Frisbie of the South Seas

Robert Dean Frisbie went to Tahiti in 1920, a young veteran of the First World War If or drawing a veteran’s disability pension because of his weak lungs. It was Friside’s intent to submerge himself in the slow, delightful current of the island life, just as it was his aspiration to write the book of his dreams. The two menthe recluse and the dreamerwere often at odds with each other and sometimes in difficulties with the white authorities. It was Frisbie’s good fortune to become fast friends with JAMES NORMAN HALL,and it teas this friendship which served him as a beacon in his times of disappointment and loneliness. This story of a friendship, so sympathetically told by Mr. Hall, will be published in three successive issues.

by JAMES NORMAN HALL

1

HIS full name is Robert Dean Frisbie, but among the scattered islands and archipelagoes of Polynesia where he spent the whole of his adult life, he was known simply as Ropati —the island variant for the name Robert. I first met him on the island of Tahiti on the day in the early nineteen-twenties when he stepped ashore from the monthly steamer from San Francisco, and the friendship then begun lasted until the day of his death, in November, 1948. I still have in mind a clear picture of Frisbie as he stood that, morning, a portable typewriter in one hand and a camera in the other, letting his glance travel slowly along the line of small vessels moored by the sea wall. He gave a sigh of content and said, “This is just what I hoped it would be.”

I pointed out how pretty the street bordering the waterfront looked in the early morning light. He glanced briefly at it as though he had not noticed before that a town was there; evidently, he was not interested in it. ”I mean,” he said, “it’s what I hoped it would be as a jumping-off place. All those ships ... I suppose you can go almost, anywhere from here?”

We walked the length of the waterfront and he paused to examine every kind of small craft lying there — copra schooners, Low Island cutters, fishing boats — with an air of wistful eagerness; he had eyes for nothing else. I asked whether he had a boat of Ins own. “No,” he said, glumly, “but . . . I’m going to. I expect to build it myself. A happy light came into his eyes as he spoke of his “little ship" She was to be thirty-six feet over all, broadbeamed . . . he went on telling me about her rig, dimensions, how she was to be fitted inside — everything. He dreamed it into existence there and then; saw it moored by the sea wall; it was as though he were just ready to go aboard and head for the open sea.

“She’s sturdy,” he said; “she has to be, for I’ll never have money enough to build another one. Nothing for speed, but that doesn’t matter. I’m in no hurry. And the important thing is that I can handle her myself.”

She was to be his home for the rest of his life, he said. He planned to carry it with him wherever he went, as a hermit crab carries its shell, except that the shell was to carry him. He spoke with such assurance that I myself could almost believe that the boat was there, waiting for him to come aboard. “I read somewhere that there are thirty thousand islands in the Pacific. Do you suppose that’s true? Not that I expect to visit all of them; only the loneliest ones.”

We had lunch together at a Chinese restaurant, and by the time we’d finished I realized that my companion was no “type.” I didn’t quite know what to make of him. He appeared to be a combination of widely different personalities; one would have said that several Ropatis of different ages were sitting there, quarreling and contradicting one another. The one most in evidence at this first meeting was a sanguine wistful dreamer who had something of a child’s gift for make-believe. He told me of his Great Dream, in which the dream of the boat was only the means to an end. It was, surely, a strange one for a young man to cling to, in alternating moods of hope and despair.

2

AFTER lunch we went to a little park on the waterfront and sat there, talking, throughout the afternoon. Or, rather, Ropati talked and I listened, putting in an occasional remark. I could see that he fell a need to unburden himself; to discuss his hopes and dreams and plans with a sympathetic listener whose interest would give him encouragement, and perhaps subdue the voices of the more clear-sighted skeptical Ropatis with whom he had long contended.

He spoke of the chance that had made it possible for him to reach this “jumping-off place" in the mid-Pacific. When World War I ended he was in an infantry training camp in California. He loathed Army life, not being cut out for a regimented existence. His lungs had always been weak and camp life did nothing to improve the condition. He would have been invalided out of the service had the war not ended when it did. At his last medical examination the doctor told him that unless he was extremely careful his prospect was that of a bed in a t.b. sanatorium for the rest of his life. Upon his release from service he applied for and was granted a pension — $100 per month.

This pension — the size of it showed how far from well he was — would take care of living expenses, but if he was to carry out his plan for building the little ship in which to spend his life wandering in the Pacific, he would have to find a job so that he could earn the money for building her. He had found just what he wanted. An American newspaper syndicate gave him a roving commission in the Pacific. He was to go where he pleased, taking photographs of picturesque island scenes and events. With the photographs he was to send little one-page stories describing them.

“There is no salary attached,”he went on. “I’m to be paid according to the amount of work I turn in and how many Sunday-newspaper supplements buy my stuff. I hope to earn at least $100 per month, and every penny of this is to be saved for the boat. When I have it I mean to chuck the job. And then ... !”

His dream was to become a writer, and a particular kind of writer. “I don’t care how long it takes me,”he said. “I will work for years, all my life, if necessary, to write my one book. I can live on my pension until I have it finished. But in the end I hope to make a name for myself, in my one small field.”

“And what is that?” I asked.

He hesitated for a moment: then he replied: “Myself. It’s a small enough field, when you think of the millions of human beings on the earth. Looked at in another way, how vast il is, if’ I can really learn to explore it. It’s never been done, this kind of research; I mean, not honestly done. There is glorious old Montaigne of course; his essays were all in the field of Self-Exploration, but my approach will be from a different angle. The others who have tried it were charlatans; they thought too much of themselves to understand themselves. I think nothing of myself; that’s why I hope to succeed.”

