June 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 4
Will success spoil Hardy Lee? Or, a nautical tale with a pertinent moral
When in 1857 a young Boston doctor published his refreshing volume of two dozen lithographs detailing the eventful nautical (and romantic) career of Mr. Hardy Lee, he probably did not realize that he was making a contribution of incalculable value to the pictorial history of American yachting. Nor did the fortunate recipients of the privately printed book (who, of course, knew the identity of the author-artist hiding modestly behind the pseudonym “Chinks”) appreciate its uniqueness. Mr. Hardy Lee, His Yacht was, in fact, the first American book on the sport. It has also become one of the rarest, for less than a dozen copies are presently known to exist.
Though contemporary reviewers in the Boston papers made broad hints about “Chinks,” they respected the doctor’s wish for anonymity. And so, as once-obvious clues grew more elusive with the passing of time, the task of identifying him became increasingly difficult. Fortunately, certain leads did turn up, the most definite of which was a notice from the Boston Advertiser: “The sketches are by a young gentleman of this city,” the reviewer commented, “who could be recognized, if the anonymous veil were lifted, as the author of many a striking little sketch which has afforded amusement and pleasure at Harvard and in social Boston circles.”
By process of elimination, Harvard class reports suggested the name of Charles Ellery Stedman, ’52, a Bostonian of good family who dabbled in art when he was not busy practicing medicine, and who was apparently quite unlike his bored and somewhat dandyish bachelor hero, Hardy Lee. It may well be wondered why Dr. Stedman’s book is so little known today. Undoubtedly it was published in a private and extremely limited edition, its circulation restricted to a select group of family and friends; the author did not even bother to copyright it. But the comparative rarity of the original is far from the only reason for publishing here twelve of the best lithographs of the series, for the pictures themselves make the book a treasure-trove of information on the early days of yachting in America as well as a good-natured comment on the mores of mid-nineteenth-century Boston society, seagoing and otherwise.
And the mythical Windseye —what a smart, well-found little schooner yacht! Note the details of her build and rig, the loose-footed foresail, clipper bow, and decorated trailboards—or the magnetic compass which was taken out on fine days and set up on one of those metal, hourglass-shaped life-preserver stools. It was this instrument which so excited the curiosity of Mr. Lee’s ingenuous lady friend from New York. As she remarked to the captain of the craft—who nearly dropped the tiller in astonishment—“I can’t see now, how that little card makes the rudder turn.”
Boston girls, of course, would never commit such a monstrous nautical gaffe!
Note, too, the comfortable cabin with its swinging condiment rack, and the neatly curtained berths on either side. On one stormy occasion, however, Mr. Lee’s landlubber guests found even these snug quarters somewhat less than agreeable. Poor Fred, urged by his host to wake up and have “a sardine and a glass of porter,” must have wished that he were dead.
One must condone the occasional, well-intentioned puns, “Mr. Hardy Lee” (hard-alee) itself striking the keynote. “Taking a tender in tow” suggests that the hero pursued (one hesitates to say hardily) as successful a course with the ladies as with the yacht—even though his courting was interrupted at a most crucial moment by a sailor in search of the “fore-peak-halliards.” So much, perhaps, for Mr. Lee’s nautical career.
A little more than a dozen years ago, the Club of Odd Volumes in Boston produced a limited facsimile edition of Mr. Hardy Lee for its members. The foregoing information about the original book has been taken liberally from the introduction which I wrote then, and Dr. Walter Muir Whitehill, director of the Boston Athenaeum and clerk of the Club of Odd Volumes, has graciously given permission for the present publication in AMERICAN HERITAGE.