by Fiona Coll (reposted from the Floating Academy)
I teach at a beautiful campus on the southern shores of Lake Ontario in Oswego, New York. Oswego is a place of remarkable history. Its geographical position relative to waterways and other supply routes through central New York made it the target of military tussling between French and British forces during the Seven Years’ War and between American and British forces during the War of 1812. The Oswego Canal, completed in 1828, connected the epic Erie Canal system to Lake Ontario, thus accelerating Oswego’s contribution to the anthropogenic remaking of the Great Lakes ecosystem that’s been ongoing since the seventeenth century. Oswego was a launching-point to Canada for those traveling on the Underground Railway; its library, founded in 1853 on a principle of universal access for all persons, regardless of “their race, complexion, or condition,” is the oldest continuously operating public library in New York State (“About Us.”). In 1943, Oswego became the site of the single World War II refugee camp in the United States.
Oswego’s historical record includes a few claims to literary fame, too. James Fenimore Cooper spent some time here in 1808 and 1809 as he worked on the Oneida, the first American warship to patrol the Great Lakes. The area around Oswego became the setting for Cooper’s The Pathfinder (1840), one of the five novels that make up his Leatherstocking Tales and an early, formative entry into the corpus now known as Great Lakes literature. Considerably less canonical than Cooper is a prolific nineteenth-century short-story writer named Morgan Robertson. Born in Oswego in 1861, Robertson was a bit of a restless soul. He worked as a sailor for a decade, left that life behind to train as a jeweler and as a diamond-setter, then realized that his weakening eyesight foretold a quick end to his lapidary ambitions. Robertson struggled to imagine a new career that would prove remunerative while also accommodating what he described as his “constructive and mechanical ingenuity” (Northrop 642).
Here begins Robertson’s tale of writerly origins, as encrusted with myth and elaboration as any good origin story should be. In 1896, a friend recommended that Robertson read a recently published sea-adventure story by Rudyard Kipling. As the tale goes, Robertson spends a nickel of his last quarter to buy the magazine in which the Kipling story appeared. He reads the story on a train-ride home through New York City. He is transformed by the reading experience; he is seized with an animating energy, a graphomaniac compulsion that unleashes a new creative power in him. He mindlessly eats dinner; he spurns his wife’s attention. He sits down at the kitchen table with a pencil stub and writes all night long. In the morning, he rushes over to the Kipling-recommender’s office and solicits the use of a typewriter. It takes him two days to transform, badly, his written manuscript into typescript. The story is in the hands of magazine editors before the week is out. It’s about an itinerant young man, a “born mechanic” whose independent and original ways of thinking make him ill-suited for conventional life (Robertson, “Survival” 45). The young man suffers cruelty, injury, and bad luck in his worldly travels, culminating in the main action of the story, which places his damaged body and his ingenious mind in mortal peril aboard a “dismantled hulk” in a vicious Lake Erie snow storm (58). Robertson sells the story for $25 and decides that he is a writer (Northrop; Bulgur).
Robertson published, as far as I can discover, 144 short stories, several novels, a few works of poetry, and a number of non-fiction pieces over the next two decades. He turned his considerable knowledge of maritime life to lively and modestly popular account in the many of his stories that feature sailors and ships. In 1898, he wrote a novella that has as one of its thematic targets the aggressive corporate business practices that drove captains to take great risks at sea. The novella, which Robertson originally titled Futility, describes the transatlantic voyage of an enormous luxury passenger liner, the largest the world has ever seen—a steamship considered to be “practically unsinkable” (2). The ship’s unscrupulous owners seek to break a speed record for crossing the Atlantic; considerable publicity has been generated around this particular voyage, so the business stakes are high. The steamship company orders the ship to travel at full speed, no matter the conditions, such that when the ship collides with an iceberg, the damage done is fatal to the integrity of the hull. The ship is provisioned with a paltry 24 lifeboats, nowhere near enough to accommodate the 3,000 wealthy passengers on board, and all but two passengers are lost. Robertson named his ill-fated ship Titan, a fact which sealed his reputation as a writer of unnerving prescience in the wake of the real-life Titanic disaster fourteen years later, the details of which echoed Robertson’s story with an eerie fidelity. Robertson enjoyed a rapid elevation to celebrity status in the aftermath of this metaleptic slip between the realms of the imagined and the real, but his celebrity was short-lived. He died three years later, standing up, chin propped on a chest of drawers in an Atlantic City hotel room (“Morgan”).
