The Wandering Soul

I told you I wasn’t done with William Hope Hodgson.

With this post, I think I can claim to have blogged more about William Hope Hodgson than anybody else in the English-speaking world. Whether any of it was useful you will have to judge. But, as Joe the Georgian said, “Quantity has a quality all its own”.

Review: The Wandering Soul: Glimpses of a Rare Life: A Compendium of Rare and Unpublished Works, ed. Jane Frank, 2005.

Since I spent about $50 for this book, something I rarely do unless it’s a reference work, I guess I can now be considered a hardcore Hodgson fan. Considering that was the list price for this book when it was published by Tartarus Press and I got it new, I got a good deal – and there must not be that many hardcore Hodgson fans.

So, what did I get for my money?

131 of the book’s 365 pages is Hodgson fiction, specifically for a collection entitled Coasts of Adventure which was never published in his lifetime. In 2005, that might have been significant (frankly, I didn’t do my blogger diligence and check how many were anthologized before showing up here). But, now, you can get every one of these stories in Night Shade Books’s five volume The Collected Fiction of William Hope Hodgson.

Hodgson plans for three more poetry collections ended with his death. There’s about 25 pages of poetry in the book, but I’m not that big of a fan of Hodgson’s poetry. (Tartarus Press released a companion volume to this book, The Lost Poetry of William Hope Hodgson.)

There are two main reasons to pick up this book: Jane Frank’s 52 page introduction on Hodgson the man and reproductions of many of Hodgson’s famed photographs of life at sea.

Frank’s involvement with Hodgson began when she and her husband were at an auction of Sam Moskowitz’s estate and she realized that his extensive collection of Hodgson material would be broken up if not bought in total.

In that archive of material were many photographs of Hodgson and his family as well as interviews with some of his family members.

Moskowitz himself warned people not to read all of Hodgson work at once since he though much of it had shallow characterization and repetition. Too late for me, Sam, I guess. I find Hodgson’s characterization serviceable, but I partially agree about the repetition. That, thought Moskowitz, was the result of Hodgson writing for money and trying to please editors.

According to his brother Frank, Hope (as WHH was referred to by family and friends) was outspoken on the subject of religion just like their father.

Short and determined to make up for it in “breadth and muscularity”, Hodgson left the Mercantile Navy in 1898 at the age of 21 with only two skills: photography and body building.

He was a man eager to publicize his efforts so his first writing was to promote his W. H. Hodgson’s School of Physical Culture.

He joined the Society of Authors and asked business advice from H. G. Wells and, in his papers, was a letter from George Bernard Shaw saying good things, in 1908, about two of Hodgson’s books. (These could only have been The Boats of the “Glen Carrig” and The House on the Borderland.) 

Hodgson was an “able and charismatic story-teller” who gave skilled lectures and publicized them. He remarked to his brother Chris that he liked being at sea but hated the treatment of sailors. 

After he married in 1913, Hodgson’s wife Bessie kept a detailed sales log of submissions and sales, and Hodgson frequently noted the date and location he finished them. Bessie was insistent about keeping Hodgson’s name alive until she died in 1943. Hodgson’s sister Lissie, who inherited Hodgson’s literary estate then, was not so diligent. (Frank doesn’t say so, but her age and not being as familiar with the literary world as Bessie, who had been a magazine editor, may account for that.)

Frank quotes an introduction in The London Magazine’s to Hodgson’s “Judge Barclay’s Wife” describing Hodgson as

being an author who likes the night hours for working [probably from usually taking the night watch in his sailor days], and in spite of his cadaverous looks and abnormally fluid imagination, Hodgson is terribly muscular and takes as much pride in his biceps as he does in his stories.  He is a confirmed egotist, who loves to talk about himself, and he is an argumentative as a Scotchman. 

A great deal of her introduction discusses the journal Hodgosn kept when he sailed on the Canterbury. The journal formed the basis of one of Hodgson’s lectures, “Ten Months at Sea”, the only one of Hodgson’s sea lectures to be published before in Sam Moskowitz’s Terrors of the Sea. Interestingly, we can actually walk the decks of one of the ships Hodgson sailed on, the Euterpe. It switched owners and changed names ending up as the Star of India which is on display at the San Diego Maritime Museum.    