He was not aware of the contradictory nature of his statement, and I didn’t point it out to him. I was astonished, to say the least, to hear this twentyyear-old talk so confidently of a task in which no one, however honest, however gifted, could hope to succeed. He mapped out the plan of his life which was to culminate in the great Work, to be completed, he hoped, in twenty-five years. Solitude was, of course, essential; he must be alone with himself most of the time; hence the one-man ship in which he was to visit the loneliest of islands. Contemplation of this fact made him a little uneasy. He loved solitude, but he also loved a certain amount of companionship. However, it was necessary that he should forgo the latter, probably for years at a time.

I didn’t know what to say, and so I said nothing. Presently he broke off, peering at me anxiously. “Do you think I’m a complete idiot?” he asked, adding quickly, “That may be so. I have had no education except what I’ve been able to pick up for myself, by reading. I’m really a half-baked moron. I dream of writing this great book, and I can’t even spell, to say nothing of writing the king’s English.”

He sat with his chin in his hands, a picture of gloom. When I came to know him better I realized that he suffered deeply when this change, from hope to momentary disillusionment, came upon him, so suddenly and unexpectedly. There would be a remarkable physical change as well. With the light gone from his eyes he would look ten years older.

I wanted to encourage him but didn’t know how to go about it. Presently I said, “If it means so much to you, why not try it ? If you failed, would that be such a tragedy?”

“To me, it would.”

“I can’t see why,” I replied. “You might find the result quite otherwise. You might be led off on another track toward something you could do really well.”

“What kind of thing?” he asked.

“Well, something allied, at least, to what you hoped to do. The subject could still be yourself, but you would not try to be a competent witness.”

The look of misery changed to one of mere woefulness. “I’m not ready to admit that it can’t be done. Surely, my great desire to be honest would count for something? I know this: if I were to catch myself indulging in any half-conscious trickery I would drop the work at once. The lost thing in the world I want to do is to tool myself.”

“In that case,” I said, “why not go ahead?”

“I’ve got to,” he replied, slowly. “The only thing is that if I do fail, it will be such a bitter disappointment.”

I was tempted to say that any man who believed that he could tell the complete truth about himself had at fatal defect of vision to start with, but it seemed likely that Ropati would soon discover that for himself.

He gave me a forlorn account of the schools he had attended. His father, he said, was a gentle, kindly man, but without depth of character or a will of his own. All his life he had searched for a religious faith to cling to.

“And where do you suppose he looked for it J. Among the cranks and frauds who make a business of supplying ‘faiths’ for profit to just such people as my dad. He went from one sect to another, and I was dragged along with him, attending the kind of private schools such people keep, Finally we landed in southern California. It was heaven for my father, a dozen varieties of heaven; but it was hell for me.” *

3

I WILL pass briefly over the next seven years of Frisbie’s life. He spent most oi this time on Tahiti, with visits to some of the neighboring islands. And he didn’t build the boat.

He found a place to live on a lonely stretch of beach in the district of Papéari, thirty-five miles from the town of Papeete, built himself a small house of bamboo and palm-frond thatch, and — in a very halfhearted fashion, it seemed to me—set about his task of self-exploration. There were Tahitians living near-by, the country kind who rarely leave their district simple, natural folk who keep to their old ways. They liked Ropati and he liked them, and in a very short time he was speaking the native language with case.

The only other white man then living at that part of the island was an American from New England, a former professor of electrical engineering at a fumous technical school in the East. The Professor, whom I knew well, was ax middle-aged bachelor, a man of spotless character, who lived like a hermit. Having mot Frisbie, and learning of his plan for voyaging westward in a boat of his own, he offered to teach him navigation. Erisbie eagerly accepted the offer, and the Professor told me afterward that he had mastered trigonometry and the art of navigation in astonishingly quick time.

As I have said, the Professor was a New Englander; his standard of conduct was extremely high and, I often thought, rather Weakly narrow. He could not easily overlook or forgive, in others, any departures from what he considered proper behavior. Frisbie’s easy mastery of navigation won his high regard, but he was shocked when he learned that the young man had taken a native mistress and that he sometimes got drunk on his visits to Papeete. Had it been just any young man, he would have dropped his acquaintance at once, but his regard for Frisbie made it necessary for him to admonish his pupil, quietly, but firmly and repeatedly, This brought to the lore the reckless, defiant Ropati who could not and would not be lectured to.

There were a few others as well who lost no opportunity for pointing out to the defiant one that he was going to the dogs. The result was that Frisbie went out of his way to shock his critics. He was so highly strung that two rum punches could make him drunk, but this, it seemed to me, was a physiological rather than a moral defect. His friends avoided him on such occasions, for alcohol had an immediate and unfortunate effect upon him. The Dreamer, with his high enthusiasms — which, despite his natural modesty, made him believe, or hope, that the most glorious dreams might be realized— became a braggart and a boaster. In vino veritas was not true in Ropati’s case. His words and actions when he was drunk belied his true character.

But it was the Dreamer who turned to me, and many a happy day we spent together, in the mountains or paddling in his outrigger canoe along the lagoons bordering his side of the island, He loved his canoe as though it were a living thing, but it was not the little ship that he still dreamed of and planned for. That was to come. Saving for it was a much harder task than dreaming it into existence. Somehow, the newspaper-syndicate job had ended; I believe that it failed to hold his interest, despite the fact that it was to provide the money for building his boat. I realized by this time that he must have inherited some of his father’s instability of character, but there was nothing unstable in his character as a friend. He now had many acquaintances but few friends, and a few were all he wanted. He was firmly of the belief that no man could have more than half a dozen real friends.

