My Island Home
JAMES NORMAN HALL., who died in Tahiti on July 6, 1951, came close to achieving his heart’s desire. Born in Iowa and brought up in circumstances so modest that he had to work his wav through high school and college, he early acquired a wanderlust and the irrepressible urge to write. Though his poems and essays were rejected with grim monotony, he kept plugging away. Four years of social work in Boston brought him close to Thoreau and the Concord worthies, but it was his service in the First World War, first as a machine gunner in the British Army, then as an Ace in the Lafayette Flying Corps. that at last gave him the source material for the best of his early poems and his first two books, Kitchener’s Mob and High Adventure. The most audacious flyer in Rickenbacker’s squadron, Hall was shot down over the German lines; on his return from prison camp, he met in Paris the man who was to play the most decisive part in his literary life. Charles Nordhoff.
by JAMES NORMAN HALL
THOSE who were in France shortly after the Armistice of 1918 will never forget the universal feeling of blessedness — there is no other word for it — prevailing then. Bitterness, sorrow, even mourning for the millions death seemed to have been put aside — for the moment, at least. I doubt whether, in all European history, there had ever before been a time when t he hearts of men were so filled with serene hope for the future; and I believe this was true not only in Paris but also throughout the Western world. The war that was to end war had run its appalling length. Now time was standing still as though to give mankind a dateless period for remembrance, reflection, and preparation for the new world to come. And everyone — all common folk at least. — believed that the opportunity could not and would not be lost; that they would see the new world beginning to emerge from the ruins of the old: one in which oncoming generations were to be freed forever from the threat, or even the thought, of war.
That was a happy time, if ever there has been one in human history. I sauntered through the streets of Paris, flooded with the mellow sunshine of late November, watching the crowds and looking at the German cannon ranged along the Champs Elysées and around the Place de la Concorde. Those monsters, fantastically camouflaged, were silent and harmless now. Children slid down the long barrels or perched on the muzzles, peering into the cavernous throats, and their elders looked on with a happy, wondering expression upon their faces. One would have said that word had been received and spread abroad that the three-headed dragon of greed, haired, revenge, which had preyed upon nations since the dawn of history, was to be at last driven into outer darkness forever.
As luck would have it, when I reported at U.S. Aviation Headquarters on the Avenue Montaigne, I was assigned to temporary duty there. My assignment had been arranged for by Dr. Gros. He wished records to be collected for a history of the Escadrille Lafayette and the Lafayette Flying Corps, and rightly decided that the time for assembling the material was immediately, while the members of the Corps were still in France.
“I have arranged for another man to work with you on this L.F.C. History,” Dr. Gros said. “Charles Nordhoff, of California. You two will be the editors of the History and Edgar Hamilton will be your associate editor.”
A day or two later, Dr. Gros introduced me to Nordhofl, a tall, blond-haired, blue-eyed man who stood so straight that he gave the impression of leaning slightly over backward. Naturally, the memory of his experience after his transfer from French to American Aviation, whoa he had been taken from the front and assigned to a desk job, still rankled with him, and this may be why my first, impression of him was unfavorable, He shook hands with me in a coldly punctilious manner, and I was thinking: “Lord! How am I to work with this man?”
We made little progress toward friendship in our first conversations. The fact that I was from Iowa was anything but in my favor with Nordhoff, although his only comment when he learned this was that his state, California, was “lousy with Iowans,”Later we had some rat her heated arguments about this. Iowans were rootless people in his estimation: thev didn’t belong anywhere, least of all in California. Naturally, I stuck up for my own people.
This was a rather odd beginning of a friendship which was to remain firm and unbroken for a period of twenty-eight years — from that winter, in Faris, until Nordhoff’s death in Santa Barbara, in the spring of 1947. After a day or two we agreed to lay aside the Iowa-versus-California dispute and get on with our work. Neit her of us knew anything about writing a history. I supposed that Nordhofl did, since he had been attached to the Historical Section of the U.S.A.S., but he told me that all he had done there was to remove split infinitives from gov ernment: reports.
I was fascinated by NordhofT’s accounts of his boyhood, most of which was passed on a ranch owned by his father, in Lower California, a wild, lonely place that stretched for miles along the coast below Ensenada. NordhofT came from adventurous blood on his father’s side. His grandfather, for whom he was named, had been a contemporary of Herman Melville, and during his boyhood and youth lived a life that paralleled Melvile’s. In 1845, at the age of fifteen, he joined the U.S. Navy as a cabin boy on a 74-gun ship bound for China and t he East Indies; and for the next nine years he was continually at sea in men-of-war, whalers, and merchant vessels, most of the time in the Pacific.
