May 4, 2008

N by E

Sailing Trilogy, Pt. 1

N by E, by Rockwell Kent.
Foreword by Edward Hoagland.University Press of New England, 1996. First published in 1930. 281 pgs.

Rockwell Kent… sound familiar? Chances are you’ve seen his illustrations in a classic edition of Candide, Moby Dick, or Beowulf. He was a well-known graphic artist in the nineteen twenties, thirties and forties. His illustrations were bold, heroic, monumental…usually woodblock prints in black and white; he also painted. He designed colophons that you would likely recognize, for at least three publishers: Random House, Viking, and Modern Library. His reputation suffered in the fifties as he became a target of McCarthyism.

What surprised me is that Kent was an author as well. Pure happenstance led me to discover N by E, browsing the shelves at Chop Suey Books. Illustrations occur on nearly every other page. I purchased it even though it has absolutely nothing to do with Iceland--except that Greenland is pretty darn close, and that’s what this book is about.

Kent embarked on this particular sailing adventure on a whim. A friend of his remarked, “…my son is going to sail to Greenland in a small boat.” Rockwell: “God!—May I go with him?”

Kent was forty-seven when he sailed from Nova Scotia to Greenland with two “seasoned” sailors whose ages added together totaled less than his own. And yet he entrusted his life to these two young men, in a small, 33’ cutter, in very dangerous waters. He was the navigator—a skill he had recently learned but hadn't practiced yet.

It is surprising that the intrepid trio made it to Greenland, but not surprising that they shipwrecked off its coast. N by E has all the best characteristics of a compelling adventure story: danger, exotic scenery, excitement, intense beauty, surprise. Edward Hoagland’s foreword accurately describes the book as having a “scary, exuberant edge”. Kent’s prose is simple and clean, vigorous and romantic. His illustrations have a childlike appeal, due to the sweet innocence
and joy his figures radiate, and the awesome beauty of his art. The interwoven Eskimo legends and poems are endearing.

Perhaps even more than an artist, social reformer, or author, Kent was an adventurer. He was a free-spirited, impulsive individual. Danger seemed to invigorate him, and he didn’t appear to have that healthy dose of fear that helps most men live long lives. Kent wrote and illustrated several travel books of his adventures sailing and mountain climbing in remote areas: Tierra del Fuego, Alaska, Newfoundland.

'When Kent died, The New York Times described him as "... a thoughtful, troublesome, profoundly independent, odd and kind man who made an imperishable contribution to the art of bookmaking in the United States." ' wikipedia

N by E can be read on several levels: enjoy the text simply as an accompaniment to the stupendous illustrations, read it as the incredible adventures of a man old enough to know better, or as a beautiful fable.

(John just finished reading The Reserve, by Russell Banks (2008). It is a fictionalized version of Kent's life. If you want him to review it, post a comment to beg, plead, or bribe him.)


Karen said...

I read "The Reserve." I HATED it. It was so stilted, yet sappy. I would be very interested in what John thought. Perhaps I missed the good parts. I had no idea it was a sort of real story.

Professor Batty said...

... looking through my CC statement,I noticed an entry for Chop Suey Books-
we had purchased some books there, I didn't remember the name until your post brought it up. The Weaver and I LOVED Cary Street!

Rose said...

Isn't it cool about Chop Suey's Books on Wheels/Bikes program? They also sponsor the Bizarre Market; poetry and readings, and music events (featuring my son-in-law!)
You saw a lot of Richmond in a short time...;-)

Rose said...

John agrees with you. Since he declines to review the book (bribe money was not forthcoming) I will share his thoughts, and if I don't reflect them accurately well, then, too bad for him.
John thought it was interesting mainly because he had just finished N by E, is interested in Kent, and the book is "loosely based" on him. How loosely, or closely, I'm not sure as I haven't read The Reserve yet. We can discuss this in greater depth at Disneyland.