Delilah, by Marcus Goodrich



She was very slim and light. She was always tense, often atremble, and never failed to give the impression of almost terrible power wrapped in a thin fragile blue-grey skin. The materials that went into the making of her complete being were more curious and varied that those that went to compose her creator, Man–for Man, himself, formed part of her bowels, heart, and nerve centres. She ate great quantities of hunked black food, and vented streams of great debris. Through her coiled veins pumped vaporous, superheated blood at terrific pressure. She inhaled noisily and violently through four huge nostrils, sent her hot breath pouring through four handsome mouths and sweated delicate, evanescent, white mist. Her function in existence was to carry blasting destruction at high speed to floating islands of men; a her intended destiny, at the opposite pole from that of the male bee, was to die in this act of impregnating her enemy with death. It was, perhaps, for this reason that she carried her distinctly feminine bow, which was high and very sharp, with graceful arrogance and some slight vindictiveness, after the manner of a perfectly controlled martyr selected for spectacular and aristocratic sacrifice. Her name was Delilah.


The suave, glistening Sulu Sea parted before Delilah’s sharp bow and slid under her flat stern with great but smooth rapidity. It was only in her wake, where there was left a white commotion, that there was betrayed the adequate evidence of the effort of her progress. A few feet above the cause of this foaming propulsion–two whirling typhoons of metal–an old Irish monk sat on the edge of a camp cot and gazed intently forward along the destroyer’s narrow steel deck at what was taking place amidships. He seemed unmindful of the sweat that exuded from his tonsure and leaked down the white fringes of his hair and over his big hands, in which he was resting his head. He seemed unmindful of the very sun, itself, which so fiercely inflamed the universe with white glare that it was difficult to look at the opal circle of the sea and impossible to look for long into the sky. Yet he was sitting in the full blaze of it, because even the quarter-deck awnings had been furled as possible hindrances to the attainment of maximum speed.

The ship, too, seen from one of the small islands she occasionally passed, must have appeared insensible to the limitless conflagration, a compact creature skimming easily along the water, naked to the sun and docile bearer of the few visible people ensconced along her thin length.

Deep inside of her, however, the Engineer Officer, who was also the Executive Officer, was thinking that she was a skidding shelf of hell.


Niven Busch in Rediscoveries:

“… Delilah got good reviews too, and some the kind an author dreams of, particularly an author who has in him the quality of genius but has been forced to follow lowly trades while he bought time–“Ha!”–to do his work….

Delilah charged onto the best-seller lists, where it held a place for all too short a time. But it had made readers, and these readers, like the critics who had sensed in the book the emergence of a major talent, waited for Delilah‘s sequel–or if not another sea story, then at least a new novel of comparable stature. None came. We are left with this one work.

Rereading it after a lapse of almost thirty years, I was as much impressed as at first contact by its drive and dimension, its memorable, incisive prose, and the queer subtle spell through which Goodrich, defying the ukase that a sea story must have plot, enmeshes us in his own love for Delilah. Through his love he delivers us to the bony morality that knits up men at sea, binding them in a skeleton made up in part of hate, suspicion, fear, and boredom, but viable nevertheless, strong where it must be strong, bestowing enlargement. Through this love we become as familiar with Delilah as with the pulse, the tread, the perfume, and the proportions of a woman we have loved; we can move about her decks and use her weapons, energies, conveniences, and quarters as we would move around in our own house. Goodrich has seduced us. He has demanded and enforced our surrender, even against our conscious resistance (had we time to develop such resistance) to the codes of Navy tradition. The ship, a tiny furrow opening behind her, moves through a circular immensity of sea and sky, her furnaces blazing, her thin steel skin far too fragile for the tests she must endure, for victory or death….

… One leaves Delilah with regret–not only that her journey is over, but that there has been no other book since from Goodrich, and none to match from anyone else.

