American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

“MAROONED” LITERATURE. Although the theme of the marooned (forcibly abandoned) or castaway (shipwrecked*) sailor is not unknown in American literature, there is little to compare with the stature of the two non-American works: Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Johann David Wyss’ The Swiss Family Robinson (1812-1813). There is instead a handful of what were once widely read factual narratives, primarily from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as well as occasional uses of the theme in imaginative literature.

Not surprisingly, the earliest such accounts in North American maritime history made their way into the literatures of other nations. These include the story of the marooning of Marguerite de La Roque on the “Isle of Demons” off the eastern coast of Canada* in 1542, which soon found a place in the Heptameron (1558) of Marguerite of Navarre. More influential was William Strachey’s account of the wreck of the Sea Venture in the Bermudas in 1609 and of its castaways, A True Reportory of the Wracke, and Redemption of Sir Thomas Gates Knight (1625), an apparent source in manuscript for Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1623). Edward Cooke’s Voyage to the South Sea... Wherein Is Given an Account of Mr. Alexander Selkirk (1712) is important as source material for Robinson Crusoe.

The wreck of the Nottingham Galley out of London was perhaps the most notorious shipwreck of the eighteenth century in American waters. Bound for Boston, the Nottingham Galley ran aground on Boon Island, a rock off the coast of New Hampshire, on 11 December 1710. By the time the survivors were rescued a few weeks later, they had been reduced to cannibalizing the bodies of their dead. The ship’s captain, John Dean, and his brother Jasper published their account, A Narrative of the Shipwreck of the Nottingham Galley, in 1711. Cotton Mather promptly abridged the narrative in his Compassions Called For of the same year. The Deans produced a second version of their account in 1722, and in one form or another their story went through a number of British and American editions, becoming a staple of the “sensational” sea literature so popular at the time.

A number of important American accounts date from the early nineteenth century. One such was a Marylander’s narrative of his five years on a barren island off the southwestern coast of South America, A Journal of the Shipwreck and Sufferings of Daniel Foss (1816). Another example is A Narrative of the Sufferings and Adventures of Capt. Charles H. Barnard (1829). Captain Barnard was collecting sealskins and oil in the Falkland Islands in 1813, when he rescued a party of British castaways. Although he informed them of the war that had recently broken out between their two countries and reached an agreement with them to ignore the hostilities, he subsequently found himself marooned by the Britons. Barnard’s courage and resourcefulness enabled his small party to survive a year and a half in the harsh Antarctic climate.

Another American captain, James Riley,* ran his ship aground on the forbidding coast of northwest Africa opposite the Canary Islands on 7 September 1815. Riley described the wreck and the subsequent months of enslavement of his party by Saharawis in Loss of the American Brig Commerce (1817). The work proved phenomenally popular, selling a million copies by 1859, and was read by Abraham Lincoln when he was a child.

Fictional use of the castaway theme was made by Edgar Allan Poe* in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket* (1838) and by James Fenimore Cooper* in Homeward Bound (1838), The Crater (1847), and The Sea Lions* (1849). Its fullest imaginative deployment in American literature, however, appears in the works of Herman Melville.* In Typee* (1846) and Omoo* (1847), Melville described a situation soon to become familiar in Pacific Island literature, that of the beachcomber who has jumped ship. In “The Encantadas, or, The Enchanted Isles”* (1856) he profiled a grim gallery of voluntary and involuntary exiles in the Galapagos Islands.*

Subsequent use of the theme was made by Jack London* in the climactic scenes of The Sea-Wolf * (1904); by Charles Nordhoff* and James Norman Hall in Pitcairn’s Island (1934); by James Gould Cozzens* in his allegorical novel Castaway (1934); by Kenneth Roberts* in his fictional account of the ordeal of the crew of the Nottingham Galley, Boon Island (1956); by Scott O’Dell in the young adult novel Island of the Blue Dolphins (1960); and by Frederic Prokosch in The Wreck of the Cassandra (1966). In the harrowing John Dollar (1989), Marianne Wiggins describes the moral degeneration of young girls castaway in the Andaman Islands, Bay of Bengal, leading critics to compare it to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954). [See also SEA- DELIVERANCE NARRATIVES]

FURTHER READING: Huntress, Keith, ed. Narratives of Shipwrecks and Disasters, 1586-1860. Ames: Iowa State UP, 1974; Leslie, Edward E. Desperate Journeys, Abandoned Souls: True Stories of Castaways and Other Survivors. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988; Neider, Charles, ed. Great Shipwrecks and Castaways; Authentic Accounts of Adventures at Sea. New York: Harper, 1952; Wharton, Donald P., ed. In the Trough of the Sea: Selected American Sea-Deliverance Narratives, 1610-1766. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1979.

Grove Koger