The journal mentions some of Hodgson’s reading as well. One of the novels was All Sorts and Conditions of Men by Walter Besant and James Rice about a setting up a utopian society in London. Some have speculated that Hodgson’s The Night Land may have been influenced by Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race. It seems plausible given that Hodgson mentions A Strange Story by the same author.

Hodgson was a man of many interests and strong convictions. He wrote articles and letters to the editor to local newspapers as a way of getting publicity.    

Frank also talks about Hodgson’s “personal gestures” including letters to the Bird family, particularly Wilhelmina F.O. Bird of whom Hodgson was quite fond of. Hodgson autographed his books for her and wrote a couple of poems to her. She was the young girl Hodgson first told The Night Land to.

Frank talks a lot about the never published Hodgson collection Coasts of Adventure and its individual stories. So we hear hers and others opinions on those stories. Sam Gafford, Hodgson fan and scholar, regarded Hodgson’s “Jack Grey, Second Mate” and “Judge Barclay’s Wife” as unreadable and said that in Hodgson’s “more practical and saleable adventure stories” his weaknesses as a writer was exposed. Frank unaccountably accepts “H.M.S Empress of Australia” as a real Hodgson piece. (Again, I would really like to know why her and Moskowitz held that opinion.)   

Frank understandably sees an element of autobiography in “The Regeneration of Captain Bully Keller” and speculates that the character of the protagonist’s father is close to Hodgson’s father.  Frank says that both Gafford and Moskowitz diagnosed Hodgson as practicing catharsis with those type of stories, a revenge upon sadistic authority. Frank thinks that,

whether it was the power of bare fists, or the power of England and its allies against Germany, or the power of men to resist (if not overcome) natural or supernatural agencies,

it was individual will and strength, might that counted. The enemies of the world had to be overcome with strength. 

The exception were natural or supernatural phenomena – especially the sea – that could not be controlled. She regards the setup of “The Inn of the Black Crow” as “interminable” but thinks the story rewarding in the end. Frank also notes that the names of ships in Hodgson’s stories may be ones he sailed on.  She says “Jack Grey, Second Mate” is hard to take for modern readers with its racial references. Frank says Jeynois is an odd protagonist to gain sympathy in “The Friendship of Monsieur Jeynois”, and Hodgson’s real sympathies lie with the cabin boy.  “Judge Barclay’s Wife” carried, in its original publication, the title “The Story of a Grim Crisis and – a Woman”.

Ship’s Log” is Hodgson’s 18-page journal of his 1898 voyage on the Canterbury. (Frank provides a glossary of nautical terms.) There are a lot of interesting details: Hodgson’s reading, his frequent trades with other sailors using items he bought on shore, setting up photo shots, fishing to supplement his poor diet, his hatred of plum duff pudding, weaving a mat, and getting his punching bag out to practice and mentions of him getting other sailors interested in the activity.

We get the text – and often Hodgson’s photographs – of his lectures.

A Sailor and His Camera” is a very personal and jocular account of Hodgson’s photographic activities shipboard. Frequent references are made to specific photograph plates which aren’t reproduced but some appear elsewhere in this volume.

Through the Heart of a Cyclone” is one of Hodgson’s lectures on a “cyclone” – his description makes it clear that he means a hurricane.  Unfortunately, we don’t have the accompanying photos. Hodgson does mention the “Pyramidal Sea” which is also mentioned in his story “From the Tideless Sea”. Hodgson mentions a bunch of theories on the origins of hurricanes: earthquakes, tidal waves, volcanoes, electrical disturbances, and colliding storms. None, of course, match what we actually know now. A quick internet search tells me the phrase “Pyramidal Sea” was not a Hodgson invention. I found references to it going back in maritime books until at least 1850.