NordhofT was a delightful companion. Once I got. to know him my liking for him increased daily. I had never before met a man who had a wider siore of information upon so many unrelated subjects. I discovered later that some of it. was misinformat ion, but he spoke upon whatever subject with such an air of authority that one was ready to believe whatever he said. He loved to exaggerate, to astonish people by making extravagant statements with the gravest air, but it was all a kind of game with him. lie was often surprised — shocked, rather — that he got away with so many of them. But in ihe field of natural history he was deeply learned, particularly about game birds, their habits, haunts, migrations, and the like. He loved wild birds far better than people, He told me that bis father had given him the best possible education as a youngster — that is, no education at. all except what be had been able t.o pick up for himself on the lonely ranch in Lower California. He had not learned to read and write until he was twelve. At least, so he insisted; but this may have been one of his exaggerations that he held fast to until he believed it himself.
One thing that, brought us together quickly was the dream we held in common: to visit the South Seas. Many an evening we spent discussing this possibility.
“Why shouldn’t we go as soon as we are demobilized? Nordhoff said. “W’ll both be at loose ends. W e are not married and have no jobs to return to.”
And so that was agreed upon. Neither of us would make any new commitments. As soon as we had finished the Lafayelte Corps History that dream was to become a reality. Nordhoff’s desire to visit the islands of the tropical Pacific had, I think, been aroused by his grandfat her’s voyages. I didn t tell him that mine had been stirred by Matthew Arnold. Instead, I told him — which was true — of the unforgettable impression Melville’s Typee had made upon me when I first read it, in boyhood.
Nordhofl’, Hamilton, and I worked hard collecting our historical material. By the end of February, 1919, we had most of it in hand, and Nordhoff and I received our travel orders to return home.
HAVING been born in the horse-and-buggy era, with my roots deep down in the soil of the conservative Middle West, I seem to have taken it for granted that, life as I knew it in boyhood and youth would continue indefinitely. But upon my return home in early March, 1919, I became increasingly aware of the vast changes in the spirit of American life that had taken place during ihe brief time that I bad been away from it. “Things were in the saddle” in a sense that Emerson could not have dreamed of. Boosters and so-called forward-lookers were on the scene in such numbers that one was scarcely aware of any other kinds of people. They were preaching, exhorting, and prophesying with such confidence in their vision of the world of Tomorrow that I felt troubled and uneasy, for my attitude toward these forward-lookers was one of comfilete disapproval.
I felt, that we had taken a wrong turning somewhere, not realizing that it was an inevitable turning. In my ignorance I vented my bitterness against the whole of our Industrial Civilization, and my particular spleen upon machines with internal-combustion engines, inconsistently excepting those with wings. I deplored the vast changes that motorcars were making in the tempo of life. The good roads they demanded, slashed through the green hills and graded up over the valleys, were not my kind of good roads. I loathed them. In the twenties, of course, they were ghastly livid wounds in the fair green country which Nature would eventually heal and make beautiful, after a fashion, but I saw them only as they were then. I am not defending my reactionary point of view toward motorcars and other material elements in our rapidly changing life; it doesn’t make sense from any rational point of view. I am merely stating how it was with me. Most people, I believe, love change and can move with the times at whatever tremendous acceleration of speed. It was, and still is, impossible for me to do so. I love change only in its aspect of slow and cautious advancement and slow and imperceptible decay. And I dislike change in manners, customs, and habits of thought as much as I do in material aspects. This, I believe, is the principal reason why I have made my home on the island of Tahiti, a mere crumb of land in the middle of the Pacific, during the past thirty years. Change there has been here, of course, particularly since the end of World War II; but it is nothing compared with what has taken place elsewhere in the world; and such as it is, one is given a certain amount ol time to get accustomed to it.
Our L.F.C. History was finished in the early autumn of 1919. The manuscript with all the illustrative material filled two suitcases. We carried these to Ferris Greenslct at the offices of Houghton Mifflin Company, and then went to see Mr. Sedgwick of the Atlantic about our proposed South Seas venture. We hoped to get a commission from some magazine to write a series of articles about the islands of the South Pacific which would at least pay our expenses while there.
The Atlantic no longer used travel articles, but Mr. Sedgwick gave us a letter to his friend, Mr. Thomas A ells, who had recently become editor ol Harper’s Magazine, and we had clear sailing from that moment. Mr. Wells said that he would be glad to have some travel articles about the South Seas. Some would be printed in the magazine and the series as a whole collected for publication in a book.
ORDHOFF and I came within view of Tahiti and its neighboring island, Moorea, on a clear, windless February morning in 1920. I well remember our happiness on that occasion. World War I was behind us, and the thoughts of it sunk far down in the depths of memory — as deep as they would go. We still had the better part of our lives before us and were now as free as birds; or, if not quite that, as free as most young men can ever expect to be. And here, before and around us, were all of these lonely islands to explore: the Society Islands, the Australs, the Low Archipelago, the Cooks, the Gambiers, the Marquesas.
