Review of Mr. Moonlight of the South Seas

I’d like to share a review of my book Mr. Moonlight of the South Seas that was written by researcher and author Eric Watkins who specializes in the literature of travel and exploration. It’s a very interesting review and I’m pleased that he enjoyed the book.  You can find Mr. Moonlight of the South Seas at Amazon.com and at the Dockside Sailing Press Website.  Many thanks to Eric Watkins!!

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Eric Watkins reviews Mr. Moonlight of the South Seas

IN THE PANTHEON of Western Literature, narratives of travel and exploration rank high, a position established more than three millennia ago by Homer’s famed tale of the wanderings of his hero of many wiles, Odysseus.

In the 30 centuries since Homer’s day, we in the West have come to know the world around us through one traveller’s tale after another, whether factual narratives like Charles Doughty’s Arabia Deserta, or fictional ones, like Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Within this genre of travel and exploration, thanks to the very real discoveries of Captain James Cook in the 18th century, tales of the South Seas have occupied a unique place of their own, written by the likes Robert Louis Stevenson, Herman Melville, Jack London, and a host of others, including Robert Dean Frisbie.

Although a popular writer in his time, from around 1920 through 1948, Frisbie is hardly known at all today. His works – once held in esteem by contemporaries such as Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, authors of The Bounty Trilogy – are now hard to find, leaving the future of his legacy altogether in doubt.

In an essay devoted to the works of Robert Dean Frisbie, literary scholar Natasha Potocnik laments this neglect and notes that “his work has not been given sufficient critical attention despite its artistic merit, and for this very reason it is important to introduce this author and his literary work to the wider public.”

That is precisely where Brandon Oswald enters with his own study of Frisbie, called Mr. Moonlight of the South Seas.

An archivist by profession and founder of the Island Culture Archival Support, Oswald holds Robert Dean Frisbie in unabashed esteem. Describing Frisbie as “part of a long line of South Seas writers that began with Herman Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson,” Oswald says Frisbie stood apart from those writers by doing what few of them could do: “After going to the Pacific, he stayed there for the rest of his life.”

As Oswald describes it, Frisbie’s life in the Pacific – from his arrival in 1920 to his death in 1948 – was anything but idyllic due, not least, to the chronic penury of a writer who probably received more rejection slips than paychecks. Still, Frisbie never gave up on his love of the South Seas or his dream of writing the one great novel that would seal his reputation, just as Moby Dick had sealed Melville’s.

Frisbie never did produce that one great novel that would seal his own literary fame, but he certainly wrote a handful of books and a string of articles that should keep his name in the pantheon.

By common consent, Frisbie’s best publication was The Book of Puka-Puka, his very first book. A collection of the stories he had published up to that time, The Book of Puka-Puka received more than ample praise from Charles Nordhoff, Frisbie’s fellow writer and the co-author with James Norman Hall, of The Bounty Trilogy.

Writing for the December 7, 1929 issue of The Saturday Review of Literature, Nordhoff was fulsome in his praise for Frisbie’s work.

“In this series of sketches, closely-knit and drawing – with seeming random lines, stipplings, and bits of light and shadow – a picture full of art, of a life so remote from that of the world at large as to be almost unintelligible, Mr. Frisbie has shown real originality and skill,” Nordhoff wrote.

Nordhoff summed up his review by saying, “I found no dull page or paragraph, and when I closed the book at last, I realized I had before me a portrait – a portrait done with odd ironical skill and restraint – of a little pagan land, a pagan white man, and a native population at heart.” And Nordhoff had no doubt that it was all true to life.

By then, Frisbie had already spent nine years in the South Pacific, and it would be another 20 or so before his death in 1948. Along the way, he did produce a number of other works that, as James A. Michener once said, “made him famous.”

But one of Frisbie’s most enduring efforts, perhaps, was not even a book of his own. That book is the one that he helped his own 12-year-old daughter, Florence “Johnny” Frisbie, to write.

According to Michener, Frisbie’s ambitions toward the very end of his life centered on Johnny’s work, as his own “grand dreams faded in the sunlight.” Michener notes all of the editorial effort put into the book by Robert Dean Frisbie, saying that he had “obviously poured all his energies into correcting and polishing his daughter’s naiad remembrances of atoll life.”

Michener recounts his own delight with the book: “It was good, very good, and within a week I found a publisher.” Indeed, Johnny Frisbie’s book – titled Miss Ulysses from Puka-Puka – found a unique place in literary history, becoming the first-ever narrative by a Polynesian woman.

And, it is perhaps worth noting, that Frisbie himself, as editor of the book, correctly located Johnny’s work in the Western literary canon. After all, what is Ulysses but simply the Roman name for Odysseus.
Bibliography

South Seas Islands disappearing
https://www.nst.com.my/opinion/columnists/2017/12/319693/rising-seas-
affecting-island- nations
Mr. Moonlight of the South Seas
https://www.amazon.com/Mr-Moonlight- South-Seas-
Extraordinary/dp/0692939903
The Bounty Trilogy
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Bounty_Trilogy
About Puka-Puka
https://www.travelwizard.com/south-pacific/cook- islands/pukapuka-island/
https://www.amazon.com/Miss-Ulysses- Puka-Puka- Autobiography-
Daughter/dp/0692646965

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About islandculturearchivalsupport

Island Culture Archival Support (ICAS) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of records pertaining to the cultural identity of island peoples in Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia whose national and public archives, libraries, cultural centers, and business organizations are underprivileged, underfunded, and understaffed. The specific purpose for which this nonprofit corporation was formed is to support the needs of these South Pacific cultural heritage institutions by helping to preserve and make accessible records created for business, accountability or cultural purposes. The organization will endeavor to add value by providing resources or volunteers to advise, train, and work among island residents to support their efforts in building their future and preserving their collective memory through the use of modern archival techniques.
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