Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 621
William McFee wrote with authority about the sea, for not only was he the son and grandson of sea captains, but he himself spent much of his life at sea, rising to the rank of a chief engineer before settling down in Connecticut in 1922. Fortuitously, McFee was born at...
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William McFee wrote with authority about the sea, for not only was he the son and grandson of sea captains, but he himself spent much of his life at sea, rising to the rank of a chief engineer before settling down in Connecticut in 1922. Fortuitously, McFee was born at sea—to a Canadian woman who often accompanied her husband on transatlantic voyages—aboard a three-masted, square-rigged ship that his father had designed and built.
Shortly after McFee’s birth, his father retired near London. The boy was educated at several local schools and then apprenticed at an engineering firm near Aldersgate. Following his apprenticeship, he worked as an engineer and as a salesman for a laundry machine manufacturing company. Meanwhile, he read widely and became passionately interested in Rudyard Kipling and socialism, an odd combination that is indicative of McFee’s eclectic tastes. He occasionally lectured and became associated with literary men, which stimulated his desire to write. In 1906 he resigned his sales job to begin a five-year tour as seaman. His background in mechanics led him naturally to the engine room and to a position as engineer’s mate. Eventually, he became chief engineer on the SS Fernfield, establishing a garrulous fictional alter ego in his Chief Engineer Spenlove, the central figure of many of his later novels.
McFee’s first book, Letters from an Ocean Tramp, appeared in 1908. Four years later McFee came to the United States with the intention of devoting his full time to literature, but after a short period ashore he secured a chief’s license in the American Merchant Marine and entered the employ of the United Fruit Company. In 1914, following the outbreak of World War I, he returned to England. During the war he served as an engineering officer on a British transport, later as a sublieutenant in the Navy. In the meantime he had turned to fiction in his writing. Aliens, his first novel, was published in 1914, followed by his best-known novel, Casuals of the Sea, two years later.
After the war McFee returned to the United States. For several years he again served as an engineer in the United Fruit Company fleet until the demands of his writing led to a more settled life ashore, celebrated with the publication, in 1925, of Swallowing the Anchor, a title based on a seaman’s phrase for quitting the sea. McFee’s two-year marriage to Pauline Khondoff, a Bulgarian refugee, was the probable inspiration for his 1932 novel The Harbourmaster. McFee was later, and apparently more happily, married to American writer Dorothy North, whom he outlived by twelve years.
Throughout his years as a professional writer, the sea, its adventures, and the wealth of shipboard lore gathered by McFee during his years at sea remained alive in his books. More than twenty novels, as well as an amount of nonfictional material on the ways of ships and life afloat, followed his initial success with Aliens and Casuals of the Sea. His Chief Engineer Spenlove has become a well-known character in fiction. In recognition of his contributions to the literature of the sea, Yale University conferred on him an honorary degree in 1936.
Although McFee had commercial success and relatively wide recognition during his lifetime, he met with very little critical attention since, and his books have not been reprinted. The inevitable comparison with Joseph Conrad left him wanting, and he was accused of using Spenlove as a mere mouthpiece for announcing the social or moral ideas that interested him. In his own defense he claimed that he was only interested in writing straightforward and simple adventure stories, in spinning yarns of the sea. Certainly his life, from its very beginning, gave him the authority to do just that.