Sometimes when I am reading, a passage of prose is so beautiful I have to stop, let the story wait, and read the passage again, perhaps even aloud, just for the pure pleasure of it. So it was the other evening when I was reading Blackbeard: Buccaneer by Ralph D. Paine.
I’ll freely admit it; I bought the book for the illustrations by Frank Schoonover; I love pirate books. But Ralph D. Paine has been one of the great and good surprises of my reading life; he is surely one of the most under-appreciated authors of the 20th century, probably because he wrote “boy’s books,” adventures for young men, and not “serious fiction.”
But consider this passage:
“While they were thus engaged, two pirates came flying down the ladder from the poop deck into the main cabin. They revolved like windmills in a jumble of arms and legs. Close behind them, in a manner more orderly came Captain Jonathan Wellsby who had tossed the one and tremendously booted the other.”
“Then Jack heard two voices in grunts and maledictions. Fearing the enemy might have tracked him, he stood as still as a mouse in the leafage of the oak. Out of the swamp emerged a young man with a musket on his shoulder. Behind him came one very much older gaunt and wrinkled, his hair as gray as the Spanish moss that overhung his path.”
Lovely stuff, well worth reading aloud, and the author’s life was as much of an adventure as any of his stories. Ralph Delahaye Paine was born in 1871, and earned enough money as a lad to send himself to Yale, where he rowed on the crew team and was tapped for Skull & Bones. Serving as a war correspondent, he covered the Cuban Revolution of 1896 with his friend Stephen Crane; ever enthusiastic, the pair ended up smuggling arms and helping to sink a Spanish warship. When the Maine was sunk in 1898, Paine returned to Cuba as a correspondent to cover the Spanish-American War in a slightly less participatory fashion. In 1900 he went to China to report on the Boxer Rebellion, and in 1917 he covered the U.S. Navy’s action in World War I. Between wars, he made time to edit magazines, write articles and publish more than 40 books of college stories, adventures and naval history. Paine died in 1925, having packed an amazing life into just 54 years.
At the end of his autobiographical Roads of Adventure (1922), he wrote:
“The pile of manuscript on my desk had been steadily growing in bulk, but I was wondering whether it ought not to include such stories as ‘The Spinster Ladies in Search of Pirates’ Gold,’ and ‘How Jordan was Kidnapped in Nagasaki,’ and ‘Why Jack Teal Bit off the Sheep-Herder’s Ear.’ Providentially one of my twin sons, aged eleven, sauntered to the desk and inquired, in a skeptical manner:
‘Do you expect people to read all that?’
‘Well, my son, we are always hoping for the improbable to happen.”
And so it has. Thank you, Ralph. You’re still being read.
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Thanks to Quarter-Century Record, Class of 1894, Yale College (1922), Frederick Dwight, editor; Blackbeard Buccaneer (1923) by Ralph Delahaye Paine; and my sincere thanks to Katie Delahaye Paine, for taking the time to correspond with me about her remarkable grandfather.