American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

MERMAID LITERATURE. One might assume that an anatomically impossible creature like a half-fish, half-woman would appear—at least occasionally—in the literature of the fantastic, but a search produces few references to mermaids in American literature. There is no shortage of “mermaid” Web sites, however.

Mermaids seem to have been a European phenomenon, as least as far as literature is concerned. “I have heard the mermaids singing,” says J. Alfred Prufrock in T. S. Eliot’s* “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915); “I have seen them riding seaward on the waves.” Maybe Eliot/Prufrock did see them, but few other American authors did. The most famous mermaid story, of course, is Hans Christian Andersen’s “Little Mermaid” (1846), and Oscar Wilde wrote a story called “The Fisherman and His Soul” (1891), in which a man falls in love with a mermaid he catches in his net. Mermaids appear in the poetry of Shakespeare, John Donne, William Butler Yeats, Matthew Arnold, and Alfred Tennyson, but across the Atlantic, only Emily Dickinson* saw “the mermaids in the basement” of the sea (Poem #520, 1891). Oliver Wendell Holmes* includes mermaids in the last line of his parody “The Ballad of the Oysterman” (1828). The sea nymphs of William Cullen Bryant’s* “A Day-Dream” (1860) also have many of the qualities of the mermaid. One contemporary title, Lisa Carey’s The Mermaids Singing (1998), concerns how myth and truth and the sea’s healing powers affect three generations of Irish American women. Perhaps British poets, like other Britons, are closer to the sea than their American counterparts and are therefore more likely to encounter the mer-folk. Christopher Columbus* claimed to have seen “sirens” in the West Indies, but they were probably homely manatees, and 100 years later, in much colder waters, Henry Hudson saw a blue-haired mermaid. For the most part, however, “real” mermaids, as opposed to literary devices, are more common in European waters.

At least some of today’s “literature” can be seen on the large or small screen, and there have been a surprising number of movies featuring mermaids. There are Tarzan and the Mermaids, made in 1938; Million Dollar Mermaid, a 1952 Esther Williams vehicle; and Mermaids, a 1990 film with Cher and Winona Ryder that has nothing whatever to do with women with fish tails.

In 1948, however, Glynis Johns starred in a British movie called Miranda, in which she actually wore a mermaid tail. She is caught off Cornwall by a fisherman and rescued by a doctor who has to decide whether he wants to stay with her in a cave or introduce her to civilization. She prefers dry land to the sea, except when she gets wet, at which time her tail reappears. Because the movie was such a success in England, Hollywood quickly turned out their own version, called Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid (1948), starring William Powell and Ann Blyth. In this number, Mr. Peabody, a proper Bostonian on vacation in the Caribbean,* hooks a mermaid while fishing and brings her home to his hotel. He immediately falls in love with her, and she with him, although she can communicate her feelings only through an adoring gaze, since she cannot talk. After returning to Boston, Peabody tells his tale to a psychiatrist, who informs him that it was only a hallucinatory midlife crisis.

Ann Blyth’s mermaid is a peculiar combination of 1940s bathing beauty and traditional mermaid. For most of the film, those who see the mermaid see only her tail, so they derogatorily refer to her as a fish, but there are other references to her as a “sea cow” or a “manatee,” revealing that the producers were aware of the mermaid’s true lineage. One curious element in this and other mermaid movies is the arrangement of the tail fin. In order for a human in a mermaid outfit to swim, she must move her “tail” up and down, for that is the only way human legs can move. (Of the aquatic vertebrates, only the whales, dolphins, and sirenians use a horizontal tail motion.) But mermaids in movies are not bound by restraints that affect mortals, so despite the cetological orientation of the empennage, the tail structure is usually shown with the scales of a fish.

In Splash, a 1984 version of the mermaid-and-mortal love story, the mermaid is played by Darryl Hannah, and her mortal paramour by Tom Hanks. The mermaid arrives in New York, having swum from Cape Cod* to seek her true love. Unfortunately (and inexplicably), she can stay only for six days, but the couple falls into a torrid romance, and while she could not talk at all when they met (like all descendants of Andersen’s mermaid), she learns English in an afternoon by watching television at Bloomingdale’s. She is placed in a giant fish tank at the American Museum of Natural History (where we see her scales and her horizontal tail), and she escapes. After a chase through the streets of New York, she fetches up at a pier at the South Street Seaport. As the army closes in, she leaps into the East River, and her handsome prince follows.

In 1989 the contemporary apotheosis of the mermaid emerges in a Walt Disney animated film, The Little Mermaid. Hans Christian Andersen gets a credit (“based on a story by ...”), and just as Andersen wrote it, the mermaid falls in love with handsome Prince Eric. Because she is not allowed to visit mortals, she strikes a deal with Ursula the Sea Witch, a marvelous character who has the upper body of a garish woman and an evening dress that terminates in the tentacles of an octopus. In exchange for giving her legs, Ursula takes the mermaid’s voice and will take her soul if she cannot get the prince to kiss her by sunset of the third day. The Disney people improvised a “happily ever after” ending, designed to get audiences to leave the theater singing some of the songs written by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, one of which (“Under the Sea”) won an Academy Award.

The mermaid, having made regular appearances throughout the literature and mythology of Europe, remained submerged and invisible throughout most of the American narratives but took to the silver screen like—well, you know.

FURTHER READING: de Rachewiltz, Siegfried W. De Sirenibus: An Inquiry into Sirens from Homer to Shakespeare. New York: Garland, 1987; Ellis, Richard. Monsters of the Sea. New York: Knopf, 1994; Gachot, Theodore. Mermaids: Nymphs of the Sea. San Francisco: Collins, 1996.

Richard Ellis