Lawrence Sargent Hall Essay - Critical Essays


Lawrence Sargent Hall’s literary accolades are remarkable, considering how few fictional works he wrote. His fiction is, for the most part, concerned with life at sea, hardly surprising given his naval career, his cruises off the Maine coast and down the Mississippi River, and his operation of a boatyard. Hall deprecates contemporary, urban life and exalts life at sea, which he describes in technical detail and which provides him with metaphors for relationships. Like Ernest Hemingway, Hall is concerned with behavior under pressure, and he is skeptical of talk. His protagonists are always taciturn, uncommunicative men’s men, who are skilled at their professions but unskilled at interpersonal relationships, which tend to be stormy. Hall’s concern seems to be the nature of manhood, and his protagonists are alone but not lonely; they test themselves, usually at sea, by pushing limits and by leading “high-risk lives.” Hall also resembles Stephen Crane, whose “The Open Boat” focuses on men’s behavior at sea and whose Red Badge of Courage: An Episode of the American Civil War (1895) concerns the passage from boyhood to manhood. Hall’s style is, for the most part, in the realist tradition, except for “Twenty-three, Please,” which is experimental in that the story consists of a series of impressions on the mind of a character who does not speak.

“The Ledge”

“The Ledge,” Hall’s award-winning and frequently anthologized short story, concerns the accidental drowning of a Maine fisherman, his son, and his nephew. On a Christmas morning, the three go duck hunting on an offshore ledge, which is submerged at high tide. In the excitement of successful hunting, the skiff they take to reach the ledge somehow gets set adrift and, despite their efforts to attract attention and help, they become marooned and drown when the tide covers the ledge. Hall’s plot is as simple as Ernest Hemingway’s in The Old Man and the Sea (1952); Hall and Hemingway both focus on their protagonists’ behavior as they react with “grace under pressure.”

Hall’s fictional universe tends to be bifurcated, split into opposites. He contrasts the masculine, outside world (the fisherman’s wife thinks “anyone going out like that had to be incurably male”) with the feminine “close bed” and “woman’s fears.” Similarly, he pits the sea, represented by the fisherman, against the shore, represented by his farming brother. There are even two kinds of fishermen, those who stay close to the shore and those who venture farther out, pushing against limits. In the story the opposing characters seem unwilling or unable to communicate with one another. The other fishermen consider the protagonist a disdainful braggart; even his wife has, in her loneliness, considered leaving him.

In “The Ledge,” Hall also presents an initiation story gone awry. The fisherman mentors his thirteen-year-old son, attempting to make him a man. The son’s Christmas gift, an automatic shotgun, represents a change in his status; the son “was fierce to grow up in hunting, to graduate from sheltered waters and the blinds along the shores of the inner bay.” When they discover the wayward skiff, the son “cried softly for a moment, like a man,” unwilling to show pain. In the final moments of the story the son becomes “old enough to know there were things beyond the power of any man.” The fisherman’s nephew, also the recipient of an automatic shotgun, receives some tutoring in the art of waiting: “Part of doing a man’s hunting was learning how to wait.” Later, when the nephew is briefly left by himself on the ledge while the...

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