American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

GREAT LAKES LITERATURE. An accident of geology, the abandoned scourings of the Wisconsin glacier, the Great Lakes have made possible a maritime commerce that began before Native Americans first traded with Europeans for furs in the sixteenth century. The Algonquian word odawa first meant “trader” before it was applied to an artificially created tribal unit, and these precontact mariners ferried copper and furs to trade with tribes distant from the Lakes. The odawa perfected the first long, lean, indigenous Lakes vessel—the birchbark canoe—the ancestor of modern, 1,000-foot bulk carriers. Native culture created the first literature of the Great Lakes as well, stories about a unique underwater monster, a spiny lynx known as Micipijiu (Missipeshu), who ruled this world of waters by raising storms that endangered everyone who traveled there. His malevolence undiminished by time or marine engineering, Micipijiu survives in rock paintings on the Precambrian Shield on the north shore of Lake Superior, in the texts of ethnologists such as Henry Rowe Schoolcraft,* in the folklore of freshwater sailors, and in contemporary novels. His work offers a fitting representative of waters classed among the most dangerous on earth.

European American history and literature on the Lakes, which began as early as the Puritan settlements in New England, have always been linked inextricably with commercial and industrial expansion. Father Louis Hennepin, who accompanied Rene Robert Cavelier, de la Salle in 1679 on the first ship to sail the upper Lakes, immediately recognized their potential for development into another Mediterranean basin. The furs ferried east in long maitre canoes were the prizes of the French and Indian War (1756-1763) and the War of 1812 (1812-1815) that defined the fledgling United States as a nation. Immigrants who later sailed through the Lakes seeking economic prosperity in the Northwest Territories, which were rich in copper, iron, salt, limestone, lumber, and prairie land, followed routes developed by Native Americans and extended by the great drive for economic and national expansion that characterized the nineteenth century. They created a concentration of agriculture, industry, and urban enterprise that defined American and Canadian* business and inspired what is commonly thought of as Great Lakes literature: the novels of freshwater merchant marine culture.

This literature, initiated by an anonymous novel titled Scenes on Lake Huron* in 1836 and by James Fenimore Cooper’s* The Pathfinder* in 1840, began as a response to class and cultural conflicts on the emerging frontier. When Cooper pits Jasper, the young captain of a Lakes vessel, against Cap, a tradition-bound saltwater mate, their encounter epitomizes the North American experience of western expansion: survival demanded new skills and a willingness to break with centuries-old traditions. Herman Melville* joined this contest with “The Town-Ho’s Story” in Moby-Dick* (1851), describing the Lakes there as “swept by Borean and dismasting blasts as direful as any that lash the salted wave” (ch. 54) and creating another Lakes sailor who triumphs over a traditional saltwater captain.

Once frontier culture was superseded by industrialization, however, the romantic cast of Lakes fiction could no longer be sustained except in historical novels. The industrialization of the Great Lakes in the nineteenth century coincided with the rise of realism in the United States; therefore, the fiction created was a proletarian, working-class literature such as Richard Matthews Hallet’s* Trial by Fire (1915) and Jay McCormick’s* November Storm (1942), novels that attempt to make sensible experiences that were harrowing but still misunderstood because they took place on freshwater “lakes.” Hurricane-force storms, few harbors of refuge, technological obsolescence, disastrous deflation, and the vertical integration of shipping led only to death or failure for many who thought to participate in the dreams of independence first delineated by Cooper. As the twentieth century progressed, Lakes merchant marine literature became a culturally contested site once more, this time divided between realist and postrealist indictments of industrialization, such as David Mamet’s play Lakeboat* (1970), and historical romances that attempted to re-create a past free of the class, gender, and racial conflicts that still prevailed.