Stevenson said that one’s first tropical island landfall touches a virginity of sense. So it does — and, fortunately, the tenth or the fifteenth. The purity of perception is not lost by repetition of the experience. There is a magic about these islands that is time-defying; that loses nothing of its power however long continued one’s association with them may be.
Ever since boyhood the mere name, “island,”has had a peculiar fascination for me. An inland birth was, doubtless, partly responsible for that; islands were far to seek on the prairies of Iowa, and yet they could be found, of a sort. A mudbank in the sluggish midstream of a prairie slough was enough; and if at the season of the spring rains I found one larger, with a tree or two, the roots undermined by the current, leaning across it, I asked nothing better than to halt there and moor my flat-bottomed skil’ to the roots of one of the trees. Try as I would, though, I could not. imagine the sea
— any sea. The fact I hat the eart h is three-quarters water was not a fact to me. Neither the evidence furnished by maps in school geographies nor the assurance of my elders convinced me; or, if I believed, it was only with the surface of my mind. Within was a solid core of doubt.
Until one wintry afternoon — it must have been around my tenth or eleventh year: a memorable day that stands out with the entrancing roundness and clearness of objects seen through the stereoscopic glasses our parents used to keep with the knickknacks on the parlor table. I remember the very weather of it: the fine dry snow filling the wagon tracks in the frozen mud, sifting lightly along the board sidewalks, piling in drifts along the fronts of the store buildings, adding little by little to the gravness of a gray world. I was on my way to Mrs. Sigafoos’ shop.
She kept a small “stationery and notions” store not far from the railway station. There was a small back room, concealed from the shop by a curtain, where she kept her surplus stock of “notions,” and delightful notions they were: boxes of marbles, valentines, firecrackers left over from last Fourth of July, Crokinole boards, games such as Authors and Lotto; chocolate creams, cone-shaped, with a flavor that has since been lost by makers of confectionery — at least I have never been able to find it again; colored pencils and crayons, tracing slates with pictures to go with them. The place was heaven to a ten-year-old, and I had the freedom of it, being Mrs. Sigafoos’ newspaper-delivery boy, on the understanding that I would put everything back just as I found it. And back everything went except an occasional misplaced chocolate cream.
Airs. Sigafoos also had a shelf of books: boys’ books such as Cudjo’s Cave, Lost River, and editions of the Henty and Alger books, all of which I read, taking great care not to soil them. There were also padded-leather editions of the poets: Bryant, Whittier, Longfellow, and Lowell, for birthday and graduation gifts, and several copies of Will Carleton’s Farm Ballads and Farm Legends, illustrated.
There was another book on the shell. I had noticed it before, but, somehow, it had failed to arouse my interest: Typee, by Herman Melville. It may have been the strange title that threw me off. On this afternoon I was tempted to take it down and open it.
Six months at sea! Yes, reader, as I live, six months out of sight of land; cruising after the spermwhale beneath the scorching sun of the Line, and tossed on the billows of the wide-rolling Pacific — the sky above, the sea around, and nothing else!
Who does not remember some day in boyhood, such as this one of mine, preserved, fragrant, and memorable, between the covers of a book? Typee has my day safely hidden among its pages. There was a quality approaching the ideal in my experience; indeed, I cannot, imagine anything lacking that might have made it more so. It was my first authentic entrance, in literature, to the world of islands; and what more fitting vantage-point or vantage-time could I have had for the experience than the back room of Mrs. Sigafoo’ shop, in a little farming town on the prairies on the afternoon of a snowy winter day? For the first time I believed in the sea — emotionally, I mean. That opening paragraph spread it out before me as something not to be questioned, like the sea of land rolling away to the horizons that bounded my home town. But, as I followed Melville across it, in the imagination, to Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas Islands, I little realized that the first gossamerlike th read of Chance was being spun which was to take me to the South Pacific with my friend Nordhoff so many years later.
AHITI thirty years ago — to say nothing of other remote islands, both east and west in the Pacific — was a far different place from what it is today. Only the tips of the oct.opuslike tentacles of Western civilization, as we know it now, had reached this far into the Pacific, and the effect of them was scarcely felt. The character of the life was very much what it had boon in the seventies and the eighties of the last century. There were, to be sure, a few motorcars, but not so many but what I could pretend not to see them.
Nordhoff and I could not, of course, begin writing our articles for Harper’s immediately. We had to know something about ihe islands and the life of their people before selling pens to paper; and so followed a period of loafing and observing that was entirely to my taste. Nordhoff loved fishing and made trips out to sea with the native boys who fished for the Papeete market. I made excursions into the valleys and up the mountains, where no one lives, and at times prowled the streets of Papeete by day and by night.
Nordhoff had a practical, matter-of-fact, mind, while I had — and still have to Ibis day— that of a woodshed poet. 1 proposed making a bicycle trip around the island, but Nordhoff didn’t want to come with me. He liked Papeete and his offshore fishing excursions. Furthermore, the Bougainville Club was the rendezvous for schooner captains, pearl buyers, traders, and the like, and their company was well worth cultivating. So it was decided that, while he remained in town, I would take ray bicycle trip around the island, hobnobbing with the country people. I had seen enough of the islanders to be certain that a more friendly, hospitable people could not be found anywhere, and that I would have no difficulty in finding places to put up for the night.
