Here’s another addition to “Sea Fever,” my readers’ guide to novels, stories, plays and poems about naval life, the sea, the seaboard and islands. This entry deals with one of the most enduring works of fiction about the South Pacific, The “Bounty” Trilogy, by Charles Nordhoff, who was born February 1, 1887, and James Norman Hall was born April 22, 1887.
The “Bounty” Trilogy: Mutiny on the “Bounty” (Boston: Little, Brown, 1932); Men against the Sea (Boston: Little, Brown, 1934); Pitcairn’s Island (Boston: Little, Brown, 1934)
Fledgling writers Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall both piloted planes in the Lafayette Flying Corps during World War I. Afterward they were asked to compile a history of the unit, and although they hadn’t known each other during the war, the effort went smoothly and the book was published in 1920. Some time later, they were commissioned by Harper’s Magazine to visit and write about the islands of the Pacific, and, as a result, both took up residence on Tahiti. The articles that they had produced for the magazine were published in book form as Faery Lands of the South Seas in 1921, and another joint effect, a now-forgotten juvenile novel inspired by their wartime experiences, appeared in 1929.
According to their biographer, Paul L. Briand, Jr., it was Hall to proposed that the two collaborate on a novel about the famous mutiny aboard HMS Bounty in 1789. Nordhoff felt sure that the events had already been fictionalized, but Hall assured him that the only account he had seen had been published by the Secretary of the British Admiralty, Sir John Barrow, in 1831.
With the help of librarians at Hawaii’s Bishop Museum and rare book dealers, the two put together a small collection of additional material, including a 1792 account by the Bounty’s own captain, Lieutenant William Bligh. Then, with each writing first drafts of a certain number of chapters, they read their efforts to each other and revised until both were satisfied with the overall effort.
Published by Little, Brown in 1932, Mutiny on the “Bounty” records the dramatic events aboard the ship, which was on a mission to carry breadfruit saplings from Tahiti to the British colonies in the West Indies. Through the eyes of a (fictional) young midshipman, Roger Byam, we watch Bligh behaving as a sadistic martinet who profits from his command by skimping the crew’s rations. So overbearing is Bligh’s behavior that he eventually drives the proud Master’s Mate Fletcher Christian to lead a mutiny. Bligh and those loyal to him are put adrift in the ship’s launch, but because of the boat’s small size, Byam and several of his mates are forced to remain on Tahiti. Accompanied by a number of Tahitian men and women, Christian and his fellow mutineers sail off in hopes of finding a safe haven, and the remainder of the novel recounts the ironic fate of those who have been left behind.
For the second volume of the trilogy, Men against the Sea, the two writers chose the perspective of Surgeon’s Mate Thomas Ledward, a real figure who accompanied Bligh and the 16 other men set adrift on the Bounty’s launch. Here, Bligh is revealed to be a master mariner who manages to steer his small open boat nearly 4,000 nautical miles over a period of 45 days to the island of Timor in the East Indies. To help them find their way, they have only navigational tables, a quadrant, a compass and a (broken) sextant. Thanks to its short length, the limited number of characters involved, the perilous circumstances of the voyage, and the dramatically restricted setting of the boat, Men Against the Sea is the most artistically satisfying entry in the series.
The final volume, Pitcairn’s Island, is a somber conclusion to the trilogy, describing how the Bounty’s crew and passengers eventually find a new home on Pitcairn Island in the southeastern Pacific. As it turns out, their situation is far from idyllic, as the mutineers and the Tahitian men who had accompanied them eventually come to blows over the Tahitian women. The novel is presented in the third person for most of its length, but is narrated by the final surviving mutineer, Alexander Smith, for most of its poignant final chapters.
The “Bounty” Trilogy is a work of fiction, but commentators have inevitably compared Nordhoff and Hall’s treatment of Bligh and Christian with what we know about the actual historical characters. Should we blame the overly strict disciplinarian Bligh for the mutiny? Or should we assign the blame to the treacherous Christian? So far as I can tell, there’s no clear answer. In any case, the novels can stand on their own as outstanding examples of popular fiction, dramatic explorations of the conflict between discipline and freedom set in a watery region that was both paradise and perdition.
As we now know, Nordhoff was right to think that the story of the Bounty had already been fictionalized. Jules Verne is credited with writing a short story called “Les Révoltés de la ‘Bounty,’” but it’s alleged that the piece was actually by a geographer for the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Gabriel Marcel, and that Verne, who had been the story’s proofreader, bought the rights to it and published it as his own work in 1879. More importantly, Australian writers Louis Becke and Walter James Jeffery had published a full-length novel based on the subject, The Mutineer: A Romance of Pitcairn Island, in 1898.
My one-volume copy of the trilogy (top) was published in 1943 and is illustrated by N.C. Wyeth. The black-and-white photograph shows Nordhoff (right) and Hall (left), and is taken from the dust jacked of Briand’s biography, In Search of Paradise: The Nordhoff-Hall Story (Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1956).
I was delighted to be invited to write the entry about Nordhoff and Hall in the Encyclopedia of American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes, edited by Jill B. Gidmark (Greenwood Press, 2001).