His library was small, around two hundred volumes: Montaigne; Swinburne complete— both the prose and the poetry; George Borrow; François Villon, in translation; Dante’s Inferno in tire Cary translation; Mungo Park’s Travels; some of George Meredith’s novels; and miscellaneous volumes, most of them books to live with. But his great passion was for De Quincey; he all but worshiped him. A corollary for the Dream, which he still clung to, was that the style for the Book must be as unusual as he hoped the contents would be. De Quincey was the great Master, he thought, but he had no intention of imitating him or anyone else. He hoped, eventually, to find his own style, and this was, sometimes, the explanation he gave for the long sojourn on Tahiti. He must read and read to make up for lost opportunity and to destroy the effect which his cult-and-fad-tainted schoolboy education had had upon his mind.

He borrowed many volumes from my library, and I remember what a find Logan Pearsall Smith’s Trivia proved to be for him. There, he thought, was another Explorer of Self: a man who could look within and write with complete detachment of what he discovered. And what miracles of condensation he could perform! A paragraph sufficed to lay bare great areas. Trivia renewed, temporarily at least, enthusiasm for his own projected Work. He realized the importance of the part humor would play in the writing of it. How could he have failed to see that humor was the first requisite for the honest explorer of the World of Self?

4

SEVEN years is a long time and Ropati the Dreamer sickened perceptibly during the latter part of it. This saddened me, and yet I often found myself preferring the more robust, common-sense Ropati whose clearness of vision was of a kind that the first only dreamed of attaining. The two were often in conflict, but the Dreamer still held with a kind of faint earnestness to his plan for writing the great Work. This was the situation at the time when, at last, Frisbie decided to start on his wanderings. He still planned to make an effort to write the Book. “It I can’t,”he said, gloomily, “what is there left for me? I have no imagination in the high sense. I can’t create. I can write only of what I see and hear — of matters out of my own experience.” I again suggested that he would be writing about himself in relation to his environment and that he might find more satisfaction in doing so than in his hazardous Quest for the Absolute.

His farewell to his Tahiti friends was waved, not from the little boat, but from the deck of a copra schooner bound for the Leeward Islands. From there he went on to Rarotonga, in the Cook Islands. Later I received a long letter written from the lagoon island of Puka Puka, or Danger Island, one of the loneliest atolls in the Pacific. He was in heaven and he meant to remain there, for good. He had been given a job running a little trading station for A. B. Donald & Company, whose schooner visited the island once or twice a year. We corresponded regularly, although our letters could be received only at long intervals. Some of the most interesting of Frisbie’s letters, written during the first four years of his sojourn on Puka Puka, are lost. During this time he wrote a story of his life on the island, which was published in the Atlantic in 1948 1949, under the title The Book of Puka Puka. It was not the Book, dreamed of for so long. That was never again mentioned.

He fell in love with and married Nga, a Puka Luka girl of sixteen who knew nothing of life beyond that small palm-clad circle of land. It was a happy marriage and Nga became the mother of his five children. I will now quote from letters received from Ropati during the years from 1934 until his death, fourteen years later.

PUKA PUKA, August, 1934
DEAR HALL: —
What a lonely, lost, forgotten place this is! Its detachment from the outside world is sometimes staggering, but it doesn’t numb me as it once did. I can sink into the Puka Puka habit of mind and drift serenely through the days without a thought of anything but food and the life on this microscopic world in itself.
I wish you were here so that we could talk about dreams. I’ve been having a dream life such as I’ve never known before; long complete things like novels, with definite beginnings and ends. Nga is a little dear. She works hard, feeds her man, and makes her sisters help take care of the babies.
I am enjoying tremendously the Letters of Joseph Conrad, but I can’t help thinking that he must have been a bit of a fraud. The way he eulogizes over his friends’ work — Cunninghame-Graham’s for example— does not ring true to me. If Graham’s books are as fine as Conrad makes them out to be I would like to read one or two. This is unfair, of course, for I know nothing about the gent.
I will return your Marriage of Loti some day. I can’t believe that you are in a hurry for it and you can be sure I won’t steal it. What sentimental rubbish! If it wasn’t for its fine imagery and descriptive passages it would be no better than my Téanau. “My dear little Rarahu! Sweet little flower of the Delicious Isle! . . . And she loved me as dearly as her little savage heart could love.” Bah! I hope it teaches me to give a wide berth to this kind of writing in the future.

