by Bert Bender
HALLET, RICHARD MATTHEWS (1887-1967). In 1912, at age twenty-five and with both a B.A. and LL.B. from Harvard University, Richard Matthews Hallet abandoned the practice of law in search of adventure and a career as a sea-writer. A New Englander from Maine who drew inspiration from relatives involved in Maine shipbuilding and seafaring, he was well aware of the literary opportunities that Richard Henry Dana and Herman Melville had found in their sea experiences. He quite self-consciously sought a position in one of the few remaining commercial sailing ventures in his time.
Signing on as an able seaman aboard the iron bark Juteopolis, in the employ of Standard Oil, he worked a single passage of four months from Boston to Sydney, Australia. From there he signed on as a fireman aboard the Orvieto for a stint of thirty-five days through the Indian Ocean to England. Later he worked for a few months as a fireman on the Great Lakes iron ore freighter, James A. Jenks, and at the outbreak of World War I he returned to Harvard briefly in order to earn a degree in navigation. This enabled him to serve first as a junior officer aboard the Wittekind (later renamed Iroquois) hauling horses to Europe and then aboard the army transport ship Westland, hauling locomotives.
Hallet quickly exploited the literary possibilities of his brief career at sea, and his career as a significant sea-writer was equally brief, centering in the years 1915 and 1916. In 1915 he published his best novel, The Lady Aft, based on his adventure aboard the Juteopolis; in 1916 he published Trial by Fire, based on his experiences as a fireman in the Indian Ocean and Great Lakes; also in 1916 his sea story, “Making Port,” based on the Orvieto experience, was selected as the best American short story of the year by Edward J. O’Brien. Hallet’s autobiography, The Rolling World (1938), is a very readable account of his adventurous years and sheds light on the relationship between his experiences at sea and his fiction.
Hallet’s two novels are notable for several reasons. The Lady Aft was well received, demonstrating that in those very last days of sailing ships there was an audience for such stories, but Hallet did not write a nostalgic tale of the golden days of sail. He was keenly aware not only of the historic anomaly of his enterprise but, partly because he had studied modern philosophy with George Santayana, of the seeming absurdity of the human place in a universe that seemed adrift. Consequently, the novel is marked with an ironic style and vision that sometimes resemble Stephen Crane’s and that will seem dated to many readers of today. But even though Hallet sometimes uses mock-heroic tones for describing such experiences as going aloft, he also provides a record that has considerable dramatic and historic interest. Much of the plot develops around the idea suggested in its title, one that seemed obligatory in sea novels of that time, such as Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf and Frank Norris’ Moran of the Lady Letty, that of the woman aboard ship. Like London and Norris, Hallet seems quite aware that the woman’s presence focuses attention on the Darwinian theme of sexual selection and the larger evolutionary implications of the voyage.
Hallet’s other novel, Trial by Fire, is virtually unknown today, and even Hallet ignored it in his autobiography. But it deserves to be remembered for two very good reasons. First, it is still one of the most important novels of the Great Lakes maritime experience; second, Hallet’s portrait of the sailor-fireman as an exploited laborer in a chaotic modern universe is memorable not only in its own right but for having exerted a powerful, but still largely unrecognized, influence on Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape, which appeared six years later.
The Lady Aft (1915)
Trial by Fire: A Tale of the Great Lakes (1916)
To the Bitter End (1919)
“Making Port” (1916)