… Someone–it could have been I!–introduced him to Olivia de Havilland, then coming to the peak of her career as a serious dramatic actress. They fell in love. Mark disappeared for a war stint, which he described in his stick for Who’s Who: “commanded Naval Detachment working with Chinese guerillas behind Japanese lines.” Regardless of the interference of this apocryphal duty and its hazards, he came back to marry Olivia. They had one son, Benjamin. For a time the marriage seemed very successful, even though a person alert to such situations could detect in its outline a time-honored disaster pattern…. Presently Olivia went on tour and the marriage went up the spout.

If that is what stopped the second book (and when you saw Mark, he always said he had been working, though it took time, ha! it went slowly), I am sorry. Ten years ago, giving a party to celebrate some luck with a book of my own, I had undercover agents looking for him all over New York City–his native habitat when not at sea–to no avail.”

Editor’s Note

Delilah was reissued in the 1960s as one of the titles in the Time Reading Program and in the 1970s as one of the titles in the Lost American Fiction series. It was reissued in 2000 in paperback from Lyons Press.

Marcus Goodrich was born in San Antonio, Texas, in 1897. He ran away from home at 16 to join the Navy. He left the Navy after World War One and attended Columbia University, graduating in 1923. He worked in New York and Philadelphia as an advertising copywriter, then moved to Hollywood. He served in the Navy again in World War Two. He and Olivia de Havilland married in 1946 and divorced in 1952. Although he worked as a screenwriter before and after the marriage, he is incorrectly credited with writing the original treatment for the Frank Capra classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” (the credit goes to Francis Goodrich). He retired to Richmond, Virginia, in 1963. He died there in a nursing home, of heart failure, in 1991. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.


· Time, 24 February 1941

By any standards, it is a top-notch yarn. But what frames the story, gives it symbolic sense, restrains the turbulent narrative from getting too diffuse, clarifies each character, even makes amends for the faulty structure of the plot, is the bony morality of the sea.

The story of Delilah begins a few months before the U. S. entry into World War I. She moves feverishly around the south Pacific, her obsolete engines incredibly overtaxed. She carries a Catholic monk to an island of rebellious Morros, noses through the southern Philippines searching for caches of firearms, finally docks while her old body is torn apart and filled with new organs. The human action is a series of bloody brawls, the friendships and conflicts of men too close together for too long a time. Included in the novel’s 496-page sweep are three brilliant novelle: Ensign Woodbridge’s encounter with the hypocritical missionaries, the story of the Irish monk and the satanic trader, Parker, and Seaman O’Connell on a berserk rampage. Included also is many a burst of virtuoso prose, in which Author Goodrich compares the ship to a walled town, to the Tower of Constance, to the Alamo, to anything that represents man’s constant war against an unfriendly world.

Marcus Goodrich was famous in New York literary circles ten years ago for his golden tongue. He used to talk this book in evenings of inspired storytelling. In it he put his experience on a destroyer in the last war, heightened by his study of Melville’s towering symbolism, Conrad’s profuse style, and James’s snakelike character analyses. While he talked his book, Goodrich earned his living from advertising and the movies. Now that he has got it on paper, he is a full-fledged, first-rate novelist.

· Clifton Fadiman in The New Yorker, 1 February 1941

I don’t know whether the book is worth the decade its composition has required–that’s entirely the author’s affair–but I am certain it is a remarkable work of art. Its defects are the defects of excessive vigor and of an overleaping imagination, which are perhaps preferable to the anemic virtues of caution. If 1941 gives us a better first novel by an American, it will be a year of wonders….

… there is one set piece–the story of the monk and the fiendish Mr. Parker, whom nothing but music could subdue–which has, I fear, nothing at all to do with the novel but which Conrad or Melville would have given a finger or so to have written.

… This is, all things considered, a mature work of imagination on a subject ordinarily left to writers of adventure yarns. It cannot fail to make its author’s reputation.

Find a copy

Delilah, by Marcus Goodrich
New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1941

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