November 25th, 1934
I don’t think I can recapture the mood for another book about Puka Puka. I consider various approaches. I was thinking of writing some imaginary reports by Puka Pukans to be read before the island Ethnological Society. It occurred to me that it would be amusing to imagine a group of Puka Puka anthropologists, ethnologists, and the like who visit the U.S.A. and return to deliver a series of lectures upon their findings. They would tell, for example, of the absurd aversion of the Americans to having the Puka Pukans dig up the bones of George Washington and how they refused them permission to make excavations in Arlington Cemetery for the purpose of carrying away the bones of prominent Americans for measurement and study.
The idea was suggested to me because two odd manuwiri — a Ph.D. and his wife — have arrived at Puka Puka with hundreds of cases of canned food and notebooks and are now installed in Painin-the-Head’s house in Yato Village, a mile from my place. They are here through the auspices of Yale and the Bishop Museum and will stay six months whether they want to or not. They of course would like to dig up the bones of ancient Puka Pukans, maul them over and carry them away, together with any trinkets they might find in the graves. Naturally, the living, Puka Pukans object to this; but think how often the thing has been done by European and American ethnologists and anthropologists on islands scattered all over the Pacific.
I’m wondering if the B’s aren’t going a little bughouse. The other day Mrs. B said to me, “Will you please describe to me the technique of copulation among the Puka Pukans?” I would like to have a Puka Pukan, at a meeting of the Yale faculty, ask the professors to describe their methods of copulation. However, the B’s are nice people, though about as out of place here as salamanders in an icebox.
The children are thriving. Mrs. B says that Whiskey Johnny [his daughter Florence] is an Electra, and Dr. B says I should teach her to be bilingual. But Johnny does very well as she is. She has innocently learned all the dirty words in Puka Pukan and uses them indiscriminately before Papa and old Heathen William alike. We spend most of our time on the uninhabited islet of Ko, across the lagoon, and now that the B’s are here we will go oftener still. We are well and hearty despite honest poverty. I still receive letters now and then from Tahiti “friends” who hope that I am now rehabilitated. Why is it that such busybodies cannot understand that a man has the right to live his own life? By admonishing him they admit that the admonisher is a very fine fellow, much better than the admonished.
I have written my tenth book — that is, in manuscript. The old urge has, certainly, kept me going despite apathetic publishers and public. I wonder if I should have ever attempted to write?
As usual, life is centered in one thing: my ten-ton cutter. I feel closer to it now than ever before. Perhaps in a few months I may be able to fit a few ribs on the fine tamau keel I have laid.

June, 1935
I have finished A Child of Tahiti. You will like it but probably no one else. God knows when my boat will be finished, but if ever I sell anything again, every penny of the money will go to the cutter. . . .
I can’t make this letter cheerful, so I’d better stop. I have been sober since December, 1933. Two or three bottles of beer at intervals of six months when the schooner comes; not another drop. I can’t see that it has helped my writing any. It’s simply hell to pour your life’s blood into your work and have it come to nothing. I wonder if I’ll ever learn that I’m not a genius? My cutter is to be named ESCAPE.

5

THERE were times when Frisbie longed to escape from Puka Puka. There were around six hundred inhabitants living in three villages on the Main Islet, which was little more than a mile wide either way. The closeness of contact with his neighbors became unbearable at times and he would take refuge on one or the other of two small uninhabited islets at the far end of the lagoon. His dream was to sail with his family, as soon as his boat was built, to the uninhabited island of Suvorov, where he hoped to remain for the rest of his life.

June 3rd, 1936
It is eight months and three days since we last had news from the world. Do you remember your plan for an Adventure in Solitude? You wanted it to be a spiritual adventure on an uninhabited island; to discover what the effect would be of six months or a year of complete isolation from all other human beings. You said that you would take plenty of food so that you would have to spend no time providing for the needs of the body. I scoffed at your notion of taking food, but after four solid months of living on coconuts and fish, with taro twice per week, I see your point.
We are all becoming a little mad here, waiting for the schooner. Every time a child shouts or a man whoops we are startled into excited tension, believing it is the long-awaited “Sail, ho!” Four months ago we used up the last of our flour, rice, and sugar. My soap for three months has been a handful of ashes, while my clothes simply went unwashed. The last match was used two months ago, but I am getting boy-scoutishly clever at making fire by friction. My lamp is a jar of coconut oil with a wick of cotton wool floating in it on a cork. It makes a good light but not good enough to read by. Tobacco, of course, is gone long since. I pared or shaved my old pipes and smoked the shavings. After that I went bughouse until the nicotine was cleaned out of my system, but now I manage tolerably. This kind of living is all right for a time, but bad for months on end. I will not sneer when you take abundant supplies for your Adventure in Solitude.
Oddly enough, I find myself craving for a little news from the outside world. Also, I wish I knew whether or not my Tahiti book has been accepted. I read the carbon copy a few days ago and decided that it richly deserved the garbage can.
My eleventh book, Unconventional Journey, is much better. I have been working on it to the limit of my capacity during the past eight months and it is nearly finished. During six of those months I have been living with Nga and the children on uninhabited Ko Islet. And there I have come under the influence of Marcel Proust, He has become a second Master for me and has profoundly affected my conception of Literature. I have read my two volumes, Swann’s Way and The Guermantes Way, over and over again. I read each sentence, think about it, analyze it, often learn it by heart. I am dumfounded. This kind of writing is something completely new to me. The stories he tells mean nothing to me; his philosophy and his outlook on life are not worth bothering about, but his manner of writing! Give me a superlative, a dozen! A discarded mistress walks along the river “drawing from her submissive lingers long gloves of a precious, useless charm.” Maybe I’m just nutty from too much Puka Puka, but sentences like this seem so perfectly what they should be. I have read my two volumes live or six times and am waiting for the schooner to bring me the others. Puka Puka is the place to read him, particularly Ko Islet, where I spend three quarters of my time.
My children are in fine health. I now have four. The last one, Elaine Mctua (Alkali Ike) Frisbie, was born the 29th of last November. I hope to take Whiskey Johnny (Florence) to Honolulu at the end of this year. Now that I have this beloved daughter growing up I realize what a depraved place Puka Puka is. I have had a singular change of heart in my attitude about it. The natural depravity of the Puka Pukans doesn’t interest me any more; it disgusts me. I have discovered that I am losing my craving for liquor. I simply don’t want it. All of this because of the salutary influence of my children, including this latest baby daughter. Curses! What stupidity!
Hall, what kind of a letter is this? But remember that my brain is fagged after a long period of intense concentration. And that I have no tobacco. But I know that when the ship comes— if ever it comes, which I doubt—there will be no time to write anything but a note.
July 10th, 1936. Still no ship.
August 15th, 1930. The schooner is here. I have learned that A Child of Tahiti has been rejected.1 The manuscript that I am working on now will probably meet the same fate.

