Bill Adams – sailor, short story writer, poet

Bertram Martin (“Bill”) Adams is another forgotten writer who wrote for Adventure. He was a sailor on the clippers (wind powered ships), and retired from the sea when his body could not take the strain of further voyaging. Contemporary critics raved over his work, comparing him to Joseph Conrad, and he was a favorite of readers. He won literary awards for his clean and spare tales of the seas. Today his name is almost unknown.

Bill Adams c. 1951 (Courtesy and Copyright Imogene Cunningham Estate)

Bertram Martin “Bill” Adams was born on 24 February, 1879, in Sevenoaks, England, to American parents settled in Britain. His father, Francis Adams, had been a lawyer in New York State, and his mother, Charlotte Adams, was Irish. Seven years previously, they had eloped to Britain to marry; Francis Adams was sixty years old at the time. Francis Adams was quite an adventurer, having enlisted in the French Foreign Legion as a boy, and served with distinction. After that, he returned to America, and joined the Union Army in the American Civil War, serving under General Sherman and took part in the March to the Sea .

When he was little more than a baby, his mother died, and he was left in the care of a guardian as his father was frequently travelling abroad. His guardian, a spinster lady, was a strict disciplinarian who believed in “Spare the rod, spoil the child”. As a boy, he enjoyed reading Dumas, Deadwood Dick, Dickens, Scott, Chaucer and Shakespeare and learned to hate poetry, being forced to write poems at his school.

He was brought up to enter the ministry, and went to Weymouth college. He managed to convince his guardian that he was unsuited for the ministry, and left college at seventeen to become a sailor. He joined the crew of the Silberhorn, a British ship. Just before he went to sea, his father died.

For the next four years, he was at sea, rounded the Cape of Horn many times, and rose in rank from common sailor to mate. He developed a serious bronchial infection due to exposure and was told by doctors that he could never go to sea again. The captain was afraid that he would die on board the ship, and left him behind.
He settled in the San Francisco area, where his ship had left him.

Without a trade, alone and friendless, he started working as an unskilled day laborer, taking whatever jobs were available. He worked as a fruit tree grafter, hobo, house-painter, teamster, gardener, wood-chopper, stable-boy, muleteer, policeman, vineyard and orchard worker. Most of this time, he was too poor to afford the daily newspaper, and too tired to read books after the day’s work. He married sometime before 1910; the census of 1910 lists him with his wife, Dorothy M. Adams, and a daughter, Dorothy L. Adams.

Life did not get better till 1921, when he sold his first story, and was able to support himself as an author. He started writing a regular column for Outlook magazine in 1921, and later stories appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, Adventure, The Atlantic Monthly and Esquire among other magazines. In 1923, he published Fenceless Meadows – the first and only collection of his short stories that was published in his lifetime. Reviewers praised the collection and compared his writing to Joseph Conrad’s, particularly struck by his clear and simple prose. He won the O’Henry prize for short stories thrice, for Jukes (Adventure, 1926), Home is the sailor (Blue Book Magazine, 1928) and The Lubber (Adventure, 1928).

His marriage to Dorothy Adams ended some time before 1936 with her death in 1932 or 1933 (Thanks to Doug Ellis for sharing this), though I could not find any record of the event. It must have, because he married Lucy Hazard, a professor of English at Mills College, Oakland in 1936. In 1937, he published an autobiography, Ships and Women, that was well received by critics. His second marriage ended in divorce in 1944.

He published over one hundred and fifty articles in Adventure alone from 1922 to 1951. His output was split evenly between stories, poems and short articles. Bill Adams passed away on 12 Mar, 1953.

Bill Adams’ signature


  1. I've read many of his stories in ADVENTURE and enjoyed them. The photo looks exactly like I thought he would look. I was surprised to read that he did not spend more time at sea. His stories are so well done that I thought he was a sailor for many years. He did a series for ADVENTURE called "Slants on Life" and half the time I agreed with what he was saying but the other half I disagreed with his philosophic ramblings.

    Another unjustly forgotten writer.

  2. I just read my first Bill Adams story less than a year ago, and have been searching them out. I just wanted to say I love this blog, and the amount of research you do is amazing. Thanks!

  3. Thank you for the kind words. These authors had interesting lives, and wrote great stories.

    I hate that they've been forgotten to the extent that there isn't a single article on the Internet about their stories and lives, and that's what this blog aims to fix.

  4. FYI, Bill Adams' first wife, Dorothy, passed away from a long illness in either late 1932 or early 1933. I haven't been able to pin down a date yet.

  5. When I was about 12, Adams rescued me from an unpleasant domestic situation. He took me with him up to Dutch Flat and taught me how to make squirrel traps. If anyone is working on publication or a dissertation re Adams, please let me know, for I have a bundle of his letters the contents of which I'd be willing to share. (I'm 84, and really don't need to keep them private.) Peter Neumeyer

  6. Bill was a friend and sometime mentor to me when he lived in Dutch Flat. Taught me how to build squirrel traps. When, years later, I married, he wrote me beautiful letters, and in 2 weeks, at my 90th birthday party, I am reading part of one of those letters as a toast.

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