Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Ship-Bored with Julian Street

Ever been ship-bored at sea? I had to read through a few pages of this slim, little book to figure out what that term even meant. I was trying to overlook the obvious.

Julian Street is the author of Ship-Bored, published by John Lane Company in 1912, a humorous look at ocean liner travel at a time when that was the only way to travel overseas.

Sketches from May Wilson Preston illustrate Street's observations. Preston was a very talented artist and suffragette, whose work is spotlighted in the blog, 100 Years of Illustration and Design, by Paul Giambarba.

The comic illustration pasted on the front cover alerts the reader to the style of prose between the covers, but not what the title implies.

The author devotes his Preface to sea sickness and the remedies he has received for "casting bread upon the water." So I began to think of "ship-bored" as another euphemism for seasickness.

Further digging into the book alludes to sea-sickness here and there, but "ship-bored" seems to be a catch-all for everything the author detests about ship travel between the States and Europe. It all bores him.

From the very beginning, he pokes gentle fun at everything connected to being on a ship at sea, including fellow passengers. By page 27, he takes off the kid gloves and comes clean in no uncertain terms about his feelings on the subject:
I detest the sea. I abhor it with an awful loathing. It offends alike my physical system and my sense of proportion. It is too sickeningly out of scale, too hideously large!
A few paragraphs more of the same complaints and Street invokes the poets who wrote of the sea:
As for Coleridge, Cunningham, and Campbell, it is only too evident that they wrote sea-songs in vain celebration of their own initials. Byron and Wallace Irwin were probably bribed by the transatlantic steamship companies and the Navy Department.

And not one of them is a realist. There have been two realists who have written poetry of the sea. One is Shakespeare, who wrote: "Now would I give a thousand furlongs of sea for an acre of barren ground." The other is James Montgomery Flagg, who in his "All in the Same Boat" exposes the sea down to its very depths. The sea treated him abominably. he retaliated by throwing a book.
You might think a little music would cheer up Mr. Street and bring him out of his ship-bored state, if only temporarily. Not so. In his day, ship concerts seem to have been the norm on these trips. And they did nothing for Julian Street.
There is a horrible fascination about a ship's concert, something hypnotic that draws you, very much against your word and will. I always think of it as a sort of awful antidote that is given to the passengers to counteract the poison of the steady boredom of the ship.
It seems the only thing that cheered him up is when he saw the shores of home come into the horizon again. I know this is a satirical look at sea travel in his day, but I can't believe it was as bad as he made it out to be. Just not his cup of tea.

It would appear Street also despised automobiles enough to have some fun with them in writing as well. The list of other books he wrote, at the back of the book, includes My Enemy - the Motor, along with The Need of Change, and Paris a la Carte.

Researching Street, I was surprised to find him at the Julian Street Collection, 1904-1967 residing at the Princeton University Library, Manuscripts Division. What was I missing from his four little books of light humor?

His biography on this site identifies him as an American author and playwright. Of his books, the first one mentioned is his first novel, Rita Coventry (1922). It was made into a film, directed by William de Mille. He also wrote short stories for popular magazines and was a great admirer of author Booth Tarkington, whom he referred to as an influence on him. He even dedicated Ship-Bored to Tarkington.

I further discovered that Street was friends with Theodore Roosevelt and collected his correspondence with Roosevelt into a book of manuscripts (unpublished) about him. This page at the library's site gives a more prolific accounting of Street's life and writing. His little volume of humorous sea travel observations belies his talent as a novelist, essayist, food and wine connoisseur, and scriptwriter, most of which was on display after he wrote Ship-Bored.

Besides his books to give him some degree of lasting fame, Street's memory is honored by the library named after him, a wing of Wilcox Hall at Princeton University. Not sure how he acquired that honor, but it's his.

Back to Ship-Bored, though, the little volume that introduced me to this writer, I re-checked the publication date because of another ship I thought sailed the same year. The copyright is 1912, but Street's Preface is dated January 1912. Quite possibly, Ship-Bored was published the same month or soon after.

Just four months after Street wrote the humorous Preface, one of the worst ship disaster's ever occurred with the sinking of the Titanic in April of 1912. I can't help thinking that Ship-Bored's sales sank with the tragedy of all the lives lost on the Titanic. How could one want to read light-hearted satire about the ills of ship travel in the wake of the Titanic tragedy? Besides, in short time publishers would issue books about the Titanic sinking that likely were number one on everyone's ship travel reading list.