6

KNOWING Frisbie so well, I also knew that bitter disappointment was covered by this brief mention of the fate of his latest manuscript. His statement, quoted earlier, about pouring his heart’s blood into his work was true; he did just that. The tragedy was that, in his own case, he never learned to distinguish good work from bad; at least, so it seemed to me then. He had a fine appreciation of Literature but, somehow, this could not teach him to be a judge of his own writing. Or it may have been that, after working so hard and so long to finish a manuscript, he was afraid to examine it critically lest he should decide that it was all bad. To read some great book for the first time was, with him, in the nature of a religious experience: he would be lifted out of himself and above himself. And then Ropati the Dreamer would whisper: “You see? That’s how it’s done. Take courage! The fact that you are so inspired and uplifted by what you have read proves that you have qualities in your own nature akin to those of the Masters. Develop them. You have much to learn and a weary way to go, but look ahead - far ahead! Cain’t you see the dream of what you so long to be, taking form and substance; becoming reality at last?”

And Ropati’s spirit would again be kindled and quickened. Grimly but hopefully he would set to work again, writing, writing, with feverish energy, and sometimes enthusiasm would carry him through to the end. Then, usually, came disillusionment and despair, and he would be too heartsick to begin all over again. In one of his letters he said: —

I see clearly now what a terrible handicap it is to be so completely cut off from contact with other men interested in writing. If I were a great genius it wouldn’t matter, but I’m only a plain damfool, trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. You’re right: I’m a poor judge of my own work, worse than I used to be. One reason for that is that I’ve lived here too long; I not only speak Puka Pukan and nothing else, but I think Puka Pukan. You couldn’t even imagine the world they live in. There’s a lot to be said for it, and if only I could kill this cursed desire to write I could be happy in it. How could you expect a man who writes in English and thinks in Puka Pukan to be able to know what kind of work he’s doing? My old friend William the Heathen is the only critic I’ve got. He is now a very old man but still keeps healthy. In his early days he made two or three voyages in American whalers and is proud of the fact that he hasn’t forgotten his English.

He came over the other day to visit me. I was writing and kept on with it, so William sat down near-by and went into the coma that comes so easy to a native. His eyes were open but his mind, socalled, was a complete blank. Finally I stirred him out of it. “William! Listen to this!” He gave me a kind of vacant leer. I waited till he’d come back to the Puka Puka state of consciousness and then read him a paragraph of what I’d just been writing, in English, of course. “How do you like that, William? ”

“Whas a matter, you, Ropati Cowboy? You me spik English! Goddam! Me no Puka Puka Kanaka! What ta hell! Me whaler-man! Me spik too much English!" This was William’s only comment on the immortal paragraph. What he may have meant was that I write too much English. Lord knows I do, if it deserves to be called English.

Three weeks ago I finished my Unconventional Journey. It runs to ninety thousand words of cleaned and perfumed tripe. It reads all right for about fifty pages, but if you can read a hundred you’ll be fed up. One year and one month of solid hard work, and during the whole time, absolute sobriety. When you told me I’d have my boat if I worked hard for a year and kept sober, you were all wrong. I’ve been sober since January, 1934 — three years — and the result has been three articles accepted by the Atlantic Monthly. If only you would say: “Ropati, stop being a fool! You’re no writer and you never will be.”Instead of that you egg me on.

But I don’t really mind the egging. I could stand a lot more of it. Hall, listen to this! I had a letter from Edward Weeks of the Atlantic in which he said they would be delighted to use two of my stories: “Uninhabited Island” and “The Grandpapa of All the Fishes.” And as if that, weren’t enough encouragement for a starving man, he also said: “It is a delicious mixture of present and past. . . . There are months when the Atlantic cries aloud for good graphic humor such as this. ... ‘I ninhabited Island’ builds up the kind of dream picture that Coleridge’would have loved. . . . My interest in your work began with the first Puka Puka articles and has never wavered.”

Can you imagine what this means to me? Fiftyfour words count ‘embut I can live on them for months, years, If necessary. Probably I’ll have to. Life on Puka Puka has taught me how to live on short rations, I use ashes to wash with when the soap gives out, and ashes had been my principal diet for the inner man until Weeks’s letter came. He may want to eat his words, later, but he can’t. They’re my emergency rations.

Not later than the middle of 1937 I’m going to take the family to Aitutaki and there I will make one more attempt to build my boat: there is some fine timber on Aitutaki. Years roll by, Hall-Tané Think of it! I’m forty now. If I don’t manage to build my boat pretty soon I’m going to throw my typewriter into the lagoon and settle down permanently to nothing but my trading job. That means failure. I know it. And failure is synonymous with dissipation and death.

But I can’t allow myself to think of that. As old William might tell me, “Whas a matter, you, Ropati Cowboy? What ta hell! You no Puka Puka Kanaka! You writer-man!” One thing I know—I build too many dream pictures of my boat. Now I’ve got to build a real one.