At that time Tahiti’s one round-the-island road was little more 1 han a grass-grown cart-track for the greater part of it, and on the far side of the island none of the rivers were bridged. But. the streams were not deep and could easily be waded with my bicycle carried on ray shoulder, I set out in a westerly direction and before I had gone far I found that my feet were making revolutions in time to the following words: —
Everything a home should be . . .
Another poem on the way! I halted to make a note of the lines but I didn’t, finish it. then. It was years later, in fact not until May, 1041, that I published this poem in full in t he Atlantic.
Upon my return to Papeete, Nordhoff and I began discussing ways and means of working on our Harper book, which was to be called Faery Lands of the South Seas. Wo finally decided upon the following plan: we would separate, Nordhoff going to the Cook Islands, and I to voyage among the lagoon islands of the Low Archipelago. I was to begin the story of our wanderings and to carry the thread of it throughout. Nordhoff’s contributions were to he in the form of letters to me. A more clumsy device could scarcely have been hit upon, but it was the only one we could think of at that time, having had so little practice in collaboration. I will say no more of Faery Lands except, that the book, when published, stayed in print, greatly to our surprise, for a good ten years; we more than canceled our debt to Harper. I laving completed that task, it. did not occur to us, strangely enough, to continue writing together, nor did we collaborate again until 1927 when we joined forces in writing our book for boys, Falcons of France. Nordhoff wanted to write a novel, so I wandered widely throughout eastern Polynesia on copra schooners, Low Island cutters, and oher small craft.
I continued my sea wanderings through 1920, 1921, and to the spring of ‘22: Conrad’s “enchanted Heyst ” could have been no more enamored of islands and island life than was the woodshed poet. Then, strangely enough, I became conscious of a longing for the North. Memories of my boyhood dreams of the Arelic Cirele came back to me. I was in the Marquesas Islands at that time, traveling on a copra schooner which made the full circuit of the principal islands, putting in at bays and coves to pick up whatever cargo the people had ready for it. This was my first voyage to the Marquesas, and I was, indeed, enchanted with their beauty. Their present-day life is a mere shadow of what it was a century and a half ago; there are no more ihan 1500 people in the entire archipelago. So I let my imagination take me back to the time when their inhabitants had had only the slightest, contact with the outside world.
The loneliness, the emptiness, of most Marquesan vallevs, in such contrast to wliat they had been before white men deslroved the life of their people, made a deep and melancholy impression upon me. This may have been, in part, responsible for my sudden yearning to leave the islands — fur a time, at least.
Upon returning to Tahiti I found Nordhoff hard at work on a novel, f urthermore, he was married to a lovely island girl, half Danish, hall Tahitian. I told him of my plan for a trip to Iceland, He thought I was crazy but made no attempt to dissuade me from it. Shortly alterward I. set out for mv destination via San Francisco, New York, Copenhagen, and the Faroe Islands. I loved Iceland from the niomenl I set foot in the country, and had it been possible I would have been commuting between Iceland and the South Seas these past, thirty years.
BACK in Papeete again, I took lodgings at the Aina Pare, the little hotel on the waterfront where Nordhoff and I had lived upon first coming to the island: I made it my headquarters until 1955 when I married Sarah Winchester and at last had a home of my own.
“Aina Pure” means “Parc’s Retreat,” and the Pare who retreated there, owner and proprietor of ihe hotel, was the only son of Fovaina Gooding, who, until her death in the great influenza epidemic of 1918, which destroyed 50 per cent of Tahiti s population, had been proprietress of the Hotel Tiare. Lovaina was famous throughout the Pacific, from San Francisco to Shanghai, to Tokyo, to Singapore, to Sydney, to Auckland and Wellington, New Zealand; and her son, Pare, was fully as much a character as his mother. Although he was always short of money, he never seemed to care whether he had guests or not; and even when he might have had them he sometimes turned them away because he didn’t like their looks at first glance. I heard him say, on more than one occasion, to a prospective guesl, “I’m sorry, but I have no rooms vacant,” even though he might have half a dozen ready and waiting for guests.
He was in his late twenties when I first knew him. His brown hair was fast thinning out and his belly adding contour to contour so that rolls of fat overlapped his waist cloth, which was his usual wear at home. He had a high feminine voice, and his laugh was a kind of giggle rising in pitch until almost beyond the range of hearing. IIis mother tongue was Tahitian, but bespoke French well and English after a fashion.
