Kent Rasmussen, a long time buff

The Society is delighted to welcome from Thousand Oaks California, Kent Rasmussen, the well-known author of books on Mark Twain.

Kent writes: –

I’ve been a Hornblower buff since my college days in Berkeley, where I grew up. My family lived in north Berkeley, not far, I believe, from where Forester was living at the time he appeared on a television interview show during the 1950s. Wasn’t that Edward R. Murrow’s Person to Person? I don’t recall watching that show myself, but I recall being impressed when I learned that a network television crew had come to Forester’s nearby house.

I started reading Hornblower books around 1964, while I was a college student at the University of California in Berkeley. By that time, Forester, I believe, was living nearer to the campus. I graduated from the university in June 1966, only two months after Forester died. At some point–it must have been later–I regretted not having started reading Forester’s books when I was younger and Forester was still alive and living nearby. I would have liked to meet him, or at least see him around his house.

My interest in Forester grew stronger in 1971-72, when I was living in London and doing research for my UCLA doctoral dissertation. During that period, I bought and read most of the paperback editions of Forester’s books that were then available. I think I read all of his novels that were in print (except The Sky and the Forest, which I shunned for many years because of its unsatisfactory depiction of African culture). I also discovered his Long Before Forty. I read that book three times and thought it quite wonderful, until John Forester later told me it was full of lies. It’s still a great read, of course. Especially the chapter titled “The Big Boom.”

While I was working in the British Library, I pulled the library’s massive catalogs out so I could identify every book Forester published. I believe it was in a discussion in Long Before Forty of his writing British Rail travel brochures that Forester mused about the challenge any future biographer would face trying to track down everything he (Forester) had published. At that time I was wondering if I might become that future biographer, in which case perhaps my initial foray at the BM was my first step. Well, here I am 45 years later and haven’t become–and am not likely to become–Forester’s biographer, but my interest in his writings remains keen. I have, however, become a writer myself–not a novelist, but mainly a writer of history and literary criticism. Beyond my many books, my credited and uncredited briefer publications must stretch into the thousands, if one counts every little piece that has found itself way into print. I mention this simply to make the point that over the years, I have occasionally thought about Forester’s remark about a future biographer’s challenge to track down his publications and realized that I could say the same thing about myself–with the difference being there’s not a chance in hell anyone will ever want to write my biography. I was actually thinking about my bibliographical records the other day, when I realized I have long since lost interest in even keeping track of reviews of my books. Even I don’t care.

Getting back to Hornblower… if you were to look me up on amazon.com, you would find I have published 12 books on Mark Twain (with more in progress), and it would be a reasonable guess that Mark Twain is my favorite author. That guess would be accurate. However, although I’ve read most of Mark Twain’s books at least a half-dozen times each, I have read the Hornblower novels even more times. One normally doesn’t keep accurate counts of this sort of thing, but I’ve read all 11 Hornblower novels at least ten times each–maybe as many as a dozen times. These days, however, I’m far more likely to listen to the books on unabridged recordings than to read printed copies. Audiobook listening I do keep track of (I used to review audiobooks for Library Journal, which, incidentally, had me review at least seven Hornblower recordings), and my database helps me remember when it’s time to go through the whole series again. I do that every two or three years but always struggle to resist the itch to return to them sooner. I last went through all the books about six months ago, so I’ll have to wait at least another year and a half.

I just examined my audiobook database to see what my Hornblower listening record has been. I’m pretty sure every time I have listened to Midshipman Hornblower, I also listened to all the other volumes, my so Midshipman listening record should reflect the series as a whole. Here are the dates: April 1994; August 1998 ; Nov. 2001; Nov. 2002; Nov. 2004; Nov. 2007; Dec. 2009; Apr. 2013; March 2017.

This sequence has been more erratic than I realized, but it shows I’ve listened to all the book nine times over the past 23 years. Also, I’m sure I had read the books in print at least three times over the previous three decades, so it looks like I really have read all the books at least a dozen times. (Incidentally, isn’t it curious how many times I started reading the books in November and December between 2001 and 2009? I was working full time in those days and doing most of my listening while commuting. I retired in 2010, so my listening habits have changed.)

One of the things I love about the Hornblower books is that despite my deep familiarity with them, they can still surprise me occasionally. An imperfect memory helps there, especially as my limited familiarity with sailing terminology (despite my having served in the U.S. Coast Guard) makes it difficult for me always to be sure I understand the fine points of sailing maneuvers in battles and the like.

