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A book by James Fenimore Cooper.

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"Such is the life of a sailor!"

  • Dec 30, 2010

In THE PIRATE (1821) Sir Walter Scott had written of larger than life, almost mythical heroes in and around Scotland's Orkney and Shetland Islands. Judging landsman Scott not precise enough in navigational technicalities, the "American Scott," former naval officer James Fenimore Cooper had riposted Scott with THE PILOT (1823) a tale of American naval hero John Paul Jones. In nine more maritime romances, Cooper continued to take his lead from Sir Walter, focusing on world-historical figures like Columbus, or outsized, daredevil heroes who were ship's captains or he-men taking passage from one adventure to another.
Suddenly readers' taste changed: enough of epic heroes at sea! In 1840 Richard Henry Dana, Jr. published TWO YEARS BEFORE THE MAST. Suddenly readers clamored for more insights into lives and miseries of the simple sailors who bunked toward the bow of a ship, "before the mast." What were their vices? Did they find religion? Were they mistreated? Underfed? Flogged? Keelhauled? Once again Fenimore Cooper responded: with NED MYERS (1843).
In 1806-07, 16-year old Yale dropout Cooper had been shipmate with 13-year old Ned Myers. They became chums during a trading voyage to and from England but lost touch with one another until 1843. Then injured, pensioned Myers, from his charity home for retired sailors, wrote to world-famous author Fenimore Cooper. Cooper was overjoyed to renew acquaintance with this simple sailor, brought him to his home in Cooperstown, New York, for five months and produced Myers's biography. It reads like autobiography, as author Cooper had Myers narrate his life in the first person.
In March 1983 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC Magazine told how the Cooper-Myers biography had played a role in the recent discovery of two American warships that went down in a sudden storm on Lake Ontario during the War of 1812. Myers had survived the sinking of USN Scourge, a tale vividly retold in the book.
Ned Myers, Cooper calculated, in his sailor career, had been aboard at least 100 ships, some more than once. This also includes various British warships on which he was prisoner of war. Myers sailed around the world, into the Mediterranean, in and out of Europe and Africa. His recollections gushed out to his biographer, including important insights into signs of Cooper's future leadership during their voyage together in 1806-7. These were years when Napoleon terrified Britain and Europe, when slave trading was still legal, when there were still Barbary pirates and a Seminole War in Florida and when Ned Myers sailed often to Canton, China. Also years when a desperate Britain "impressed" (shanghaied? kidnapped?) non-British subjects, including Americans, to serve on warships until they could prove their claim to immunity -- a process typically taking four years!
All this James Fenimore Cooper, using Ned's words, tells simply and directly, sounding more like a future Ernest Hemingway than the sometimes convoluted, long-winded, clumsy stylist of THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS or MERCEDES OF CASTILE. NED MYERS is not overly long, never pauses for breath for long, probes the evolution of a sailor's conscience as he battles drink, and is the tale of a remarkable friendship between two men of very different social status and global outlooks. The reader freezes with Ned in Antarctic waters, hungers with him as a British prisoner of war and rolls through service on innumerable private merchantmen and a few U.S. Naval vessels. The biography's goals are simple and elegantly met.
Let me end with a typical passage, showing how laconically Cooper could write when he chose to.
Midway through his nearly 40 years on sailing vessels, Ned Myers was made First Mate of a small Buford coasting vessel often in and out of Charleston, South Carolina. It was the Gov. Russel. The owner/captain rarely made the typical 150 - 200 miles trading runs, leaving Myers alone to captain a crew of two Negro slaves. The Gov. Russel was driven aground in a violent storm. With the one surviving slave, Myers floated for two days on bits of wreckage until saved by a passing schooner and carried into Charleson.
What happened next?
"The Gov. Russel was found, towed into port, was repaired, and went about her business, as usual in the Buford trade. I never saw her or her captain again, however, I parted with the negro that saved me, on the wharf, and never heard anything about him afterwards either. Such is the life of a sailor!" (Ch. XIII)

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About the reviewer
(Thomas) Patrick Killough ()
Ranked #96
I am a retired American diplomat. Married for 47 years. My wife Mary (PhD in German and Linguistics) and I have two sons, six grandsons and two granddaughters. Our home is Highland Farms Retirement Community … more
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Engrossing biography of Ned Myers, a sailor and Cooper’s companion at sea. The authentic details shed light not only on Myer’s life but also on the political, economic and social scenario of that time. This nautical novel also satisfies the reader with its intricate blend of suspense, excitement and adventure. A pure reading pleasure!

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