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Westerly Sun Column

Literature of the Sea by R. D. Madison, Professor of English, Emeritus; U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis

From June 28 to August 2, for six Thursday evenings this summer retired Naval Academy professor Bob Madison will offer a course in Literature of the Sea at the Westerly Library. Madison, who taught at Annapolis for over twenty-five years, has edited over a dozen volumes of sea literature and has taught sea literature in classrooms and aboard ships from Chesapeake Bay to the Great Lakes to the Gulf of California. “Literature of the Sea is part of our heritage right here in South County,” Madison says. “My great-grandfather had a fishing boat named Red Rover, after the sea novel by James Fenimore Cooper. Oliver Hazard Perry built gunboats on the Pawcatuck River before his famous victory on Lake Erie. Edward Everett Hale wrote of the sea from his home in Matunuck.”

Madison’s talks will be centered around two readings for each week—a long one and one short. “Some people will have time to plow through the longer works,” Madison notes, “but most people will want something they can digest easily before sitting down to a discussion.” Madison, a book collector, likes to illustrate his talks with early editions of the books. “It means more to a reader to hold a copy of the book as the world first saw it—especially if it has some association with the author. Lord Brassey gave as gifts copies of his late wife’s Voyage of the Sunbeam for decades after her death. He must have missed her. And Charmian London—Jack’s widow—gave copies of The Log of the Snark to friends she met on her cruises—the characters of non-fiction are real people who can come to life in your hands.”

But there won’t be any early editions of Melville. “Too expensive,” Madison says, “and all the good copies have been snatched up. You have a choice: you can have an entire library of sea literature, or you can have a first edition of Moby-Dick.” Madison usually assigns the Norton Critical Edition of Moby-Dick, released this spring in its third edition with help from several local scholars, including Madison. “I was working on another project when I discovered that Melville had stolen a famous passage on albatrosses from a fellow whaling author. My discovery became only one of hundreds of footnotes in the new edition, but a good scholarly edition like this brings everyone’s discoveries together.”

Most readings for the course are freely available on-line, while works still in copyright are usually available second-hand for a nominal price. Many of the materials can be borrowed from the library. The entire reading list is available on the event listing on the library’s website. There is no charge for the course, but registration is required on the library’s website ( or by calling the Reference Desk at 401-596-2877 option 3.

Each class will begin at 6:00 p.m and run to 7:45. Dates are June 28; July 5, 12, 19, and 29; and August 2.