordhoff hired by way of inspiration the first room that ever they lived in on the Islands.   They pinned maps to the walls, stuck up deck and rigging plans, propped photographs of the model on the table in front of them, and, wonder of wonders, in spite of the fascination of their collection, in the face of the perfume blowing in at their windows, in defiance of the Heaven that Idleness is in the tropics, they fell to work!

Here is the book they have written.  Read it, and you, too, will know that Romance has come into her own.

Ellery Sedgwick
Atlantic office, September 1st, 1932


Old Friends who sail the seas the Bounty sailed

Copyright, 1932
By Little, Brown and Company
Copyright renewed 1960
All Rights Reserved

Fleeing Fletcher

Bligh's Freedom

 PS  The book is far better than movies

1 comment:

Danneau said...

Went to see the Brando Mutiny with my folks and siblings (a proper baby-boomer crowd) at the Sequoia Theatre in Mill Valley so long ago. It was shortly after I had first read Lafayette Escadrille, being a nascent airplane fanatic, a book in which i got totally engulfed, though I never made the connection to Nordhoff and Hall, nor was I particularly aware of their intimate connection to the events in question. I find that it's a rare film that rivals the wonders of a well-written book: I particularly like the case of Pierre Boule, the writer of Bridge on the River Kwai, a film that had the same family trekking all the way into San Francisco of a Saturday afternoon to see it in its first run. Several years later, on reading the book, I got the shock of how the spirit of the book detailing the futility of war was rejigged with a whistling theme to incite admiration for those plucky POWs and grudging admiration for the Japanese martinet who finally came to an arrangement with Captain Stiff Upper Lip. I saw the first Planet of the Apes (or parts of it between frustrated bouts of nascent reproductive behaviour) and a drive-in and shortly after, ran across a copy of Boule's original work. Once again, it seems to me that Boule's take on ethnocentricity/anthropocentricity got pretty seriously twisted in a quest to rope in an audience of a lower brow. While Boule might have made out like a bandit from the film adaptations, I found that the contrast between novel and Hollywood interpretation to be the basis, in part, of a development of a somewhat critical look at culture in general, and more broadly at how our civilization tends to miss the point.