The Aina Pare was not w hat would be called a first-class hotel, but Nordhoff and I thought it was just w hat it should be fo’Tahiti. The old brass beds were lumpy and the mosquito nets around them were masses of puckers where the holes in them had been mended. The other bedroom furniture consisted of washstands equipped with china bowls and pitchers dating back to t he seventies and eighties of the last century, with tin buckets, for slops, beside them. There were a few well-worn chairs and sofas upholstered in faded red and green plush belonging to the same era. He had inherited them from his mother together with some paintings in tarnished gilt frames in ihe romantic style of the last century: “The Stag at Eve,” “The Vicar’s Garden Parly,.The Tryst at Twilight,” and the like. The hotel was a two-story building with verandas on both floors, and so riddled with termites that little more than the paint was holding it together. Many a time when going gingerly up or down ihe stairway I expected the hotel to collapse gently, and to find myself half buried in a heap of wood dust on the ground floor.
The great attraction of the hotel was the view from the upstairs veranda, overlooking the lagoon and the open sea beyond, with the island of Moorea in the background at a distance of twelve miles.
I would not venture to say how many hours, and days, and weeks I have spent, all told, merely looking at that glorious panorama of lagoon and sea and sky, with the mountains of Moorea in the distance, so beautiful at any time of day, and particularly in the early morning, or at evening when the sun had just vanished behind the mountains.
I remember how, on the night of my return from Iceland, I went to the kitchen in the darkness for a glass— there was none in my room —and nearly broke my leg because of a broken board in the bridge connecting the kitchen annex with the back veranda. I spoke to Pare about this the following morning, and he replied, “Why, don’t you remember that hole?” with an air of both surprise and reproach. I realized then that the fault was not his for not having had the place repaired, but mine for not having remembered, during nearly a year’s absence, that the hole was there.
After our first joint venture in Tahiti, Nordhofl’ and I had gone our separate ways. By the year 1959 we knew that we were not making much progress toward our hoped-for literary careers. We had collaborated in writing Faery Lands of the South Seas, which was published successfully by Harper in 1921. Then Nordholf wrote a novel, Pica.ro, also for Harper, which was stillborn, like two volumes of essays and sketches that Houghton Mifflin Company had published for me. I have Ferris Greenslet to thank for the fact that they at least saw the light of print, but I doubt whether either of them paid the cost of publication. Then, at Ellery Sedgwick’s suggestion, Nordholf wrote two boy’ books, The Pearl Lagoon and The Derelict—published by the Atlantic Monthly Press — which sold well and are still in print. In the meantime, the Atlantic Monthly Press had amalgamated with Little, Brown and Company.
Nordholf and I had done no collaborating since the Faery Lands volume. But, after the publication of his two boy’ books, he wanted to carry his young hero, Charles Selden, of those tales, through another series of adventures during World War I He wanted to make him a pilot in the Lafayette Flying Corps, and he asked if I would collaborate with him on this tale. I was glad to do it, and so we wrote Falcons of France, published by the Atlantic—Little, Brown Press.
After we had written Falcons of France, Nordholf said: “Why don’t we go on writing together? Two heads are better than one, and neither of us seems to be making much progress writing alone.” I was more than willing, so we began searching around for a story that both of us would be interested in. Nordhoff suggested that we might continue his boy, Charles Selden: bring him back to the South Seas after the war and put him through another series of adventures, concerning a hurricane, perhaps. But I was not greatly interested in boys’ books, although publishers had told us that a good boys’ book was like an investment in government bonds, bringing in small but steady returns, sometimes over a period of many years.
One day I said to Nordholf, “Have you ever heard of the Bounty mutiny?
“Of course,” he replied. “Who hasn’t, who knows anything about the South Seas?”
“Well, what about that for a story?”
Nordholf shook his head. “Someone must have writ ten it long since.”
“I doubt it,” 1 replied. “The only book I have seen is Sir John Barrow’s factual account of the mutiny. Barrow was Secretary of the British Admiralty at that time. His book was published in 1831.”
I saw in my friend’s eyes a Nordhoffian glow and sparkle which meant that his interest was being aroused. “By the Lord, Hall!’ he said. “Maybe we’ve got something there! I wish we could get hold of a copy of Barrow ‘s book.
“I have it,” I replied. “I bought it in Paris during the war.”
The result was that Xordholf took the book home to read and the next day he was back, and he was in what I can only call a “dither” of excitement. “Hall, what a story! A hat a story!” he said, as he walked up and down my veranda.
“It’s three stories,”I replied. “First, the tale of the mutiny; then Bligh’s open-boat voyage; and the third, the adventures of Fletcher Christian and the mutineers who went with him to Pitcairn Island, together with the Tahitian men and women who accompanied them. It’s a natural for historical fiction. Who could possibly invent a better story? And it has the merit of being true.”
“You’re right, it is a natural,” said Nordholf, “but . . .” He shook his head glumly. “It must have been written long since. It’s incredible that such a tale should have been waiting a century and a half for someone to see its possibilities.”
