BEFORE THE WIND
The Memoir of an American
Sea Captain, 1808-1833
By Charles Tyng
Edited by Susan Fels
Viking. 270 pp. $24.95
Late in the 19th century, a New Englander named Charles Tyng looked back on his long career as a sea captain and decided to write his autobiography. He got only as far as 1838 (he was born in 1801) when his death in 1879 ended the undertaking, but he had managed to produce more than 400 handwritten pages. They were discovered more than a century later by his great-granddaughter, Susan Fels, who "was immediately struck by the quality of the writing: direct, colorful, dramatic, humorous, informative and, in places, touchingly personal, recounting heartaches, gnawing ambition, moments of terror and exhilaration," and by the "lively and believable self-portrait of an affectionate, spirited and impulsive boy growing into an enterprising, ambitious, determined, warmhearted young man."
Thus struck by the manuscript's merits and charms, Fels edited it with an eye toward publication. Not surprisingly, given the current popularity of books about the sea and those who sail it, she found a publisher, and not surprisingly the finished version is offered for sale in these terms: "In the current wave of seafaring literature -- from Patrick O'Brian to C.S. Forester -- no fictional sailor's story can match this true adventure." To which the only fair response is: Yes and no. Before the Wind derives considerable dramatic impact from the simple fact that it is true, but Tyng is a laconic prose stylist and his story lacks a strong narrative line; the book is unfailingly interesting and has its exciting moments, but readers looking for a sea adventure along the lines of the Horatio Hornblower or Jack Aubrey stories are advised to lower their expectations.
Tyng was one of several children of a stern, demanding father who expected him to go to college and only grudgingly accepted his choice of a life at sea, prompting this sly observation by the memoirist after recounting his purchase in 1825 of a "superior" brig called Eight Sons: "My old father in particular rejoined with my success, and began to think that I would be something, although I had not gone through the Harvard University."
Not merely would Tyng "be something," he already was. Not yet 25 years old, he had sailed around the world; learned his trade from hard, sometimes cruel masters; caught a glimpse of "the first vessel that ever crossed the Atlantic Ocean with steam"; met Lord Byron (in whom he was "rather disappointed," finding the poet to be "an ordinary Englishman"); risen to the rank of chief mate, "not quite 20 years old, and probably the youngest man for the situation out of America," and then to that of captain; and seen innumerable sights, ranging from the grand to the bizarre, as when sailing the Thames:
"Late one afternoon we came to an anchor near an island, which was called Gibbet Island, where pirates were hung in gibbets. There was at the time four lascars hanging, who had been condemned for piracy. This gibbet consisted of a large spar which was secured in the ground. About 30 feet from the ground was a square frame work made of joists. On each corner was the skeleton of one of the lascars, standing upright, secured with iron hoops. I do not know if they were alive when they were put up there or not. They had been there a number of years, and there was nothing left but their bones. The frame turned round on the spar by the wind, and kept up a hideous noise all the night."
It was an age when human life was held considerably less dear than it is today. Tyng liked sailors and remembered those on his first ship, on which he sailed when he was 13, with particular affection, but he had no illusions about them. As he rose to positions of authority he learned to be stern with his crews and was quick to teach them a lesson -- with his fists, or his sword, or whatever else was handy -- if they were troublesome: "I understood the character of sailors, as I had been brought up amongst them, and I knew that they must be governed as children with the powers of men." He was ever alert to the dangers of mutiny, having had a number of close calls early in his career; when he learned, soon after purchasing his own ship, of the murder of another captain, "I at once had my state room in the Eight Sons so fixed that I could fasten the door, which was on the slide, without entirely shutting it, so as to have the air, and to prevent anyone coming in without waking me up, and I always kept a good pair of pistols in cleats at the head of my berth, and never went to my room, either night or day, for a nap without fastening the door."
No doubt Tyng's firmness with his men derived partly from the cruelty of the first mate on his first ship, Charles Magee, a "brute" who mistreated him from beginning to end of a voyage that "even to this day had a sickening effect on my mind." Yet it is a measure of his sturdiness of character that his own firmness was tempered by fairness and that many years later, when he again found himself sailing with Magee, he forgave the man his past offenses and actually struck up a friendship with him. Tyng had his fears, as most of us do, but he seems not to have brooded over them and he soon learned to look with a cool eye on the world's horrors, not merely at Gibbet Island but also, many years later, in Havana:
"The city was very badly governed. It was not safe for any one to go about the streets at night, robberies and assassinations were of constant occurrence. The streets were not lighted, and are very narrow. There were placed along the back of the Palace, a row of wooden benches, for the deposit of bodies of those who had been assassinated in the night and picked up in the morning, that their friends might find them. I saw myself one forenoon, eight bodies laying there, mostly young looking persons, and some of them quite well dressed."
Yet Tyng was also a person of acute sensitivity. Though he mentions his marriage abruptly and without forewarning ("I then was married to Miss Anna S. Arnold, the niece of Judge Wilde of the Superior Court in Massachusetts"), he soon makes clear that his bride is a splendid companion, and he is devastated by her early death: "My days became extremely sad, and I did not know what to do with myself. I deeply felt my loss, and could see nothing worth living for." Eventually he remarried, both happily and fruitfully, but the emotion with which he recounts this terrible loss leaves no question that it marked him deeply and permanently.
At heart, though, he was a practical, disciplined and -- as his great-granddaughter says -- ambitious man. He writes with clarity and dispassion about his business transactions, about people whom he caught trying to cheat him, about violent engagements at sea, about the treacheries of underlings and rivals. If his laconic style lowers the book's temperature, it accurately reflects the man. Indeed, the only serious complaint I have about the book is that its author did not live to tell the whole tale.
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.