Writer, researcher, translator, critic

Exist Yesterday.

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1896: W. W. Jacobs


This week I'm thinking about Many Cargoes, the debut collection of short stories by W. W. Jacobs. He is best remembered today for a single work, "The Monkey's Paw," a perfect horror short story that derives much of its impact from the ironic-reversal structure of comedy, which was Jacobs' more usual métier. The undisputed master of humorous stories set in docklands, canals, wharfs, small seaside villages, and more occasionally the open sea, and populated by the captains, crews, and assorted relations of the small-time shipping industry of the late nineteenth century, Jacobs undoubtedly had a niche, but he was so perfect within it that Henry James (with whom he shared a publisher) expressed envy of the meticulous construction and understated finish of his stories.

Cover an to early U.S. edition digitized at  archive.org

Cover an to early U.S. edition digitized at archive.org

If forced to it, I would probably rank Jacobs second after P. G. Wodehouse as a modern master of the British humorous short story (I keep a separate ranking for U.S. writers in my head because the traditions are different enough that it's hard to compare them; Wodehouse is one of the few points of contact). He is rarely less than amusing, and although this collection of early work is more miscellaneous than some of his later collections, when he had the security and polish of a regular spot in The Strand, it's still up to a high mark. There are two stories here which don't really come off in my estimation, one of them because he attempts the "tall story" form but works on too instinctively small a scale to really sell it, and the other because he invokes the specter of sexual violence against one of his proto-feminist heroines so that she can be rescued by the hero's own violence; in a collection otherwise dominated by contests of wit and personality rather than strength, it stands out as crude and unsophisticated.

In general, Jacobs' stories of hearty young first mates landing the pretty but strong-willed young captain's daughter are, although one of his recurring themes (like any professional writer, he was fully aware of what sold magazines), less interesting than his stories of middle-aged and unromantic crewmen outbargaining each other over some minor point of routine in their shared lives within the confined space of the ship. Although he was adept at both, and at several other basic plots besides: his talent for witty dialogue, either in formal English or in several different regional and working-class dialects, is one of the things that keeps him thoroughly readable even after a century and the near-complete disappearance of the inland maritime operations that provided him with so much of his material.

I've read a bunch of W. W. Jacobs (it helps that all but the last of his books are in the public domain), and he's been one of my comfort-food writers over the years, satisfyingly inconsequential with a high degree of literary sophistication just under the surface of much pseudo plain-speaking. Even being as ignorant a landlubber as ever lubbed land, I feel immediately comfortable aboard his cozy, unpretentious ships bound for Ipswich once the tide comes in, assuming the skipper ever turns up.