When the Sea Gets Cross” is a two page lecture about incidents Hodgson witnessed during his time at sea. The various sections are given titles in all caps. Interestingly, for a man who so effectively used sound in his tales of maritime terror, he has a section titled “HORRIBLE NOISES”. Another section tells how a piece of teak fo’cas’le was knocked loose by the sea and thrown in the air where it fell, like A STRANGE JAVELIN, onto the deck where it impaled a seaman in the chest.

A Cyclonic Storm” is another Hodgson lecture on the dreaded cyclonic storm. He talks about how they can come upon mariners without warning and how barometers can give deceptive readings about what’s to come. It’s a theme he was to cover in more detail in another lecture, “Through the Vortex of a Cyclone”, also included in the book. It’s a slighter longer version of a piece with the same name. This one, though, actually has accompanying photos taken on his voyage on the Gloconda sailing out of San Francisco.

Ever wanted more detail on Hodgson the bodybuilder?

Physical Culture: A Talk with an Expert” is an interview with Hodgson in the Sept. 17, 1901 issue of Blackburn Evening Telegraph about his W. H. Hodgson School of Physical Culture. I find it interesting that Hodgson tracked, through various measurements, the changes in his clients’ bodies. He also talks briefly about his sailing days. We learn the beginning of his interest in strength training and boxing. When he was thirteen, he was bullied by a second mate and fought him. Hodgson got an “unmerciful thrashing” and was punished by the captain, but he was proud of himself and had an interest in “physical culture” ever afterwards

From the Blackburn Evening Telegraph, Saturday, 30th August 1902” is a two page article about a Hodgson publicity stunt when he rode a bike – successfully – down a steep series of steps on Spion Kop in Blackburn.

In “Physical Culture Versus Recreative Exercise”, Hodgson speaks on the benefits of “scientific exercise” that uses every part of the body. It can

strengthen and invigorate the organs of assimilation, and increase the activity of the excretory organs.

and strengthen the lungs of consumptives. It can also increase the tissue of “brain, muscle, or lung”. He also recommends lots of fresh air and cod-liver oil.  

Health from Scientific Exercise” has several Hodgson photographs illustrating the exercises. Hodgson recommends “scientific exercise” because it’s systematic unlike “recreative exercise”. The latter is done out of doors and by those who are strong and in good health. Hodgson’s exercises can be done by a clerk in the bedroom, preferably in pajamas. He does recommend those not in good health not to overdo things and that a few exercises may not be suitable for “the weaker sex”.

I had heard of Hodgson’s “Is the Mercantile Navy Worth Joining? – Certainly Not” and was glad to finally read it. It was first published in the September 1905 U.S. edition of The Grand Magazine. It was a two part series trying to answer parents’ question whether a life in the Mercantile Navy was a good idea for their sons. Unfortunately, Frank (understandably) doesn’t produce the other half of the argument since, obviously, it wouldn’t have been written by Hodgson. Given the importance of the seamen’s life in Hodgson’s work, I’ll go into some detail about it.

Hodgson lays out his case succinctly in the first two paragraphs of the four page article:

Why am I not at sea?

I am not at sea because I object to bad treatment, poor food, poor wages, and worse prospects. I am not at sea because very early I discovered that it is a comfortless, wearyful, and thankless life – a life compact of hardness and sordidness such as shore people can scarcely conceive.  I am not at sea because I dislike being a pawn with the sea for a board and the shipowners as players.

Hodgson makes it clear he is not talking about “ordinary sailors”. He is going to answer the question of why a man, like him, under 30 with a second mate’s certificate, gave up on the sea and hundreds of other men are doing the same. 

The first problem of a man like him is getting a berth on a ship. He may have to take a third mate’s position from 15 to 19 shillings a week. This is after going through an expensive apprenticeship of not less than four years and passing “a decidedly stiff examination in navigation and seamanship” that takes “the best part of three days”. 

After all that, he gets a berth at a common laborer’s wages. After such a voyage he will come home with pay barely able to mend his clothes and pay for room and board until he gets another berth. 