PUKA PUKA, October 7th, 1937
Old friend, keep a buzzard’s eye peeled for an essay by Robert Dean Frisbie called “Javan Moonlight on the Dawn.” It is part of my novel, Javan Moonlight, which is a wholly different kind of Book of Puka Puka. There is a story running through and it goes to 150,000 words — perfect continuity, biographical suspense, and a whale of a climax. The thing is too big for me; it has gotten out of hand. By the time I was halfway through I’d forgotten how it started. If only I could be sure that I’m on the right track this time! What is so discouraging is being alone here and having only old Heathen William for a critic.
I now have the full set of Marcel Proust and am reading him slowly, with infinite delight. My style is being affected by him, but whether for better or worse I can’t tell. He has taught me how to express difficult abstractions which formerly I avoided, and unusual ways of sentence-building. He is a constant revelation to me; or it may be Scott-Moncrieff, his translator and interpreter, who is teaching me.
A week ago Nga presented me with another daughter: Ngatokoruaimatauea (Nga-at-Matauea). We won’t address her by the full name in ordinary conversation. She was born at Matauea Point on Ko Islet. Nga and I were alone here, but I had arranged for old Heathen William to come over with the midwife to help me when the time came. Well, on the night of September 30 th her pains began, so I lit torches and signaled to the village, four miles away. Then I lay on the beach near our little house, thinking it would be twenty-four hours or so before anything happened. I was dozing off when Nga’s groans waked me. I rushed into the house, arriving about a minute before Ngatokoruaimatauea did. There was no hot water, no nothing; however, I managed to do all the necessary things. Now a week has passed and mot her and baby seem quite all right in spite of the lack of hospital, husbands’ room, obstetrician, nurses, anesthetics, blood tests, prenatal care, postnatal care, etc., etc. And no postnatal hospital, doctor’s, and nurses’ bills. Old William and the midwife arrived three hours too late. “Goddam, Ropati Cowboy! Whas a matter? You got pickaninny come too bloody soon!”
William didn’t explain the reason for the delay, but knowing how the Puka Puka mind works I can explain it myself. Imagine William asleep on the beach of the Village Island. He wakes up and sees the light of my signal torch. The dots that follow as William communes with himself represent intervals of from five to fifteen minutes.
“There’s a light on Ko. . . . Wonder who’s over there? . . . Maybe it’s Ropati Cowboy. . . . Maybe Nga is with him. . . . Oh, yes, I remember now: she is with him. . . . Wasn’t she going to have a baby? . . . Yes, that’s right. She was. . . . And Ropati asked me to bring the midwife over when I saw his signal. . . . I’ll go and find her.”
It would take as long for William to rouse the midwife as it did to rouse himself.
I have told you about how anxious we Puka Pukans are to see the ship when it is long overdue. Viggo’s or Andy’s schooner, after a six, seven, or eight, months absence, appears over the horizon. We see it approaching over the sea, empty for so long. It is in plain sight all the way. Now it is just beyond the reef, standing off and on, waiting for us. We are all gathered on the beach, some sitting, some standing, staring at the schooner. Not in astonishment: we haven’t reached that point. We see the ship, but we don’t know it’s there yet. Can you blame us? The sea has been empty for so long, and our minds work so slowly, that we have to wait until the idea, “Ship,” glimmers up and comes to focus on the surface of consciousness. Meanwhile the schooner is standing off and on, waiting for us. Viggo or Andy — whichever schooner it is — knows how it is with us, and is very patient.

PUKA PUKA, January 23rd, 1938
Andy is here with the Tagua. Everything is upside-down ashore. I have only a moment to write before the supercargo comes in here again, growling and snarling. Hall, Nga has tuberculosis and probably won’t live longer than a few months. What will I do if she dies? I have not heard from the Atlantic Monthly for a solid year.2 All my Moonlight manuscript has been lost. It must have been; otherwise I would have heard something about it. The price of copra has gone to the dogs and the store is to be closed. I was hoping to go to Aitutaki to start building my boat but that’s ended of course. I don’t know what’s to come. Nga has wasted away to nothing. If she dies I’ll be left alone with the children. And if I should die. ... I keep thinking about your Dream poem, “The Walk with Nancy.” That may happen to my little family

. . . left behind, alone and lost . . .

No time to write more.

7

ASK the reader’s indulgence for quoting the verses mentioned by Ropati in his letter of January 23rd, 1938. I do so because the poem played a strange part in Frisbie’s introspective nursings, some of them reflected in his letters. Had I known how it was going to affect him, I would never have sent it.

Our children made up about half the subject matter of our letters; Ropati boasted about his and I about mine. My two, Conrad and Nancy, were nine and five years old at the time the poem, “The Walk with Nancy,” was written. I had had a dream about Nancy, as vivid as it was distressing. The memory of it kept haunting me, and at last I tried to exorcise it by relating the dream in verse: —

We had been walking hand in hand.
Paradise itself, the land;
I had no thought, or care.
Nancy was singing, “Papio”;
Suddenly I seemed to know
She was no longer there.
I felt the chill of coming night;
Nowhere was the landscape bright;
The wind began to moan.
The road sloped steeply down, before;
Nancy’s song I heard no more —
I was there alone.
I could not halt. I tried, but no,
Faster yet I had to go
Down that forbidding hill;
And all the while I knew that she
Was trying to catch up with me,
Crying as children will
When left behind, alone and lost.
Countless stony fields I crossed;
I could not check my gait.
And then I heard, a. world away,
It seemed, from where I could not stay:
‘Daddy! Wait! Please wait!”
If ever heart was wrung to hear
The voice of one it loved most dear,
Helpless to reply,
My heart was wrung. If ever man
Tried all that strength and willing can
To halt, that man was I.
I could not even turn my head;
And then I knew that I was dead,
Or just about to be.
Oh, I have tasted bitterness.
I heard the voice grow less, and less,
Of Nancy, calling me.

