Monday, November 14, 2011

What We're Reading: The Voyage of the Rose City

The Voyage of the Rose City by John Moynihan

John Moynihan died in 2004 from a fatal reaction to acetaminophen. His death came only a year after that of his famous father, long time New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. In 2006 his mother, Elizabeth Moynihan published a privately printed edition of a journal John had kept on a sea voyage he took in 1980 as a 20 year old young sailor in the Merchant Marine, an adventure he had pursued during a leave from his junior year at Wesleyan University. A commercial publisher had an interest in publishing his account for wider distribution, and The Voyage of the Rose City was published this year to favorable critical reviews.

John Moynihan’s account of his sea voyage has a certain power that derives from his early death, the young age at which he travelled and wrote his account, and the romantic attraction he seems to have associated with sea travel and the life of a sailor. The journal account of the voyage here includes drawings by Moynihan from his voyage sketchbook, and those drawings, often depicting classic pirate characters and vignettes, reveal to us a person self aware, one who was having fun with what he knew were some of the myths that had prompted him to board a ship. In a fundamental sense, this is a “guys” book one would suppose, the voyage was a chance for a young man to escape from a feeling of confinement and boredom and seek a classic adventure, one in which he might develop some sense of self-sufficiency and the ability to get on in the world. It was understood to promise, as the convention goes, an experience that would represent some unfolding journey to manhood in tandem with the geographical journey. Moynihan’s writing is very accomplished for someone so young, and his descriptions of the characters he meets and landscapes he encounters on the voyage are especially engaging.

The power and poignancy of this book however, derives mainly from the primordial desire of young men, in such a journey, to emerge from the shadow of their father, to become at the same time, paradoxically, their own man and the man they imagine their father to be. This is the tension that makes this a great story, and because of the celebrity of his father, ratchets up that tension to a more than common level. A reader cannot help but be sympathetic to the plight of children of the famous. John’s father, Daniel Patrick Moynihan was one of the larger than life figures of American politics in the last third of the 20th Century, a widely respected American intellectual who held important advisory posts in the administrations of John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford. He was influential in helping to formulate both domestic social policy and U.S. foreign policy. He served as U.S. ambassador to India and also as the United States Ambassador to the United Nations. He served three terms as U.S. Senator from New York, first winning election in 1976. Moynihan had grown up in a poor neighborhood in Hell’s Kitchen in New York, worked as a longshoreman, and went on to earn a Ph.D. in sociology. He published many books on important issues in American and international politics during his lifetime.

John Moynihan enlisted as an Ordinary Seaman in the Merchant Marine, a position he was able to get because his father pulled a few strings, and got the opportunity to be part of the crew on the oil tanker, the Rose City. He had been warned by his father’s contact at the Seaman’s Union to let no one know that he was the son of the senator. He was supposed to tell everyone that his father was a bartender in Manhattan. But the crew immediately suspected that there was a piece missing in the story of this college boy. The captain of the Rose City asked John Moynihan directly if he was related to the senator. In a passage where he doesn’t explain his forthrightness, he tells the captain that he is. He either naively or deliberately made things harder for himself than they were going to be in any event. Word leaked out. The crew immediately suspected that he had got the job of Ordinary Seaman at the expense of another member of the crew. Here was a rich and privileged kid taking as a lark the job they were forced to do for a meager living. Moynihan’s assimilation into the crew became an immeasurably more difficult task than it would have been, one that was fraught with isolation, baiting, and a sense of physical danger from the rest of the crew. Moynihan took high risk assignments to prove himself, and he worked hard to learn the job and apply himself to the grueling work. With the help of some hard learned survival skills, and a lot of hash, beer, drunkenness and less than enthusiastic whoring, he came to understand and identify with the other members of the crew and win their acceptance. It was in some way his own passage through the poor and rough and tumble world where his father began. But however much a famous father is mixed up in John Moynihan’s quixotic quest on this journey, his triumph in this experience was his own. The Voyage of the Rose City is his small legacy. The reader cannot help feel that behind this small book was a spirit that was large and brave, belonging to a young man who had an exceptional intelligence and a desire to engage the world in an elemental way. It makes us sad he is no longer with us.

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