Nevertheless, after having made ihe widest inquiries and the most painstaking researches, the only book we discovered concerned with the Bounty mutiny — outside of Bligh’s own narrative. Sir John Barrow’s account, and others written by British seamen such as Captain Staines and Pipon who had written of Pitcairn after the discovery of Christian’s refuge by Captain Folger, in 1808 — was a tale called Aleck, the Last of the Mutineers, or, The History of Pitcairn Island, published anonymously by J. S. & C. Adams, at Amherst, Massachusetts, in 1845. This book was designed for young readers, and was made up of a compilation, culled from other books, of the facts then known about the Bounty mutiny.
I will not go into a detailed account of our collection of source material, although it was a matter that interested us tremendously, and that interest was fully shared by Ellery Sedgwick of the Atlantic. Mr. Sedgwick again proved himself the staunch friend he has always been to the pair of us. He found for us in London a retired British naval officer. Captain Truefell, whose help was beyond price. Captain Truefell had an exact model made of the Bounty, and he sent to us, via Mr. Sedgwick, blueprints of her deck plans, her sail-and-rigging plans, so that we became thoroughly familiar with the ship. Not only this: we received photostat copies of all the old Admiralty records concerning the Bounty and her voyage, and of the court-martial proceedings which, at that time, had never been printed, although t hey were later. We had boxes and bales of the old records, and the interest and pleasure with which we sorted and read them can easily be imagined.
Although we saw, from the beginning, what a superb trilogy the Bounty story would make, we could not assume that the general public would take the interest in it that, we did; so our plan was, first, to write a tale concerned with Bligh’s voyage to Tahiti, the collection there of the breadfruit trees, and the mutiny that followed on the homeward voyage, with just enough about Bligh s open-boat voyage and the later experiences of Christian and his men on Pitcairn to make an intelligible story of the whole Bounty aflair in ease only one book w as called for. lint we hoped, of course, that there would be enough public interest in the story to warrant our going on with the two additional books we had planned: Men Ayainst the Sea and Pitcairn’s Island. The Mutiny in fact met with a surprising response and we went on to complete the trilogy.
JNOUUHOFF was the best of friends and companions; and on a crumb of land in the backwaters of the Pacific, companionship of the right kind is more than ever precious. Although we were in almost daily contact over a period of I wenty ears we never seemed to gel talked out. Any kind of conversational mailer would do to start with; from there we would go on as chance or inclination directed, and the hours would pass like minutes. I should like to reproduce here the record of one of our talks that 1 made back in the late twen ties when we were both married and had children and homes of our own. h gives a better picture of Nordhoff — one of the various Nordhoffs—than I could hope to do now. Of course, the actual conversation was more colloquial than the words I have written but the substance is the same. I had been off in the hills, and when I got home I found Xordhoff wailing for me on my veranda.
N I suppose vou have been rambling in the hills all day?
II. Yes. I went far up the Haapape plateau to the highest point you can jusi make out from the road. From there you can see Mount Orofena from base to peak. It is the most beautiful spot on all Tahiti, and except for myself and a few natives who pass that wav to gather fei, no one goes there from one year’s end to another.
X. How wide a view do you have from that point? H. You should visit the place for yourself, sometime. Xow and then I can make out your boat, and although you are miles offshore, you seem to be creeping along just beyond I he barrier reef.
I see the rotundity of the earth. In the imagination I visit hundreds of islands scattered over the downward slopes of the Pacific.
X. How do you occupy your time on these all-day excursions? What do you think about?
II. For a part of the time, of nothing at all. I have acquired the habit of reverie. J can sit fora half hour, even longer, lost in what I can only call a dreamless dream —a waking trance that seems as deep as the sky itself. What passes over the surface of consciousness disturbs it no more than cloud reflections stir the depths of the lagoons. It is sensibility lying somewhere between that of animals and vegetables.
N. Has it ever occurred to you that the habit of reverie might be a dangerous one to cultivate? hven on an island in the mid-Pacifir you must keep some contact with a workaday world, ‘ton have your living to earn. The worst possible preparation for that, it seems to me, is to sit on the slope of a mountain dreaming dreamless dreams.
H. Dangerous.“ On the contrary. Should a man keep his mental faculties at the stretch through all of his waking hours? I don’t believe it. The Polynesians hav e taught me bet ter. That people in the so-called civilized countries do so is one reason, I think, why our insane asylums and those for other kinds of mental disorders are always filled to overflowing. The time is coming, I believe, when men will turn back to a simpler, ampler, more wholesome way of living.
They will not fear to do some vegetating. They will seek wisdom from Henry Thoreau rather than from Henry Ford, and will refuse to be cheated longer of leisure, the most precious of all gifts.
N. Leisure? How many people want it? Thousands who might have il refuse to accept it on any terms. They travel frantically from one place 1o another, from one distraction to another, from one war to another, in order to escape this boon. Some have more than is good for them, and so they cultivate the habit of reverie.