Needless to say, I was deeply distressed by the news in Ropati’s last brief letter. In earlier letters he had never shown anxiety about Nga’s health, and his only mention of tuberculosis had been in connection with his own susceptibility to it.

I had to wait long for news. His next letter was dated September 20th, 1938, from Apia, Samoa. A British warship, H.M.S. Leith, had called at Puka Puka, and Ropati was given passage with Nga to Apia, where she was immediately placed in the Government hospital. Only one of the children, Jakey, went with them. The others were left with the mother’s relatives on Puka Puka. As usual, Ropati had practically no money. He had his U.S. veteran’s pension, reduced from $100 to $50 per month, to Jive on. He also had some Adjusted Service bonds which he cashed to help pay the hospital bills. But he was in a forlorn stale, both morally and financially. His earliest letters from Samoa were mere notes, scarcely more than bulletins about Nga s condition, but I could read between the lines and see how matters stood. For all that he tried to conceal it, heartsickness and desperation showed through, He had no friends in Samoa but formed various acquaintanceships. He mentioned with a kind of woeful humor how they made shift to eat. He listed the acquaintances, and he and Jakey would drop m on one or another of them about mealtime, taking care not to do this too often.

APIA, SAMOA, October 12th, 1938
After the long dry years on Puka Puka I went on a spree, got thrown into jail, and the next morning was fined one pound for inciting to riot. Worry about Nga was the real cause of it. Having done credit to the well-known reputation of the South Sea trader, I sobered up, have since remained sober, and shall continue sober.
Nga is now undergoing what is called a pneumothorax treatment, long, tedious, and painful, but often successful. Patients in even worse condition than Nga have been cured by it. The doctor reckons it will take about a year, but the latter part of that time she may be able to liv e outside of the hospital. I’ll be head over heels in debt, but what of it? I’ll do what Governments do — England, France, and the rest : borrow money with no intention of paying it back. I have telegraphed for my mail, which I have not received all this year. When and if it comes I may have a little money.
All plans for building my boat are bitched, of course. Not a hope now. I worked a solid year on six essays and all were turned down - even “Javan Moonlight on the Dawn.” I spent four months on that. However, I’ll get by. My main trouble is being so unutterably lonely. Isn’t it strange that I should love my wife after twelve years of married life? What would they think of me in the U.S.A.? In Hollywood? Above all, in Reno?

APIA, SAMOA, October 28th, 1938
I got all my mail, a nine-months collection. Not a cent, from any manuscript, and not one encouraging remark from anyone. I received eight government checks of fifty dollars each and promptly turned the whole works over to the Administration as a deposit, against Nga’s hospitalization and our “landing deposit,” so Jakey and I are without a bean and more or less living on charity. I’m afraid I’m a no-account fellow, Hall. Anyway, I’m a good hand at getting into tight places. But there’s some chance of Nga living, and it would be a poor man who would not sacrifice for his wife.

APIA, WESTERN SAMOA, November 4th, 1938
Do you mind if I talk about my boat? You are wrong in thinking that a boat is more expensive than travel by tramp steamer. The best you could hope for on the latter is $4 a day, plus personal expenses such as clothes, laundry, shore excursions, and so forth. Now, with a little boat such as I plan, for upkeep, sails, everything, $100 a month would be ample. I know. I have worked it out with great care. Moreover, when a man has no money to sail his boat he can always take it to such an island as Suvorov and lie low until his funds accumulate. He must paint her twice a year; there are no other necessary expenditures.
For my temperament, a little boat of about, twelve tons is the only thing on the face of this earth worth working for. Lord! When I start, on this subject I don’t want to stop. I’d like to write on and on; even writing about it gives me pleasure. There’s not a day that I don’t, literally, spend hours dreaming about my boat.3 I know how many nails are going into it. I know exactly how I will fit every block and eyebolt. I know where the priming needle for the galley stove will be kept.
Now, Hall-Tané, you ought to know me better than to suppose I might like to travel on tramp steamers. My boat is to be my home, but this home will have the advantage of mobility. When I am broke and in trouble I will simply up anchor and sail to Suvorov, or Canton Island, or Hull Island, or Marie Island. There I will hole-in for a long period, wait for hard times to pass and for a little money to accumulate. And when it has, I will “twitch my mantle blue” — I mean, my pareu — and it will be “Tomorrow to fresh fields and pastures new sea pastures, of course. You needn’t tell me that a tenor twelve-ton boat would provide pretty close quarters for me and the family, I know that; but we could manage while going from one island to another where I would make headquarters. Then I would leave the other members of the family behind and make a voyage with my beloved Whiskey Johnny; come back later and take one of the other kids.

8

DREAMING about the boat was a great resource to him at this time. He had nothing to do but wait until he could know whether his wife was to live or die. His visits to the hospital were necessarily brief because of her condition, and when there he could do little more than look at Nga; it was impossible to talk with her. He could not work, and the long days and nights had to be gotten through somehow. I gathered that the resolve to remain sober was not strictly adhered to, which is scarcely to be wondered at under the circumstances. He saw Vailima from the outside—the former home of Robert Louis Stevenson, now the home of the Resident Commissioner of Western Samoa. Inevitably, there were some sad and rather bitter reflections as he compared the circumstances of R.L.S., the tubercular but world-famous and affluent author, with those of R.D.F., author of so many rejected manuscripts, the penniless husband of a tubercular Puka Puka wife. He had not long to wait to learn what Nga’s fate was to be.

