I had decided that I would not want to put together a "reader" which would contain such gems of literary discovery that other professional literary men would tell each other how clever I am; I decided that I did not want to put together a "reader" the contents-page of which would prove it to be a selection from the contents-pages of other people's anthologies; no, I decided that I would go back over everything I could remember reading in the past thirty years, and glean from them...all the kernels which it now seemed to me to prove enjoyable when read by a sailor.
George Macy, preface to A Sailor's Reader, 1943
Like many (most?) people, I first learned to love books and reading from my parents. Neither of them were well-educated: my mother finished high school in 1938 but, despite her aptitude and intelligence, could not afford to go nursing school and instead went to work for Bulova Watch Company in, I think, Brooklyn (it might have been Queens); my father dropped out of high school in his senior year (1935) to help support his own family by joining the Navy.
Both of them were perceptive, voracious, but unguided readers. My father in particular loved poetry - any and all kinds of poetry. There are many poems today that, when I read them, I hear only in his voice. He loved Shelley and Byron and Edna St. Vincent Millay and Joyce Kilmer and Longfellow and Kipling. His reading was wide-ranging and perhaps a little desperate - trying to find for himself the path that a complete education might have shown him. But he had the ear, and he knew what he loved, and his enthusiasm and joy in reading to me made me love those poems, too.
Dad liked the Navy, too. It was peacetime, and in the midst of the Great Depression, it provided a steady income, health care, friendship, and lots of adventure for a poor kid raised in a tenement. In a photo album he saved, there are pictures of his first cruise up the Hudson River, with what he called "The Brotherhood": his buddies Eddy and Dick, whose last names I don't know. You can see how much he was enjoying himself.
The album is also filled with photos from up and down the East Coast and
into the Caribbean. Other than the Hurricane of 1938, during which he
was almost blown overboard by a ferocious gust of wind and only saved
himself at the last minute by catching a guy-wire, it was, as they say,
smooth sailing. Until, of course, the United States' entry into WWII in
Dad on the right (he wasn't very tall)
The caption on the back reads:
"On board Eagle 48 on the Hudson.
Dad was assigned to salvage and rescue duty in the Caribbean and South Atlantic. It had to have been difficult. While they weren't usually in the direct line of fire, they still had to contend with U-boats and the horrendous task of rescuing men whose ships had been torpedoed. He never talked about it much in after years. I have no idea what kind of psychic scars he kept hidden for the rest of his life. But one thing he kept and cherished is a weather-beaten anthology called A Sailor's Reader.
A Sailor's Reader, and its companion volume, A Soldier's Reader, were published by George Macy, founder of the Heritage Press. One of the first "Book of the Month Club" kind of ventures, Heritage Press provided cheap, hardbound volumes of all kinds of books, sent out to subscribers on a regular basis. Macy was a true bibliophile; he loved reading and he loved books, and he didn't care whether they were literary or popular or who-struck-John. The anthologies for servicemen (most of the Armed Forces were male) reflect this free-ranging, free-wheeling hunger for what he thought might be entertaining and comforting to those at war. They are remarkable collections. He makes some amazingly prescient choices (A Soldier''s Reader contains an early New Yorker story by John Cheever) along with some selections that are pretty bad. His unapologetic enthusiasm is, in any event, infectious and fun, and he must have found a sympathetic reader in my father.
A Sailor's Reader contains, not surprisingly, long adventure stories like "The Man Without a Country" by Edward Everett Hale; "The War of the Worlds" by H.G.Wells (yes, the whole thing); and "Benito Cereno" by Herman Melville. But the mix is eclectic in the extreme. There are short stories by Jack London, Aldous Huxley, Somerset Maugham, James Thurber, and O. Henry. There are essays by Thomas Carlyle, Clifton Fadiman, T.E. Lawrence, and William Hazlett. One thing that is so appealing is Macy's complete faith that the average sailor can handle these selections; there is no "dumbing down" to people like, say, my father, who may not have had much of an education.
The poems are grouped into five sections: "Poems in Praise of the Ladies and the Soft Emotions They Inspire;" "Poems in Praise of God, Country, the Sea, and Home;" "Poems in Praise of Battle, Courage, and the Manly Virtues;" "Poems in Praise of a Man's Dreams and Similar Melancholia;" and "Poems in Praise of Practically Nothing" (all of these are by someone named Samuel Hoffenstein, who, I suspect, was an alter-ego of Macy himself). Other than these broad categories, there is no attempt to arrange the poems in anything remotely like chronological order or literary school.
Here, in "Poems in Praise of the Ladies," we find this line-up: Ogden Nash, Sir Walter Scott, William Wordsworth, George E. Woodbury (who?), Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Jessie B. Rittenhouse (?), Henry Carey, Richard Lovelace, Francis William Bourdillon, Thomas Moore, Percy Bysshe Shelley, E. B. White, Robert Herrick, George Wither, Sir John Suckling, Dorothy Parker, A.E. Housman, Charles Cotton (another ?) Shelley again, Tennyson, Oliver Goldsmith, Robert Browning, Anonymous ("Frankie and Johnny"), Thackeray, and Shakespeare.
The other sections are equally hodgepodge and sometimes astonishing . We find Charlotte Mew, Swinburne, Dowson, and Keats; Emerson, Ford Madox Ford, and Whittier; Walt Whitman and Arthur Sullivan, all bumping up against each other. At first, it seems needlessly random and awfully confusing, especially if you've been trained (or brainwashed) through choosing a major in English.
But, after a while, it starts to make a kind of sense. Isn't this how we start out reading, when we first discover books and language and stories and poems? We choose things from the library or the bookstore almost the way we might choose chocolates in a candy store: that one looks good; what's inside that one; and okay, I'll try this one, too. The anthology works because its intuitive collection is the way we learn to love things; only later, do we impose whatever order we decide upon. Categorizing doesn't make us love poems more, although it may help us understand them better. Macy wasn't interested in scholarship; he wanted his sailors to love what they were reading.
My father kept this book until he died in 1982, and now I keep it for him. Here's one of his favorite poems he was fond of reciting when the mood was right. Not a poem that is to our modern taste, perhaps, but a poem that now I can hear only in my father's voice.
"Abou Ben Adhem"
by Leigh Hunt
Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
And saw, within the moonlight of his room,
Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom,
An Angel writing in a book of gold:
Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold,
And to the Presence in the room he said,
"What writest thou?" The Vision raised its head,
And with a look made of all sweet accord
Answered, "The names of those who love the Lord."
"And is mine one?" said Abou. "Nay, not so,"
Replied the Angel. Abou spoke more low,
But cheerily still; and said, "I pray thee, then,
Write me as one that loves his fellow men."
The Angel wrote, and vanished. The next night
It came again with a great wakening light,
And showed the names whom love of God had blessed,
And lo! Ben Adhem's name led all the rest!