"Of all national assets, archives are the most precious:
they are the gift of one generation to another,
and the extent of our care of them marks the
extent of our civilization." Arthur Doughty.

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San Juan Islands, Washington State, United States
A society formed in 2009 for the purpose of collecting, preserving, celebrating, and disseminating the maritime history of the San Juan Islands and northern Puget Sound area. Check this log for tales from out-of-print publications as well as from members and friends. There are circa 500, often long entries, on a broad range of maritime topics; there are search aids at the bottom of the log. Please ask for permission to use any photo posted on this site. Thank you.

18 January 2012

❖ BOOK REVIEW: N by E

N by E  

Rockwell Kent (Wesleyan University Press, 1930)
Block print by Rockwell Kent from N by E
 Weslayan University Press, 1930.
From the library of the Saltwater People Historical Society.
If N by E had been written recently, or by someone else, it would be a very different book. The account of a trip by the author and two comrades in 1929, sailing a 33’ wooden boat from Nova Scotia to the west coast of Greenland, and of the ultimate shipwreck and rescue that ensued, would be, above all, full of detail. We’d know why the young men decided to set out and why they chose Greenland. We’d know their full names and brief autobiographies. (As it is, we surmise that “Skipper Sam” must be Arthur S. Allen, Jr; the first mate is known to us only as “Cupid.”) We’d be given clear information about the planned route of travel and day-by-day events, with journalistic explanations as events unfold, leading in an orderly path from departure to disaster to an extended stay on Greenland for the author (and the swift exit of the skipper and first mate). But the book was written by Rockwell Kent, painter and illustrator, woodblock print maker, and free spirit as well as author (and incidental navigator and cook).
Block print by Rockwell Kent from N by E
Weslayan University Press, 1930

There is, in fact, an alternate version of the story available. After the later untimely death of the voyage’s skipper, Sam Allen’s ship’s log and other documents were compiled and privately published by his father’s friends as Under Sail to Greenland, Arthur S. Allen, Jr., (The Marchbanks Press, 1931). The book was republished in 2002 by DN Goodchild (http://www.dngoodchild.com/0218.htm). (As it is not part of the story of the voyage of the DIRECTION, Kent doesn’t tell us how Allen died, only that he did.)

N by E, as written by Kent, tells its story as a kind of extended prose poem, with the tone of a tale perhaps translated from another language, such as the Odyssey. Indeed, interspersed with the narrative are retellings of Danish and indigenous folk tales from Greenland. Although the relevance of the tales to the adventure at sea may not always be clear, as Kent tells the reader in his preface, these stories and the voyage as he recounts it make sense to him. “And if an author in recording what has interested himself differs from editors—so everlastingly concerned with what may interest others, he may no less…hope that a hundred thousand souls will see him as the mirror of themselves—and buy his book.” Not a very pragmatic attitude to producing and marketing a book, but one that sets Kent’s story apart as a timeless work of art rather than an evanescent memoir.

Block print by Rockwell Kent from N by E
Weslayan University Press, 1930.
The best part of N by E may be Kent’s woodblock and ink and brush illustrations. Again, in Kent’s own words, “The full page ‘illustrations’ of this volume are less illustrative of the text than supplementary to it.” They can stand alone—and frequently they do. Kent often uses them to illustrate a metaphorical idea or to express the emotional meaning of a scene rather than to describe the narrative. Characters in the illustrations are presented in classical attitude, often naked, and abstracted in form, a beautiful example of late Art Deco graphic design. Kent’s prints demonstrate the beautiful potential and expressive geometry of the line itself. Among his other works, Kent provided the illustrations for a 1930 edition of Moby-Dick published by the Lakeside Press, a work that sold out, was rapidly reissued in a trade edition, and contributed to Moby-Dick’s rehabilitation from obscurity to a recognized classic.

But what is N by E about? Ostensibly it’s about a sea voyage but more than that it’s about the possibilities of being young and alone on the ocean, with ample time to contemplate the night sky. “In the half light of the early morning of July the fifth all hands bestirred themselves, got up; we came on deck. It was cold. The silent town lay dark against the eastern sky; the land was black, and stranded bergs glowed pale against it. Clear heavens strewn with stars, and a fair wind S by W! Noiselessly, as if stealing away, we hoisted sail, weighed anchor and bore out. And so, without tumult and the clamor of leave takings, quietly as the coming dawn, we entered the solitude of the ocean. And if we were not annihilated by the contemplation of such vast adventure it was by grace of that wise providence of man’s nature which, to preserve his reason, lets him be thoughtless before immensity.”

So the book is about existential contemplation. But it is alternately about moments and days of terror, freezing water, unpredictable tides, dense fog, exhaustion, and complete concentration on the object of survival. And about rumination on the historic voyages taken by earlier travelers, such as Leif Ericsson. About the limits of technological advancement. And about the difficulties of living in a very small space with two other men, one of them characterized as having the expression of a “petulant potato” and grating in his every word and deed (culminating in his being asked, by the governor of Greenland, to leave the island immediately upon his rescue).
Block print by Rockwell Kent from N by E
Weslayan University  Press, 1930.
Although Rockwell Kent occasionally confides in the reader (such as sharing his opinion of the first mate), he doesn’t always tell the reader everything. We’re left a bit at sea at times, like the DIRECTION, adrift in fog but still out adventuring. A neat trick and beautifully done.
This review is kindly submitted to our Log by Allison Hart Lengyel, writer and mariner from San Juan County. Please scroll down to 13 November 2011 to read her piece on The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea by Philip Hoare (HarperCollins, 2008) 
Examples of Rockwell Kent's artistic illustrations coming soon.




N by E book search––

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