With the exception of The Wreck of the Titan, or Futility, which has remained an oft-published curiosity, Robertson’s writing has fallen into obscurity. Though many of his stories were collected in a multi-volume edition of his work published by McClure’s/Metropolitan in 1914, a good number of his stories have never been republished since their original appearances in magazines and newspapers. So, I’ve begun to imagine a digital archive of Robertson’s writing into existence. Thanks to the generous support of my Dean’s Office, I attended “Conceptualizing and Creating a Digital Edition,” taught by Jennifer Stertzer, Erica Cavanaugh, and Cathy Moran Hajo at the 2016 Digital Humanities Summer Institute, a course that provided a superlative introduction to the challenges, considerations, and complications of producing a digital edition. With the excellent aid of Sean Milligan, a graduate student at SUNY Oswego, I’ve spent the last year hunting down copies of Robertson’s writing in various archives, compiling an account of Robertson’s complex publishing record, and building a prototype website through which to explore the possibilities of making Robertson’s work available in digital form. The site currently displays an early Robertson story, “The Derelict Neptune,” first published in McClure’s Magazine in 1897.
“The Derelict Neptune” is an apposite introduction to Robertson’s writing for a number of reasons. It features his trademark attention to technical detail, from its opening description of oceanic currents to its accounts of chemical processes and its precise nautical language. It also features his propensity for improbably elaborate maritime drama. The story centres upon a “curious-looking craft” that has floated around the globe, abandoned, for fifty years, long enough for its original cargo of lime, tallow, and acids to leak out of various containers in such as way as to combine into “over one hundred and thirty tons of nitro-glycerine” (“Derelict”). The accidentally weaponized vessel is carried on Atlantic currents right into the simmering geo-political tensions that would soon erupt into the Cuban War of Independence and the subsequent Spanish-American War. The story’s ending, which pits the Neptune against a Spanish naval cruiser, is thus explosive in both literal and figurative ways.
“The Derelict Neptune” also reveals Robertson’s investment in generic experimentation; here, Robertson offers a rationalized, politicized take on the Mary Celeste mystery that inspired a number of fictional retellings in the later nineteenth century, including Arthur Conan Doyle’s influential “J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement” (1884). Indeed, “The Derelict Neptune” can be read as a story about the global circulation of narrative and the ways in which cultural forms are encountered, scavenged, interpreted, adapted, and returned to circulation. Robertson’s own body of work, in fact, is as derelict as the Neptune itself: abandoned, unmoored from practices of reading and reception, emptied of the lively habitation for which it was designed. The Morgan Robertson Digital Archive aims to remedy this neglect by cultivating a wider appreciation for Robertson’s intriguing tales.
“About Us.” Oswego Public Library. https://www.oswegopubliclibrary.org/about. Accessed 30 June 2017.
[Bulgur, Bozeman]. “Gathering No Moss—An Autobiography.” Morgan Robertson, the Man. New York: Metropolitan, 1915. 6-37.
“Morgan Robertson Dies Standing Up.” New York Times, 25 March 1915, p.1.
Northrop, Benjamin. “Morgan Robertson: Master Mariner and Writer of Tales.” Saturday Evening Post, 20 Jan 1900, p. 642.
Robertson, Morgan. “The Derelict Neptune.” Morgan Robertson Digital Archive. http://morganrobertsonarchive.com/the-derelict-neptune/. Accessed 30 June 2017.
—. “The Survival of the Fittest.” Spun-Yarn: Sea Stories. New York: Harper and Bros, 1898. 44-81.
—. “The Wreck of the Titan, or Futility.” The Wreck of the Titan, or Futility. 1898. New York: McClure’s/Metropolitan, 1914. 1-69.