II. I am not alone in thinking it worth cultivating. Let me read you a passage from an article written by a hardheaded professor of economics. How, he asks, is a man to bring peace and order into his own life, however chaotic the spiritual and social conditions around him may be? This is one of the suggestions; —
Ami one tiling more let him learn: to be still — to sit or walk alone, say, an occasional hallhour, not thinking, not reading, with mind and body as quiet as he can make them. Let. him practice this stillness, persevering (for this is difficult) night and morning, until lie have its secret. And all for tfie sake of the adventure, to see what would come of it, with no guarantee that anything would come of it except boredom,
N. And boredom is all that would come of il, in ninety cases out of a hundred.
IL Men need to discover themselves, to learn as nearly as may be who and what they really are; not what others think of them. Nothing could be better as a preparation than to learn to sit quietly, the mind fallow, the habitual nervous tension relaxed,
N. How many men want to discover themselves? We already know too much to wish to make furl her explorat ions.
H. The trouble is that we know too little: that is why we think so meanly of ourselves.
N. You truly believe that?
H. I believe that most men are fundamentally decent, honorable, lexers of good and haters of evil, but they don’t give themselves a chance to discover this. They accept, as though it were inexorable law, the old doctrine of Original Sin, as though God Himself had planted it in our hearts. If we go deeply enough . . .
N. Into mysticism, I suppose?
H. Well, even the physicists and the astronomers are beginning to acknowledge the necessity for mysticism. It surprises me that they have been so long in making the discovery. it is a pity that there are no secular establishments where the harassed and distracted Protestant man of our day may go into retreat, as the Catholics do. He might learn there how best to meet the soulkilling conditions under which most men have to live. If I had a fortune I would found such houses, and they would be free to all who cared to use them.
N. You would have plenty of applicants for free board and lodging, but none for spiritual refreshment. . . . But to come back to Tahiti—is that why you stay on here, year after year? Because you love solitude so much?
II. One doesn’t have to come as far as this to find solitude. I love a circumscribed world, small enough to be comprehended in a glance, so to speak, and yet large enough to offer a certain amount of variety. And I like isolation made tangible by thousands of miles of ocean stretching away on every side. Here I have become more and more aware of the “uncovenanted society” that Mr. Santayana speaks of in one of his essays. Wait —let me find the passage; it concludes an essay called “Cross Lights.”
There is an unconvcnanted society of spirits like that of the morning stars singing together, or of all the larks at once in the sky; it is a happy accident of freedom and a conspiracy of solitudes. When people talk together, they are at once entangled in a mesh of instrumentalities, irrelevance, misunderstanding, vanity and propaganda; and all to no purpose, for why should creatures become alike who are different? But when minds, being naturally akin and each alone in its heaven, soliloquize in harmony, saying compatible tilings only because their hearts are similar, then society is friendship in the spirit; and the unison of many thoughts twinkles happily in the night across the void of separation.
N. You arc always quoting Santayana, and I am conscious of a feeling of irritation whenever you do. He lacks robustness. Don’t you feel that, yourself? I wish he would break out, once in a while, in a bit of good, wholesome, earthy vulgarity.
H. If that is wanted, there are writers and to spare where it may be found. But what do you think of the idea expressed here?
N. That sort of companionship is too et hereal for my taste. I prefer actual companionship, t he presence in the flesh of other men I can see and hear and touch with my physical senses; men who emit their forces of attraction and repulsion as I do mine. The communion of spirit with spirit across a void of separation—you can have it. Give me two or three companions around a (able with a bottle of Scotch before them, or several bottles of good wine. What if we do become somewhat entangled in a mesh of vanity and propaganda? That is because we are human. Conversation will only crackle and sparkle the more. Don’t you agree?
H. Of course. I thoroughly enjoy such conversations, but they are on a different plane from those Mr. Santayana has in mind here. Both kinds are desirable.
N. Give me my kind for a steady diet.
H. And yet, how many times I have heard you say that you like your friends better at a distance, and that you enjoy their companionship most when you see them least. Have your actual friends ever brought you the pleasure you find through books or music? I doubt it. They disappoint you and you them. You don’t have only the best parts of them when they are with you. That is why friendship in the spirit is so often to be preferred to such friendship in the flesh as chance puts in one’s way. Chance distributes its favors with such a lack of discrimination. In the matter of friendships, more than likely the ones you receive are not at all the ones you should have had, or would have chosen for yourself. Therefore, one falls back gladly, of necessity, upon this uncovenanted society.
N. But you needn’t have come all the way to Tahiti to enjoy its privileges. You might have done that just as well in the U.S.A.
H. Perhaps . . . but w hat, of yourself? If you so greatly enjoy friends within reaching distance, why do you live in a place where there is so lit tie choice?
