Gloucester Writes the Sea

Gloucester Writes the Sea
Peter Anastas
Joe Garland on his porch at Black Bess, Eastern Point, Gloucester, preparing for a visit with Sebastian Junger, 1998,
photo by Ernest Morin


Sitting out last week’s blizzard with a hot toddy and a good book, the distant roar of the Back Shore’s breakers in my ears, I began to think about the storms we’ve lived through, especially the Northeaster of 1991, known historically as The Perfect Storm.  This sent me to the bookcase for my copy of Sebastian Junger’s 1997 bestselling account of the storm and its impact on the city and our fishing families. 
I read the page proofs of The Perfect Stormin one sitting.  Replying to Junger’s publicist at W. W. Norton, who had sent them to the Book Store in Gloucester for pre-publication comment, I told her that I found the book “beautifully written.”  I said it gave “the flavor of Gloucester fishing life as lived by a segment of that community—-the bars, the drinking, the relationships formed out of bar life, the violence of that life, the losses.”  I went on to note that Junger had rendered this life “without judgment and with a precision of emotional detail.”
Eighteen years later I still feel the same way.  While the book has attracted an international readership and its ageless theme of men and women against the sea, of courage in the face of seemingly insuperable obstacles, is universal, its local focus is what still makes it memorable.
The Perfect Storm is a profoundly Gloucester book.  It tells a local story about indigenous people.  It evokes a time and a place in Gloucester’s history.  It is told with precision and candor.  And it doesn’t romanticize the maritime life or mythologize its participants.  Books about the sea often tend to do this, especially if they are fictive.  Melville’s notably did not; neither did Conrad’s or Richard Hughes’.
Closer to home, I find the stories of James B. Connolly, who wrote so prolifically about the lives of Gloucester fishermen, less easy to read than when I was younger.  In contrast, Joe Garland’s books have seemed to ripen with age, as I believe the republication of Lone Voyager in 2000 by Simon and Schuster amply demonstrates.  Connolly’s penchant for “salty” lingo over straight talk has reached the end of its shelf life, while Garland’s Yankee astringency still seems exactly right for its subject.
Yet Connolly, who wrote in The Book of the Gloucester Fishermen (1927) that he’d sailed with Gloucestermen “to the fishing banks, loafed with them ashore, sat with them in their homes,” set a standard for writing about the maritime life here that later writers had to measure up to, including Garland and Kim Bartlett, whose The Finest Kind (1977) is the best account we have of our Italian fleet.  Both succeeded, and beautifully.  As did Geoffrey Moorhouse, an English writer who moved to Gloucester in the 1970s, fished here, and produced his semi-fictional The Boat and the Town,(1979), which documents the pressures on the industry before the establishment of the 200 mile limit, while presenting Gloucester, in the author’s words, as “a paradigm of all the fishing communities in the world.”
These texts, whether he had read them or not, were the models that Sebastian Junger had to write The Perfect Stormagainst, if only in the minds of those natives who knew and lived them.
Are these books, including Junger’s, enough to create a local tradition of writing about the sea?  And is The Perfect Storm part of that company?  In each case, the author has either lived or spent significant time here.  Connolly and Garland had the deepest roots, though Bartlett worked as the Gloucester Times’ waterfront reporter and fished alongside of his subjects.  Junger lived here, too, emerging with a finer understanding of life ashore than many natives.
In 2010, John Morris, the grandson of a dory fisherman lost at sea, published what may well be the definitive history of dory fishing, Alone at Sea: Gloucester in the Age of Dorymen, 1623-1939.  Of this major contribution to Gloucester writing about the sea, Joe Garland wrote:
“John Morris is about to tell you all there is to be told about Gloucestermen and their wives and widows and fatherless kids, and ways of life, and of death by the thousands, of good times and of bad, in a masterpiece that’s been waiting for generations to be told.”
We are fortunate in Gloucester that as this community has evolved there have been people to document in gripping prose the extraordinary quality of its life, what it means, what we stand for, what we must preserve.  In Sebastian Junger’s words, “I love this town, and I really hope that the fishing industry recuperates because that’s the heart of this town.  It isn’t tourism.  It’s not light industry.  It’s fishing, and it would really be a tragedy if business by business, boat by boat, that gets chipped away.”
Junger said this in a 1998 Boston Globeinterview and his words are just as relevant today.  In fact, they speak to our condition even more powerfully.