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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
William Clark Russell (1844–1911)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
WILLIAM CLARK RUSSELL, a disciple of George Cupples the unrivaled, was a story-teller of the sea: not so picturesque as Cooper, not so broadly humorous as Marryat, not so imaginative as Stevenson, but after they have ceased spinning yarns, he remained its story-teller par excellence.  1
  The ocean was his stage, the ship his drawing-room or tennis court, the launch his bicycle; his heroes the brave sailors who stand for pluck, endurance, promptitude, courage. Through a dozen or more tales the sea lashes in a most beautiful manner, the sails creak, the salt breeze blows. Black night, blazing noon, starlight and moonlight are shifted over it; terrible tempests come and go. The author of the ‘Wreck of the Grosvenor,’ most thrilling and absorbing exposé of the sailor’s life of peril and privation in the service of the British ship-owner, wrote stories strangely compounded of romance and reality; curiously realistic in the delineation of character, wildly improbable in plot and situation. When he sits down to spin his yarn, all things are possible to him, and to us. Early in the action we give the ship over to him, and do not attempt to account for motive or situation; but swallow the whole impossible, perfectly credible story, as we swallowed ‘Red Rover’ in its time.  2
  Perhaps, with all the freedom of the broad seas, the story is told by a young girl, who mentions in the opening chapter that this is her first voyage; or perhaps the strange methods of ocean life, the evolutions of a ship, and its seizure by convicts in a storm, are related in nautical phraseology by another young woman who now first smells salt water.  3
  Perhaps the hero and heroine are picked up in an open boat which also holds her venerable father, presumably a thousand miles distant;—but we do not demur. The art of life, the “ernst ist das leben” kind, is a trifling matter to him and to us. His men and women, on the contrary, barring the nautical wisdom of his heroines, make no demands on credulity. They are drawn with unadorned plainness; they have matter-of-fact affections, and straightforward views of duty. The reader’s first sensation, when he has finished one of Mr. Clark Russell’s stories, is the amused perception that he has been in the hands of an entirely independent genius, who has sat down before bare walls, with a sheet of paper in front of him, and told his tale, undisturbed by the hobgoblin Consistency or the scourge of tradition,—who would perhaps have written as he writes, if nobody had ever written a novel before or since.  4
  His material—shipwrecks, storms, fires at sea—is not novel to us; but it is new to him, and he revels in it with all the joy of discovery. We may look for nothing modern in the treatment or style; no note of mental alertness, of swift moral process or subtle inference. It is all plain sailing in the world of motive and character. The sea is the deus ex machina: it battles with the privateers, frees the prisoners on the convict ship, bears the emigrant vessel sailed by its woman crew safely into port. With its calm loveliness the author contrasts the blood-stained decks of a vessel after a sea fight; the darkness of the hold where the brave heroine hides, a stowaway, is heightened by the sunrise on the ocean, its broad breast bathed in rainbow hues.  5
  William Clark Russell was born in New York City, of English parents, February 24th, 1844; the son of Henry Russell the composer, author of the popular songs ‘Cheer, Boys, Cheer,’ and ‘A Good Time’s Coming.’ He went to school in France and at Winchester; and entering the merchant service at thirteen and a half years of age, made voyages to Japan, India, and Australia.  6
  After he came of age he left the sea, and was on the staff of the Newcastle Chronicle, and afterwards of the London Daily Telegraph. His first positive success in literature, ‘The Wreck of the Grosvenor,’ was published anonymously in London in 1878: but his second book, ‘A Sea Queen,’ betrayed his identity, and after that time Russell went the way of the popular author; at his best perhaps in his first book, in the ‘Sea Queen,’ ‘Jack’s Courtship,’ ‘An Ocean Free Lance,’ ‘A Sailor’s Sweetheart,’ and ‘The Good Ship Mohonk.’  7
  There is a fine ignoring of self in Mr. Clark Russell’s novels; and all his romances are healthy food for healthy appetites. His is a Homeric conception of sea life: his picture of the British seaman—noble, generous, confiding in unprofessional matters, imperious, cruel, unscrupulous to the enemy—has the value of a portrait. To appreciate the splendid word-painting, the subtle delicate touches, one has only to turn the pages of any one of his stories. Rarely has the sea had a truer lover, a more faithful interpreter. His volume of sea poems and ballads ‘The Turnpike Sailor’ (1907) was republished in 1911 under the title ‘The Father of the Sea.’ He died in London the same year.  8
 
 
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