Seamen vs Cowboys as Folk Heros

Vigilant Crewmen (1937)

Relatively few seamen have written an account of their lives at sea. It is something of a myth that this is because they were generally illiterate. It is my personal experience that most (those of my acquaintance) could certainly read and write, but it is a long step from there to a taste for literature and the opportunity to indulge it. Very few writers, let alone seamen, are born with even a semblance of literary style. By literary style I mean Poe, Parkman, Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, Robert frost, and E.B. White. I proved it only twenty years back by reading a short prose piece in St. Nicholas magazine (of more than sixty years ago). I had come on a few paragraphs signed respectively Edna St./ Vincent Millay, Cornelia Otis Skinner, Robert Hillyer, and was suddenly struck by a prose passage much more earthy and natural in voice than what I had been glancing through. Then I looked at the signature: Elwyn Brooks White, age 11.

Moreover, there is the question of whether the reading public had an interest in the experiences of common seamen, as opposed to their interest in the experiences of the common cowboy. I would argue that the common cowboy was every bit as coarse, ignorant and rude as the common seaman. The cowboy’s depiction in literature is for the most part quite shallow, I credit this factor to his being of such recent invention as to be without credible tradition. A part of the difficulty is that a cowboy’s vocabulary is a recitation of humdrum expletives, whereas the seaman’s vocabulary, while being every bit as obscene, is colorful, spicy, and has a literary validity given it by millenniums of usage. And I will admit that while cowboy music has certain popular appeal it has none of the classicism of the sea shanty, none whatsoever. Without continuing ad nauseam I am sure you grasp my thought. I fear, however, that it is just possible that you might suspect from the foregoing that my attitude is somewhat biased in favor of seamen, let me assure you that it is not. My attitude is as unbiased as a sheet of paper that is, as yet, unprofaned by a single written word.


2 comments on “Seamen vs Cowboys as Folk Heros

  1. roclafamilia says:

    Helpful blog, bookmarked the website with hopes to read more!


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