Perhaps, on the next voyage, he does get a second mate’s position at 21 shillings a week. During the voyage he will take full charge of the deck every other four hours a day and night, being solely responsible for any mischance which may occur. For this, he’ll make the equivalent of 54 pounds a year even though, at times, he will be responsible for a ship worth 100,000 pounds and the lives and cargo on board. 

A second mate on a steamship may earn 84 to 96 pounds a year but such berths are hard to find. And there are plenty of older men with higher grade certificates available to take them.

After a couple of years of this, if the man tries for his first mate’s certificate, he can expect to earn between 66 and 84 pounds a year and 120 to 130 aboard a steamship. Perhaps, after he gets second mate position and puts in three years, he may try for his “master’s ticket”. Theoretically, he could earn between 168 and 360 pounds a year, but the actual wages are far less with a 140 pounds being typical. 

Suppose, in this hypothetical example, he finally gets his master certificate at age 30. He’ll get a birth for 14 pounds a month. If he stays for several years, he may want to marry and have a family and will have little money to do it. 

But Hodgson points out that the assumption is the man always finds a berth. 

In almost all occupations ashore, if a man is engaged, he is likely to stay for an indefinite period, perhaps half a lifetime. The sailor has no guarantee, from voyage to voyage, of keeping his berth. Even a venerable captain may be fired for a voyage that took too long, and it will be hard for him to find another berth. 

He may be forced to get a berth as a first or second mate. And his age will tell against him. He may only have “the intolerable horror of life in the fo’cas’le” to go to. Even there, his age will be held against him: “it is an old proverb at sea that ‘old standing rigging makes d—-d poor running gear’”. The food and housing is horrible. The food may have improved in recent years, but it is still bad. 

This is in many ships a disgrace to the owners, and if it be the case in the cabin, what must it be fore the poor wretches in the fo’cas’le!. 

Some holders of master certificates never get a command. 

The penultimate paragraph is Hodgson’s powerful statement of why he left the life of the sea:

Of the actual wretchedness of the life, I have said nothing. It is a life of hardness, broken sleep, loneliness, separation, and discomfort. It is indeed a thankless life, without even the common rewards of industry. It leads neither to fame or wealth, nor, save in exceptional cases, to a suffiency upon which to retire; and finally the officers of the mercantile marine have not that poor consolation of their Naval brethren, a certain social position.

There is another similar piece urging parents not to hand their sons over to the Mercantile Navy, “The Trade in Sea Apprentices”. This one is cast as a dialogue (with inner quotes which, presumably, are close to those Hodgson actually heard from officers on the ships he served) between a parent or guardian, all on why they should not apprentice their sons. It’s a money-making racket for the ship-owners who save money by hiring two apprentices for an ordinary seaman. They are formally taught little but just assigned to do common labor. Learning nautical skills is up to them and their own initiative and hard work. If they fail to learn by the end of their apprenticeship, they will have to go to school to learn skills they should have learned as apprentices. Their upkeep has to be paid for by their parents in addition to the placement fee. Hodgson gives details on wages and the abominable and monotonous diet at sea. Hodgson argues that it would be better for the child to simply sign on without being an apprentice. And the difficulties they would have finding a berth are exactly the same as an ex-apprentice would have (which is, of course, Hodgson’s gripe in the previous article).

THE POET VS. THE STONEMASON; or, Why Not a New Market for Poetry?” is a not altogether whimsical article. Hodgson notes that poetry is a “drug” on the market. Poems that would have garnered a wide reputation for their authors 50 years ago are rejected. This is “destructive to our highest form of literature”. A poet, especially if married with children, can’t afford to do it. They waste time on “their right and proper function”. These poets turn to that

more saleable an article – the novel. Now, a man may be a great poet and but a poor novelist, so that, as a result, the world gets often badly-constructed novels in place of fine poems. 

Then he proposes that the wealthly and middle class may like something other than “commonplace inscriptions” on their tombstones,

hideous in their frozen inability to express anything of the heart-sorrow that prompts the nearest and dearest to show some mark of their love by means of a fit resting place. 

