I’ve stocked my nightstand with a selection of books by Felix Riesenberg, whose first novel, P. A. L., I wrote about several months ago. Riesenberg was a professional merchant seaman and civil engineer who took up writing somewhere in his thirties and went on to publish about a half dozen novels and an equal number of non-fiction books before his death in 1939. One might compare him to Joseph Conrad, who also switched from sea captain to writer, but Riesenberg is certainly not in Conrad’s class when it comes to fiction.
Still, I’m intrigued by what drove Riesenberg to make such a dramatic shift in occupations in middle age, and particularly by the fact that, as P. A. L. demonstrates, he took considerable risks in his choice of subjects and approach. Although the majority of his books deal with life and work at sea, none of them seems to follow a predictable path. Riesenberg have not have had the mastery to be fully successful in his artistic ambitions, but he certainly didn’t lack the courage to take risks.
As Riesenberg’s 1937 autobiography, Living Again: An Autobiography, shows, risk taking was ingrained in his character. While still a teenager, he signed into merchant marine service, sailing around Cape Horn in a six-master and working his way up through the ranks, attaining his chief mate license and, later, his chief engineer and master licenses.
Riesenberg served on a wide variety of ships, from schooners to freighters to first-class Atlantic liners. His travels took him from the Far East to the Mediterranean and all over the Atlantic. But even these experiences weren’t enough for him, and in 1905, at the age of 26, he read an article about an expedition being organized by an American journalist, Walter Wellman, to reach the North Pole by dirigible. “The scheme was crazy enough to seem workable,” Riesenberg writes. He paid a call on Wellman, who happened to be in Chicago at the same time as Riesenberg was taking leave at home, and a few days later, received a telegram telling him to report to Tromso, Norway to join the expedition as its navigator.
The expedition’s equipment loaded down four schooners, which sailed to Dane’s Island, near Spitsbergen. A base camp was built, including a massive hangar for the dirigible, but things fell behind schedule, the airship’s engines failed spectacularly when tested, and Riesenberg and two other men were left to spend the winter alone while the rest of the team returned to Norway. The next summer, the dirigible was finally completed and Wellman, Riesenberg and another man set off for the North Pole.
Within a few hours, though, they encountered powerful head winds and soon had to make an emergency landing on a glacier. A rescue party located them the next day. Riesenberg departed not long after they made it back to the base camp. “I returned, not a hero, not a bit the wiser–for it took years of contemplation before I was able to even bear the thought of setting down the circumstances of my disappointment.”
Back in New York, he enrolled in the civil engineering program at Columbia University after an uncle offered to help with tuition. He married soon after graduating, and the adventurer soon found himself scraping to stay afloat: “After marriage, things happened to me. I tried to save but could not manage it. Unexpected jobs, royalties and windfalls came to me often in the final minutes before the crack of disaster.” He worked on the construction of massive pipelines bringing water to the city. He worked for the Parks department until kicked out of the job with a change of administrations. He worked as a building inspector, which proved one of his more educational jobs:
Violations, reported by neighbors, policemen, and what not, consisted of fire escapes that were rusting apart, of fire doors unhinged and inoperative, or air shafts too small, of drains leaking, of the many things that can be wrong with any ramshackle structure. The job took me into places nothing else could have opened; no novelist could find a better entree to the steaming and often stinking heart of the bloated, untidy, but exciting city.
Then, in 1917, the sea called him again, and he was asked to take command of the U. S. S. Newport, the floating campus of the New York Nautical School. Riesenberg was both ship captain and college dean. He reveled in the glories of the ship, a sparkling white three-master, one of the last sailing ships built for the U. S. Navy. While the war was going on, the ship was confined to Long Island Sound, but after the Armistice, he was able to take it on a long cruise down to the Caribbean.
Riesenberg left the command in 1919, but returned four years later for another cruise. This time, he took the students on a voyage of thousands of miles, all the way from England to the Canary Islands and the Bahamas. Along the way, they encountered a massive storm that nearly capsized the ship. You can read an account of the cruise by one of the students, A. A. Bombe, online at http://www.sunymaritime.edu/stephenblucelibrary/pdfs/1923%20cruise%20uss%20newport.pdf.
In between and after, he kept moving from job to job–a year as chief engineer for the construction of the Columbia Presbyterian Hospital; somewhat longer editing the Bulletin of the American Bureau of Shipping; and, increasingly, stories and articles for the likes of The Saturday Evening Post. Riesenberg spares little space for his own writing. One novel he dismisses in a sentence as “a rotal flop, a complete and thorough failure.” His 1927 novel, East Side, West Side, though, was a hit and made into a film, one of the last big-budget silents, which earned him a time in Hollywood as a studio writer.
“Felix, why don’t you write a book about your life?” one of his editors asked him in 1935. So Riesenberg packed up his journals and diaries and headed to a small house on the beach near Pensacola. “After seven months on the edge of a warm and reminiscent sea,” however, “the truth came upon me with a feeling of dread–I was a stranger to myself.” Though he managed to set down the account that appears in this book, he confesses at the start that, “I look upon these things as strange occurrences, common, no doubt, to all of us.”
Despite the many colorful episodes and Riesenberg’s strong and direct prose style, however, that odd sense of detachment prevades Living Again and leaves it, in the end, a less than satisfying autobiography. The reader cannot help but get the sense that Riesenberg’s most intense experiences occurred during his early years at sea, and that most of what happened thereafter seemed anticlimactic.
Still, I will carry on with my navigation through Riesenberg’s novels. I just started Endless River, which Robert Leavitt described as, “a torrent that pours through a book—the torrent of Mr. Riesenberg’s thought and comment on life…. It swirls and eddies, formlessly; it gnaws at its restraining backs; it throws up a spray that gleams, now and then, with an unholy phosphorescence. And it tumbles along a burden of flotsam that is the most curiously assorted ever a river bore.” Clearly another example of Felix Riesenberg’s willingness to take risks.
Living Again: An Autobiography, by Felix Riesenberg
Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., 1937