Academic journal article Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada

"Such a Thing as Writing a Book": The Making of William Morris Barnes's Autobiography

Academic journal article Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada

"Such a Thing as Writing a Book": The Making of William Morris Barnes's Autobiography

Article excerpt


A la suite d'une rencontre fortuite dans un parc de la ville de New York, le marin a la retraite de Terre-Neuve, William Morris Barnes, se retrouva du jour au lendemain dans le monde de l'edition newyorkaise. Il servit de modele a Mopey Dick, personnage de bandes dessinees (Mopey Dick and the Duke), creees par Denys Wortman et publiees dans un journal de la ville de New York entre les annees 1930 et 1950. Avec l'appui de Hilda Renbold Wortman, Barnes se mit a ecrire son autobiographie dont une edition americaine parut en 1930 et une britannique en 1931. Cette etude decrit l'ouvrage en devenir ainsi que les efforts deployes par l'editrice Hilda Wortman en vue de maintenir dans son integralite la prose coloree des recits de Barnes.


William Morris Barnes was born in St John's, Newfoundland, in 1850. Aged eleven he sailed to Brazil aboard a vessel owned by his father which was loaded with salt fish. Homeward-bound, when Barnes's ship stopped in New York, he was unaware that during his retirement in the same city some 70 years later he would meet a woman who would help him immortalize his life in autobiography. Will Barnes's life story came to me in the form of Rolling Home: When Ships Were Ships and Not Tin Pots, (1) green cloth-bound volume published by London's Cassell & Company in 1931. The autobiography, nearly 500 pages in length, is filled with tales of Barnes's life in the merchant marine. That a sailor should write an autobiography was by no means exceptional. The historian David Alexander has noted that seafarers produced memoirs at a rate "far larger without doubt than can be found for any other sector of the economy." (2) What, then, makes Rolling Home so special? The long answer lies in Barnes's contradictory identity: he was an officer and a Newfoundlander, but he often diminished the importance of those categories and adopted a skilled working-class manhood he felt defined him better as a manly, experienced seafarer. The not quite short answer to what makes Barnes's autobiography different from the others produced by seafarers involves the circumstances surrounding the creation of his book.

The real mystery of Rolling Home's publication became apparent as my research into the issues of identity in the autobiography picked up speed in the fall of 2009. In his book, Barnes takes the reader right up to his present, 1930, in New York and includes his meeting with the woman he credits as encouraging him to "write" his life story. Here I use the word write with caution because Barnes did not actually put his own story into writing: though he was literate and did make extensive use of notebooks, Rolling Home was primarily a transcription from a series of Dictaphone cylinders. (3) The woman he met in Abingdon Square invited Barnes to her home and encouraged him to speak his stories into a Dictaphone during 1929. Although she seemed to be crucially important to the creation and publication of the book, she is not named.

I wondered how I would solve this mystery until I discovered that there was another, earlier edition of Barnes's autobiography. This newly identified book, the American edition, entitled When Ships Were Ships and Not Tin Pots: The Seafaring Adventures of Captain William Morris Barnes, was published in 1930 in New York by Albert & Charles Boni. (4) While the differences between the two texts are minimal, what is different is the paratextual material: the American edition contains a dedication and a foreword not included in the later British edition, as well as illustrations by Francis Shields, including a frontispiece. (5) In this picture Barnes looks down and away from the artist in a way that suggests bashfulness. The etching is quite detailed, and Shields manages to capture Barnes's self-description when he writes, "my head is sculpted, every inch all over" (viii). The most distinctly "sculpted" aspect of his face is the scar on his cheek where a bullet exited his jaw when he was abandoning the torpedoed ship Saxonian during the war. …

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