Hodgson proposes the poet join with the sculptor, perhaps replace him, in producing last elegies. Indeed, a “requiem in shape will be ever costlier than the requiem in words”. Perhaps the eulogies would not be personalized but express “universal emotions of grief and despair and hope”. It’s an interesting idea which, of course, didn’t come to pass and definitely would not now in an age where more people write poetry than read it, and most poetry is just funny typing. As Frank notes in her introduction, Hodgson was no doubt frustrated by the rejection of his poetry at the time of this article was published.

The Peril of the Mine” shows Hodgson was clearly interested in a lot of things. This article is about the dangers of coal mining and various historical mining disasters and near disasters averted by personal heroism. In a sense, Hodgson is doing for coal miners what he did for seamen in stories (particularly his “The Real Thing” series): showing the dangers they heroically face.

I was very interested to read three pieces Hodgson wrote about World War One. However, it’s clear they are pure invention. Now, I don’t know when Hodgson and his wife left France after World War One broke out or the date Hodgson joined the Officer Training Corps, but I doubt they are based on anything he personally saw. An English civilian would not have been near the front then nor were journalists allowed near the front by the French Army. Rather, I suspect they are just Hodgson being patriotic and trying to make some quick money with an imaginative exercise rather like his “The Real Thing” nautical stories

On the Hillside: How the French Soldier Deals with Spies” has a strange final touch with a description of German spies armed with “Mauser automatic pistols”. It’s doubtful spies would be armed when they are formally executed. Perhaps Hodgson is referring to them being armed when captured. The French Army did not use Mauser pistols. The Germans did issue them, but why would a spy have one?

’With the Guns’:  A Pen Picture of How Frenchmen Fight” is pretty much what the title says complete with elan from the French troops facing combat. This one was published in the October 12, 1914 issue of the Westminster Gazette. I suspect it was part of a regular series (‘With the Guns’) in the paper, and, again, I doubt it’s a report of anything Hodgson saw.

In some ways, “An Old French Woman and Her Chickens” is the most memorable of Hodgson’s World War One stories in the book and talks about evacuating a French woman before the advancing German army. She refuses to leave her chickens. The French officers order the coop destroyed, and then they slaughter the chickens for food. After all, the German advance will probably kill them or eat them. Better that they feed Frenchmen. But the officers aren’t as touch and uncaring as they seem. It’s revealed in the end that they paid the old woman out of their own pockets for the chickens. The story concludes that, some hours later, the whole place was burned down in the German advance.

The ‘Emergency Door’ of the Sea. ‘Out Boats’” was published in the April 6, 1914 issue of the Westminster Gazette to mark the two-year anniversary of the Titanic sinking. Hodgson imaginatively looks at that disaster, trying to evoke it in the reader’s mind, and proposes changes to lifeboat drills, lifeboat construction, and lifeboat davits and putting lights near them.

The book concludes with a piece about and not by Hodgson: “A Literary Letter” It’s an obituary for Hodgson written by the editor of The Sphere for its June 8, 1918 issue. Two pages long, it ends with an excerpt from Hodgson’s letter comparing the scenes of the Western Front to the Night Land. It says Hodgson was a popular officer. His C.O. said “He performed wonders of gallantry.” An unnamed friend of Hodgson says,

Many knew him as a highly-strung, sensitive, rather dreamy idealist, but he threw himself heart and soul into the work that lay to his hand. 

The obituary goes on to say The Night Land

may eternally secure the interest of the public, which will not be ungrateful to its heroes who were also men of letters. 

Certainly not a book for everyone but necessary for the hardcore Hodgson fan.

4 thoughts on “The Wandering Soul

  1. jameswharris June 19, 2020 / 9:19 am

    Now it’s time for you to write a book about WHH. The Wandering Soul sounds like a pretty good find to feed your obsession. Probably from now on out you’ll pay even more for less information in a quest to get it all.

    • marzaat June 19, 2020 / 9:22 am

      Well, I did pick up Moskowitz’s Out of the Storm, a collection of Hodgson’s work, with a long introduction by Moskowitz. I’m hoping Moskowitz has some tidbits in there.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.