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the sway of the grand saloon

20 December 2004

John Malcolm Brinnin's Sway of the Grand Saloon (1971) was brought back into print by Barnes & Noble in 2000 and can still occasionally be found haunting the chain giant's bargain racks. It's the kind of book that has gone the way of the leviathan ocean liners that it chronicles: vast, ornate, eclectic, high-toned. For all its datedness, however, The Sway of the Grand Saloon conveys its rich material in ways that might elude contemporary argument- or narrative-driven histories.

Brinnin was a man of letters -- another now-archaic category -- and his scope in Sway is not documentary history alone, but literature, popular culture, journalism, engineering, and even ancillary fields like medicine (to witness the discovery of Dramamine) and art history (to relate how Blue Boy came to reside in the Huntington Gallery). In his voracious interdisciplinary reading, Brinnin anticipated the purview of cultural studies, if none of its theoretical or political underpinnings.

Brinnin surveys steamship travel across the North Atlantic from the earliest crossing by the Savannah in 1819 to the launching of the Queen Elizabeth 2 in 1968. The structure of Sway of the Grand Saloon is largely that of an interwoven set of biographies of individual ships. Like the great liners themselves, Brinnin is in no jet-age hurry to get to his destination. This book is 550+ large pages of lore about the sea -- from the perspective not of sailors but of passengers.

Much of the book is simply a collage of quotations from writers, journalists, and diarists. Though Brinnin never tells a personal story and never situates himself as an "I" in the writing, the book has a consistent tone of experience and savoir faire: as if Brinnin had been there on board the great ships he writes about. Most likely, he had travelled on the great latter-day ships, the Queen Mary, United States, France, and Queen Elizabeth; but writing with an absolute assurance of tone, Brinnin evokes passages on ships scrapped long before he was born: the Britannia, the Great Eastern, the Oceanic.

The Sway of the Grand Saloon is subtitled "A social history of the North Atlantic," and though it is never theorized as academic history might be, it evokes, through lavish description, the history of a small but powerful world of transatlantic travelers. Social class is always at the fore of Brinnin's anecdotes, and his social perspective is always clear: one of a knowing observer who can look down on the pretensions of the first class, sneer at the gaucherie of tourist third, and maintain a sort of respect en masse for the thousands of immigrants in steerage without ever thinking their individual stories of much importance.

I can never read a book like The Sway of the Grand Saloon without remembering that my great-grandparents came over in steerage, and that I would be stretched to make a crossing in tourist third if you translated my income back into 1920s dollars. Brinnin's greatest observation here -- at times quite an overt observation -- is that the lines between social classes, steadily eroding throughout the 150-year heyday of the steam liner, were drawn all the more brightly at sea, the last refuge of Western hierarchy. It's a brilliantly animated observation, though the methods of the book are increasingly passé.

Brinnin, John Malcolm. The Sway of the Grand Saloon: A social history of the North Atlantic. 1971. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2000.