I’ve listened to close to 1,000 unabridged audiobooks over the past 25 years, and I can confidently say I regard the Hornblower books as nearly perfect for that medium. A major reason is that they’re all linear narratives entirely from Hornblower’s point of view–a fact that makes them very easy to follow in the often distracting conditions of book listening–such as driving a car, riding a bike, walking, or working out at a gym. Whether one’s listening is continuous or interrupted, one never loses track of the narrative’s point of view–it’s always (or nearly always*) Hornblower’s. I always look forward to returning to the books, which seem like warm, inviting friends. (*Lt. Hornblower occasionally shifts to Bush’s POV.)

Well, I never became Forester’s biographer, but I have published a few reference-book articles about him, in addition to the audiobook reviews I mentioned. Years ago, I also got a little mileage out of The African Queen in an article I wrote for the Book of Lists (vol. 2 or 3) about movies that added happy endings to novels. African history, incidentally, was my field of doctoral research (hence my objection to The Sky and the Forest), and I’ve always been amused by the impossible geography of the Ulanga River. It’s been a while since I’ve read the novel, but the movie is one of my all-time favorites.

Speaking of impossibilities … when I was in grad school, I knew a student who had spent 14 years as a missionary in East Africa. She strongly criticized The African Queen for having a Protestant missionary posted in Africa with his sister–something my friend said would never have been done. I never studied missionaries themselves closely myself, but virtually all the Protestant missionaries I encountered in my research on 19th century Africa were in Africa with their wives. I think the reason for that  was to assure members of African societies that the missionaries were “normal” men. Anyway, my ex-missionary friend insisted that Samuel and Rose Sayer were an impossible combination.

This has been a much longer note than I planned to write and has gone off in directions I hadn’t intended, so I had better turn to the main reason I decided to write to you: I thought there were some errors in the website’s list of American titles of the Hornblower books, but on further checking, I’m now not so sure. For example, I was thinking that the American title Mr. Midshipman Hornblower didn’t have “Mr.” in it; however, I either imagined that or once happened to have a maverick edition that dropped the honorific.

I was also thinking that the title of the American edition of Flying Colours was Flying Colors (no u), but I noticed a lot of American editions on Amazon with the British spelling. Here’s an exception:

 

My early Little, Brown copies all have “Colours.” So, forget my quibbles.

BTW, I responded to the online polling questions. The poll asking which novel is one’s favorite would be more interesting if it asked us to list all 11 titles in order (a tougher challenge to set up on the web, no doubt). The website’s list summarizing the votes is close to my overall ranking of the titles, but it can’t really reflect readers’ overall preference accurately. My own least favorite book is Admiral Hornblower, which ranks near the bottom of that list. However, the title at the very bottom is Hornblower and the Crisis, which has 1.43% of the vote. Does that mean 1.42% of respondents ranked it no. 1? I can’t imagine anyone ranking it first, as it’s an incomplete story; however, I’d be surprised if most readers ranked it last. I’ll bet that if everyone ranked all 11 titles, that title would be higher in the list.

My own favorite title is Lt. Hornblower. I like it because of what I call its “double story”: It’s about the challenge of defeating the Spanish on Santo Domingo and at the same time it’s about Hornblower’s controlling events through his tactful manipulation of the first lieutenant. And, of course, it has a very satisfactory resolution. When I mentioned my “double story” idea to John Forester (I’ve never met him, but I conversed with him by phone several times years ago), he instantly agreed with me. (Incidentally, one of the reasons I’ve never brought myself to read Parkinson’s Life and Times of Horatio Hornblower–though I’ve owned the book for many years is because I haven’t wanted to pollute my memory with his version of Hornblower’s involvement in Captain Sawyer’s fall in Lt. H.)

My second favorite novel is Ship of the Line. I like it a lot because it’s the one novel in the series in which Hornblower is in full command (as opposed to shadow command, as in Lt. H) of a ship of a line, and it’s full of fascinating naval action. I was surprised that Flying Colours ranks so high among respondents. I like that novel, too, but it strikes me as fundamentally different because most of it takes place on shore.  I suppose the same might be said of Lord Hornblower–which annoyed the hell out of me by unnecessarily killing off Bush. (Forester had an unhealthy predilection for killing unoffending characters–Bush, Maria, Maria’s first two children, Marie, Lt. Mound, and others)

Here’s  a question I’ve long wanted to ask fellow Hornblower buffs: Am I alone in regarding Hornblower and the Atropos as a little out of place in the series? I’ve always felt that way about that book but have never been completely sure why. Probably has a lot to do with the absence of Bush in the story. Forester wrote it immediately after writing Lt. H. and knowing that Atropos would be followed by the captain trilogy, commodore, and lord–in all of which Bush figures prominently–but he left Bush out of Atropos. Why? Could it have been that he needed a less competent first lieutenant for the story? Also, the nature of Hornblower’s mission in Atropos is very different than that of the other novels, which feature more conventional naval action.  I always enjoy the story, but it does seem a little odd to me.

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