Parallel stories of 19th century men show 2 different lives aboard boats

CorrespondentOctober 27, 2012 

  • Nonfiction Two Captains From Carolina: Moses Grandy, John Newland Maffitt, and the Coming of the Civil War Bland Simpson UNC Press, 192 pages

In “Two Captains from Carolina,” UNC writing professor Bland Simpson gives a straightforward account of two quite different North Carolina men, drawn to careers aboard boats.

Moses Grandy grew up along the Pasquotank River, a hired-out slave, trusted with boats and valuable cargo. He watches as his wife is sold away from the plantation when their owner needs money. Given the opportunity to buy his freedom for $600, Grandy is cheated twice before a third owner liberates him. Grandy’s story is prized by the anti-slavery movement in which he participates. Not content with his own freedom, Grandy buys his wife and searches with only partial success for his children, who have been traded away.

In Simpson’s second narrative strand, James Newland Maffitt is born at sea to an Irish mother in steerage on a New York-bound ship, on her way to reunite with young James’ father. When the elder Maffitt, a Methodist minister, feels a calling to preach from town to town rather than settling in one place, his wife moves to Texas, leaving James with his uncle, Dr. William Maffitt.

The turn of events suits young Maffitt, who eventually receives a Navy appointment from Andrew Jackson. Simpson traces Maffitt’s heroic career, which finds him at times pursuing illegal slave ships and eventually serving in the Confederate navy.

Simpson alternates between the two parallel stories, showing Grandy’s involvement in the anti-slavery movement and Maffitt’s success running down illegal slave traders before joining the Confederate navy.

At times, he resorts to flowery prose, especially in description of the flora and fauna, while giving sparser details of pivotal events in the characters’ lives.

Readers may feel disappointed to find that the two men never meet. In his epilogue, Simpson notes that while Grandy and Maffitt could have encountered each other during their parallel lives, no record confirms such a meeting. When he portrays Maffitt’s speculation about “another man, a virtual double – a doppelganger – right in one’s own place … at nearly the same time,” he shed light on his inspiration to tell these stories in tandem.

Nancy Posey lives in Hickory and teaches English at Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute.

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