Women’s literature, however, charts a different course. When the Great Lakes were a maritime frontier with the concomitant fluidity of gender roles, women participated in the world outside the home, working as cooks on ships, sailing to remote outposts as missionaries, and keeping lighthouses.* Women writers could board a boat in Buffalo, New York, and within a few days be at the edge of the wilderness, then return home and write about their experiences in travel narratives, one of the most salable genres of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Others who grew up on the Lakes were able to develop lucrative careers as writers after the Civil War, when the conjunction of widespread literacy, mass-circulation magazines such as Harper’s and The Atlantic, and eastern readers’ desire to escape the problems of the Industrial Revolution and urban immigration created a market for escapist local-color fiction. Mary Hartwell Catherwood* and Constance Fenimore Woolson,* among others, began their careers publishing short stories set on the Lakes. Although writers often portrayed their women characters’ lives as difficult, they also described the freedom that the Lakes al lowed them: to work, to achieve, to be free in the small boats and canoes they treasured.

This freedom and the self-respect that accompanied it were frequently linked with the example of American Indian women. European American women early recognized that Indian women had great freedom and respect in their societies: they could own property, divorce their husbands and retain custody of their children, and participate in community decisions. Nineteenth-century white women writers had few models of feminine achievement in their own culture, and on the Great Lakes, where Indian and white cultures had lived together for centuries, the example of Indian women was powerful, particularly after capitalistic industrialization diminished women’s opportunities to participate outside the home.

Thus, the legacy of Indian life on the Great Lakes survives not only in the texts collected by ethnologists but in the fiction of white writers as well, particularly in the late twentieth century, when the themes of Great Lakes fiction change once again. No longer a site of contention about the traditions of sailing or the exploitation of workers, recent maritime literature such as Joan Skelton’s The Survivor of the Edmund Fitzgerald* (1985) critiques the ideologies of the postindustrial cultures of the Lakes. This fiction suggests that unrestrained development and resource extraction reflect a nineteenth-century viewpoint that is no longer viable and that mythic creatures such as Micipijiu, who becomes a character in Skelton’s novel, may reflect earlier cultures’ acknowledgment of the limits of technology and human ability.

As Cooper pointed out in The Pathfinder, new places require new ideas. Only by recognizing the contending forces that created the regional maritime literature of the Great Lakes can readers understand its complexity. Because the development of the Lakes coincided with the Industrial Revolution in the United States and the collateral rise of the realistic mode in literature, much of the imaginative literature portrays English-speaking, white, working-class lives, the culture that dominated the Lakes after 1776, and the decline of French and Indian influence. Although African Americans* were early drawn to the Lakes because the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 outlawed slave trading, and the historical record offers tantalizing glimpses of black shipping operations, no literature of their lives on the Lakes has been discovered.

Thus, readers must approach Great Lakes literature from multiple perspectives: as a classic literature of the sea celebrating a way of life that was dangerous and difficult but sometimes rewarded those with luck and courage; as a literature of resistance written by women and who made their own place on the frontier and later in the industrialized world that followed it; and as a fragmented record that seldom includes natives and other people of color. Without this complicated viewpoint, readers risk reducing the maritime literature of the Great Lakes to a story of men before the mast, a shorter story than it was. [See also AMERICAN INDIAN LITERATURE OF THE SEA; BATES, MARTHA E. CRAM; CADWELL, CLARA GERTRUDE; CARSE, ROBERT; CURWOOD, JAMES OLIVER; DESROSIERS, LEO-PAUL; DONER, MARY FRANCES; ELLIS, EDWARD SYLVESTER; ELLSBERG, EDWARD; FULLER, IOLA; FULLER, MARGARET; GREAT LAKES MYTHS AND LEGENDS; HAVIG- HURST, WALTER; HURLBUT, FRANCES; LANE, CARL DANIEL; MACHARG; WILLIAM; MERWIN, SAMUEL; PARETSKY, SARA; RIVER-HORSE; SNIDER, CHARLES HENRY JEREMIAH; VUKELICH, GEORGE; WOMEN AT SEA]

FURTHER READING: Brehm, Victoria. Sweetwater, Storms, and Spirits: Stories of the Great Lakes. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1990; Brehm, Victoria. “A Fully Accredited Ocean”: Essays on the Great Lakes. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1997; Brehm, Victoria. The Women’s Great Lakes Reader. Duluth, MN: Holy Cow!, 1997; Havighurst, Walter. The Great Lakes Reader. New York: Collier Macmillan, 1966; White, Richard. The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815. New York: Cambridge UP, 1991.

Victoria Brehm