When I first read the introduction to James Thurber’s My Life and Hard Times some fifteen years ago, I laughed out loud at the mixture of menace, melancholy, and absurdity in its concluding sentence: “As F. Hopkinson Smith long ago pointed out, the claw of the sea-puss gets us all in the end.” “The claw of the sea-puss” is pretty unbeatable as a simultaneously ridiculous and terrifying metaphor for the ravages of time and death. I imagined the sea-puss as a cute but murderous deep-sea monster, some fell hybrid of crab and Hello Kitty, perhaps betentacled and squid-beaked as well. I meant to look up “sea-puss,” and F. Hopkinson Smith, of course, at the time, but I was living a careless, profligate existence when I was in my early twenties, and I became distracted by other things (not least by laughing at other things in Thurber’s book, like the “Get Ready Man”) and I simply forgot about them.
I recently reread My Life and Hard Times, however, and I’m happy to say that the World Wide Web has the sea-puss answers I seek. According to Webster’s online dictionary, “sea puss” is an alteration of an Algonquian word for river, and means “a swirling or along shore undertow.” According to a number of sites I could find, F. Hopkinson Smith was for most of his life a marine engineer, and designed the foundations for the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. In short, Smith was a man intimately familiar with the powers of the sea-puss. Smith didn’t begin to write until later in his life, apparently egged on by friends because he was such an engaging “after-dinner raconteur.” I found one of Smith’s novels, The Tides of Barnegat, on Google Books. Chapter XXII is entitled, “The Claw of the Sea-Puss.” The flavor of Smith’s prose, and the terrible destructive power of the sea-puss, can be found in an earlier passage, describing the weather at a beach in the fall:
The cruel north wind now wakes, and with a loud roar joins hands with the savage easter; the startled surf falls upon the beach like a scourge. Under their double lash the outer bar cowers and sinks; the frightened sand flees hither and thither. Soon the frenzied breakers throw themselves headlong, tearing with teeth and claws, burrowing deep into the hidden graves. Now the forgotten wrecks, like long-buried sins, rise and stand naked, showing every scar and stain. This is the work of the sea-puss—the revolving maniac born of close-wed wind and tide; a beast so terrible that in a single night, with its auger-like snout, it bites huge inlets out of farm lands—mouthfuls deep enough for ships to sail where but yesterday the corn grew.
If that has whetted your appetite, you can read Smith’s entire novel online at its page on Google Books. And may you avoid the sea-puss’s awful claw for as long as you can.