Eggers’s Little Gunshop

My great-grandfather, William John Hopkins—my father’s father’s father—was a novelist and short-story writer. I think his entire output was what is now called YA, but I’m not sure. We have copies of a lot of his books—The Clammer, Old Harbor, Burbury Stoke, Tumbleberry and Chick—all published by Houghton Mifflin in the early part of the last century. Actually, looking at our collection, I only just now realized that we have a copy of his book The Meddlings of Eve with his autograph on the title page—”To my wife, with love, WJH.” Maybe our collection was his and my great-grandmother’s collection?

The only one of his books I’ve ever tackled is the one with the best title: She Blows! And Sparm at That! I was reading it to Toby for a while, as there were a few months when a story or a chapter of a novel was the best thing to help him go to sleep. That changed, and so I haven’t quite finished it yet.

She Blows! is a whaling adventure. I’m guessing that at least a few of his books are also sea stories, judging from the titles. I’m also guessing that he had some success, but I wish I knew more about this, since his work is now forgotten. A Google search for the title of the book—in quotes, of course—brings up the occasional list of recommended books on whaling.

She Blows!, I’m thinking, might actually be a good book to read to an older child at bedtime, because it is—by contemporary standards for books for young people, at least—rather dry. (For a kid used to more hopped-up action, it might really have a soporific effect.) And yet, at the same time, the book is fascinating. The details of life on a whaler are astonishing—the vocabulary, the mechanics, the culture—so if you wanted to learn more about late-nineteenth-century New England whaling (the story starts in New Bedford), She Blows! would tell you a lot of what you needed to know.

Structurally, though, it’s a weird book. Not a lot happens. Or a lot happens, but the events aren’t quite related; the young hero signs up with a whaler, the boat leaves New Bedford, they get a whale, they miss the next whale, there’s weather, there’s another whale, they meet another boat, there’s another whale, they dock in a port, men get drunk, there’s a knife fight, they leave, they land on an island and meet some castaways, etc. In an e-mail to Eric and Nat recently, I called it “a nautical picaresque bildungsroman” with inadvertent gay overtones. At least, I think they’re inadvertent. Who knows? Life on a whaler probably got gay sometimes. But the inadvertence—the accidental humor of the title, for example—has to do with the ways in which American English has changed in the past hundred years.

I’ll write more in this space on the book’s gayness later. There’s at least a few quotes I want to post here, actually, but for now, I’ll start with a quote from early in the book. I’ve been thinking for years, even without having read She Blows!, that the title is so excellent that Paul Collins, editor of the Collins Library imprint of McSweeney’s, might be interested in publishing it; so I thought it was funny to come across the following. The book starts with the narrator wondering what kind of work he’s going to do, now that he’s old enough to start working; these paragraphs come right after he signs up with a whaler about to leave port (from pp. 15-16 of the 1926 Houghton Mifflin edition):

I almost danced with joy, and I promised not to fret. I knew that I should not fret at a thing that could not be done. I have never done that. I do the most and the best that I can, and am quite cheerful over the outcome. I was always the same; and what better can a man do than his best, and accept the result with a cheerful heart? But if we had made no attempt to find the captain I should have fretted at having left something undone and possibly lost a chance that I might have had.

We had been walking slowly up William Street as we talked, and it was abreast of Eggers’s little gunshop—where I had been used to go for my supply of fishlines and hooks—that my father virtually gave his consent and told me not to fret. The steep, short slope of Johnnycake Hill was just at our left—the Bourne Whaling Museum is now at the top of it—and the Custom House was but a few steps away, on the upper corner of the next street. I broke away and ran, looking back at my father with an ecstatic smile.

I copied the above quote from this page, from the American Libraries sub-section of the Open-Access Text Archive section of the Internet Archive (best known, I think, for the Wayback Machine), then did some minor editorial cleanup while comparing it to my hard copy. One caveat, if you click on that link, though—it’s the entire text of the novel, but it looks like it might not be entirely accurate. (Google Books might be a better source for a digital version of the novel in its entirety.)

More She Blows! anon.