American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

JACK TAR. The term “Jack Tar” appears in Anglo-American fiction, drama, poetry, and song during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as a generic proper name for an able-bodied seaman. The name “Jack” was used in reference to a common deepwater sailor beginning in the seventeenth century, while “Tar” derives from tarpaulin, the utilitarian tarred canvas made into clothing to protect sailors from weather before the institution of regulation uniforms. From at least the appearance of Ned Ward’s satirical look at British naval life, The Wooden World Dissected in 1705, “Jack Tar” mariners were consistently associated with the qualities of candor, wry humor, haughtiness, honesty, patriotism, and bravery. Heroic American Tar characters arose with the growth of an American navy, such as those referred to in the title of the plays The Enterprize, or, A Wreath for American Tars, produced in Philadelphia in 1803, and The Naval Frolic, or A Tribute to American Tars (1812).

Specific characters named Jack Tar and others with names like Tom Haul- yard, Ben Block, and Jack Hawser, frequently appeared onstage and in books produced for both seamen and general audiences. “Hawser Martingale” was the pen name of John Sherburne Sleeper,* who wrote Jack in the Forecastle (1860); “Harry Halyard”* was the pseudonym of an author who was an important figure in American pre-Civil War sea fiction but whose identity remains unknown. Their mariner characters were usually engaged in one of two activities: at sea bravely winning their country’s battles, while on land winning the heart of an innocent lass. A modern treatment of the theme is Jesse Lemisch’s Jack Tar vs. John Bull: The Role of New York’s Seamen in Precipitating the Revolution (1997). [See also DRAMA OF THE SEA]

Daniel Finamore