The Traces We Leave Behind

(She Blows! catch-up post, three of three.)

One last note—for now, anyway—about She Blows! And Sparm at That! I never knew my novelist great-grandfather, although my dad did; but in many parts of the novel, while reading it, I had this strange, quasi-mystical sense that I was reading something written by someone I was connected to. Maybe this is unavoidable; maybe reading fiction by an ancestor—as with reading fiction by a friend or relative, as with reading the diary of a dead person whom you knew—you’re partly, secretly, selfishly looking for mentions of you, or clues and hints of you. This kicked in very early in the book, since one of the narrator’s older brothers, for example, happens to be named Tom.

Like a lot of people do—and like a whole lot more people really ought to—I worry about the ephemerality of digital storage media. That is to say, I think a lot about things like the fact that barring a range of possible but statistically unlikely disasters, the copy of She Blows! that Emily got me on, now 84 years old (the novel was originally published in 1922, but the Riverside Bookshelf edition came out in 1926), will in all likelihood outlive all sorts of things—this Web site;; the Google Books version of the book—or at least the servers on which titles in the Google Books library currently exist; the ability of the laptop on which I’m typing these words to function; the Web as we know it; and, of course, me.

So I think it’s these two things—a search for familial clues, combined with a sense that the physical book is under threat (and that, as a consequence, democracy and civilization are under threat), combined also with the amateur genealogist’s love of the discovery of concrete documentation, or even the promise of the possibility of documentation, that make me love the last paragraph of chapter six of She Blows! For context, right before this, some of Timmy’s shipmates manage to harpoon a whale, which then takes off for the horizon, dragging their small boat behind it, faster than the main whaling ship, the Clearchus, can chase it. This is Timmy’s first whaling trip, and he’s worried about the fate of his friends, so he asks another crewmember, Aziel Wright, how the Clearchus will ever catch up; Wright replies that the whale will have to tire within twenty or so miles of running, and even though night is falling, the men on the boat have flares, so not to worry. This is what follows:

I nodded, and thanked him. There was nothing else that I knew enough to ask him, although I was still unsatisfied, and I ran below to get it all down in my journal. At the time I made mere notes, in a fragmentary way, while my impressions were fresh. I wrote up the notes later. I have that journal by me now. As I look over the scrawled and stained pages, and read the disjointed sentences, the whole thing comes back before me as if it had happened yesterday. I sent the journal home from time to time, as I had planned to do, as long as I had opportunities, and managed to carry home the part covering the last part of my cruise. My father and my mother preserved my old journal as if it were a precious thing. I found it nearly thirty years later with my father’s most valuable papers.

From pp. 60 – 61 in the Riverside Bookshelf edition, and pp. 62 – 63 in the original Houghton Mifflin, according to Google Books.