N. The matter of friendship has nothing to do with it. A man will, usually, find a few congenial souls wherever he goes. I live here because I like a tropical climate, fishing in tropical waters, and going to seed slowly and pleasantly.
H. T on think one does go to seed here?
N. I know it. Consider our own cases as examples: we are neither of us anything like as alert, mentally, as we were only a few years back. We used to have quite interesting conversations — do you remember.’ We discussed everything under the sun and agreed upon nothing. Now, when we have a difference of opinion it is usually only a temporary one. We dislike the mental effort necessary to sustain a disagreement; so one or the other of us is sure to say, “Perhaps . . . Yes, I suppose you are right, and that ends it. More often than not. we gossip like a pair ol old native women, rather than talk. Me discuss island personalities and the small change of island happenings. Or, too lazy to get together,
I sit on my veranda in Punauiia, and you on yours, in Arne, each of us in a pleasant stupor, streaked through with sluggish musings. Days pass, each one like the day preceding. We are under the illusion that time is standing still loins, but if you pause to reflect you will come to realize that this is the result of the monotony of our lives. Where there is no variety of happenings from one month to the next a year slips by before you are aware that it has well begun. You flatter yourself that you have acquired, through effort, the habit of reverie. No effort was needed. You are merely going through the same process of decay experienced by all white men in such a tropical backwater. It is an inevitable process. The island has put its stamp on both of us. I’m surprised that you haven’t the wit to see it.
H. Why don’t you ily, then? Why don’t you try to save yourself before the disintegrating process has been carried too far?
N. I have just said that I enjoy going to seed. I am clear-sighted enough to realize what is happening, but L don’t care. I don’t in the least object.
I am now in my forty-third year. Thus lar I have had as wide an experience ol life, as a man could wish. I have learned many things and unlearned many. I have arrived, by hard thinking, at various conclusions with respect to the meaning of life and of man’s place in the universe; more particularly, my own place. By hard thinking I have discarded, in turn, these conclusions. I shall form no new ones. I no longer care whether or not there is meaning in life, or whet Iter or not I am entitled to a place in the eosmical scheme. I have now had the place for a considerable number of years, and in view of that fact I can a fiord to be content. Fly from Tahiti? For what reason? And where to?
H. You might go home.
N. What chance would I have to go to seed there? I would not be permitted to. I would be bribed or forced out of my quite natural inclination to go downhill. I would be driven uphill to the very end, and so cheated out of my birthright to an agreeable old age. And think of the freedom of a special kind that one has here: freedom from the influence of the mass mind, with its intolerance, its disregard of minority rights and opinions, its profound belief in material progress, and that science will, ultimately, solve all the riddles of the universe. It is impossible for the individual, living within the scope of this mighty influence, not to be allected by it.
H. You don’t believe in modern science, then?
N. Of course ! do. But I don’t believe in many of its pretensions and assumptions, and the arrogance of some who worship at that shrine.
H. But have you no desire ever to live at home again ?
N. Why do you say “at home Isn t I alibi home to you, after all these years?
H. No; and that is, to me, the chief disadvantage of living here. All of my roots are still in America, in the prairie country of the Middle West.
I realize now that it is useless trying to grub them up to transplant on this little island. They won’t come up.
N. ’m surprised that you feel that way about it. I came to Tahiti taproots and all, and they are now comfortably embedded here. Nevertheless,
I realize that I am an exotic plant and must suffer the consequences of the change of habitat. My growth here has been sickly, but my decay will, I believe, be Luxuriant and slow.
H. You talk as though you were already on the threshold of old age.
N. So I am. I mean to depart from the practice of most men of our years. They cling to the fiction that they are still vigorous youngsters until, at the age of forty-five or thereabout, the fact that.
they have long been middle-aged is forced upon them. Then they persist in being middle-aged until they are ready to topple into their graves, crowding their old age into a scant year or two.
H. Yes, so we do, most of us.
N. But consider my happy prospect. I may have thirty, even forty years to spend in this pleasant old-man’s garden. I shall have time to enjoy to the full an old man’s pleasures. I shall read old books and care nothing about the new ones. I needn’t try to keep abreast of the world s doings, and who would care to, in these limes? My lishmg will keep me healthy in body, and the humdrum existence we live here will keep me tranquil in mind. . . . But I d better be going.
It’s quite dark, already.
H. Yes, old men should keep early hours.
N. J never go to bed later than nine-thirty. . . . What a glorious night! Look at those coconut palms against the sky!
H. Wait till 1 light the lamp. I’ll show you down to the road. Mind the second step! There’s a board loose.
N. Oh, the decay, the decay, in houses and men, in this humid tropical climate! . . . Good night, my son.
H. Good night. Sleep well, father.
(We end the Atlantic’s abridgment on this high note of friendship and with the hope that our readers will wish to follow Mr. Hall’s warmhearted volume to its moving dose. Because of the limitations of space, the Atlantic has been able to publish only approximately a quarter of the book.)