The Sea and the Jungle Critical Essays

H. M. Tomlinson


(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

Although the world has changed a great deal since this book was written, The Sea and the Jungle is still a classic of its kind, not only because it tells an interesting story of a journey away from the humdrum existence of everyday living, but also because it is an example of travel writing at its best. Tomlinson was working on a newspaper when the opportunity arose for him to make the long journey to South America aboard the Capella, a tramp steamer which was to deliver industrial supplies and coal deep in the jungles of Brazil. He made his decision quickly and was signed on the ship as purser.

Tomlinson’s narrative is unassuming and straightforward. It tells of the voyage of the Capella from Swansea to Para, on the Brazilian coast, and then some two thousand miles up the Amazon River and its tributaries to the small settlement of Porto Velho, thence to the Barbados, and on to Tampa, Florida, where Tomlinson left the ship to take a train to New York and make a fast passage home to England. Despite the simplicity of his method, however, the author is not a simple man, and his perceptions and writing style make this a revealing and exciting book.

As in many travel books, The Sea and the Jungle contains four kinds of material: the narrative of the events of the trip; lengthy and detailed descriptions of the things which caught the author’s interest; stories that were told to the author by seamen and various unusual men he encountered in South America; and the reflections on life, nature, and mankind that the circumstances of the journey provoked in the author’s mind. These elements, skillfully blended, give the book its structure, vividness of detail, and stylistic excellence.

Aside from the bare outline of the major events of the trip—the embarkation, the arrival, the delivery of the cargo—the narrative is filled with the little daily occurrences that give such a book its real life. It is in this part of the writing that Tomlinson best fulfills the purpose implied by his statement: “This is a travel book for honest men.” In his full attention to the hardships and discomforts of the trip, Tomlinson makes evident his conviction that escape from dullness may be exciting but seldom comfortable. The insects, the danger, and, perhaps most of all, the incredible heat are the enemies of comfort; and Tomlinson makes the reader acutely, even painfully, aware of them constantly.

The author was, however, gifted with a great interest in practically every aspect of travel without the bent for making didactic judgments of other people and other lands that often irritate readers of travel books. Occasionally, as in his admiration for the rebellion of a black heifer that was being transported upstream to one of the railroad camps, he is moved to comment upon the human qualities of nonhuman things such as animals, insects, and the jungle itself, which Tomlinson saw as a brooding, mysterious giant which silently tolerated the invasion of men but which held a secret that no man could wring from it.

Along with the less inviting aspects of the journey, Tomlinson presents whatever he found beautiful or interesting, matters which he describes with great sensitivity and a fine technique. Of course, the first step in good description is accurate and imaginative observation; after this comes the expression of this perception so that the reader may...

(The entire section is 1394 words.)