APIA, SAMOA, December 5th, 1938
Two weeks ago I was up in the mountains on a banana plantation, stopping with an ex-Navy man named Harrington. One night the hospital ambulance drove up to the door. The driver told me the chief medical officer wanted to see me at once. At the hospital I learned that something had gone wrong with the pneumothorax treatment. Nga was in a critical condition and might die at any moment. She is still in the same condition. The doctors are keeping her alive with strychnine and digitalis. I told them I thought it brutal; she is in continual pain and cannot sleep without morphine. She wants to die and knows there is no hope. One of the doctors replied that I seemed to want her to die. Yes,”I said; “that’s why I brought her here.”
There is a motor vessel going to Puka Puka and Nassau in a few days. I did my best to persuade the doctors to let me take Nga home in this ship. She wants to see the children before she dies. But they said no, she would probably die on the way to Puka Puka. I replied that that would not matter; she would certainly die if she remained in Apia. Then they got nasty and said she would remain in Apia as long as they wanted her to. So I will have to bury her in a strange port, among strangers.

Evidently the doctors relented, for Frisbie’s next letter was dated Puka Puka, January 30th, 1939.

I wrote you the 14th of this month — the day that Nga died. Since then there has been a period of stormy weather, so the schooner is still here. I have destroyed the first letter and can now write a saner one.

The night before her death she suffered terribly. We knew the end was near and talked about it. She asked me to be close to her when she died and to hold her in my arms for a little while afterward. It was a long night. Her hands and feel were growing cold and her heart barely fluttering.

In the morning her sister, Maloku, came. I sat on the floor with my back against one of the houseposts, with Nga in my arms, It was the same position we’d been in the year before when we were alone on Ko Islet and her last baby was born. We sent for the children and she cried when she saw them. She said she was too young to die. She wanted to live to see them grown up.

Then I sent the children away. In a little while her heart fluttered — I could feel it under my hand — there was a convulsive shudder, her breathing stopped and she relaxed in my arms. She breathed once more, a little sigh of relief, and that was the end. I told Maloku to be quiet so as not to attract the attention of the neighbors; then I held her for half an hour as she had asked me to. I closed her eyes and lips, bathed and dressed her, and kissed her good-bye. The children were sent for again, and the relatives. They took Nga away and I did not see her again.

I was only half conscious that she had really gone. The truth came home to me after the burial when I took the children away from the grave. I can find a healthy peace now in visualizing myself dead and in a coffin, lying beside Nga. It is a healthy peace because, when imagining one’s self dead, there is the live personality standing at one’s side, observing. He sees the dead body of himself, and because he sees it there, it must be something apart from the observer. This, of course, is casuistry, but it brings me peace nevertheless. I say to myself: If I am not truly able to imagine myself dead, then there can be no death for me; and if there is none for me there is none for Nga. Here I block further thought, feeling that if I carry the argument further its falseness will become evident and peace will be lost.

Yesterday I went to the grave with the children. It was so clean and pretty, like the island itself, covered with white coral gravel and bordered with white coral stones. Johnny brought one of her toy lead horses, made a little hole in the sand, put the horse there and neatly covered it over. She wanted to leave it with Mama; it was her own idea. We sat there for a while, talking about Mama. When we left, the children called back to her, “.You akalelei — Sleep prettily,” and Johnny reminded her to take good care of the horse.

I try to plan for the future. I think of my boat and a home on Suvorov Island — just myself and the children. What a fool a man can be! Twenty years of writing wit bout success, the one romance of my life ended, and my children

. . . trying to catch up with me,
Crying as children will
When left behind, alone and lost . . .

I hope I am not pitying myself. But I worry about them and what will become of them if anything happens to me. Excuse this painful letter. I felt the need of speaking to someone and so I have picked on you.

(To be continued)

  1. It was later revised, and published by the Atlantic Monthly Press in 1937 under the title My Tahiti.
  2. The Atlantic had been in steady touch with Frisbie’s literary agent in New York, but Frisbie’s address at this time was unknown to ns both. His new book, My Tahiti, was published under the Atlantic imprint in September, 1937, and its total sale of 2200 copies, which yielded the author $505.80, was disappointing to all concerned. We were further disappointed in I lie flaws so evident in his new manuscript, “Javan Moonlight.” In my letter of rejection, I wrote to the agent: —
  3. “it is my reluctant conclusion that the book has serious shortcomings. In the first place, Frisbie is playing with loaded dice — by which I mean that most of the people in it are flat, onenote characters. This is not true of Javan, nor of William, nor of Mama. But the Europeans are types, so full of irritability that they read like caricatures rather than flesh and blood. Secondly, Frisbie has allowed himself in this work a garrulity which does not belong in his work. I have worked over his pages in an effort to eliminate some of the verboseness, but it is a strain which has permeated almost every paragraph and in the last analysis I have had to conclude that one must accept the material as is, or not at all. I wish I did not have to send you this decision.”
  4. — E.W.
  5. The Atlantic had applied for a Guggenheim Traveling Fellowship for Frisbie in the spring of 1937, having, of course, the boat in mind, but the application was turned down. — E.W.