American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

NINETEENTH-CENTURY PERIODICALS (1828-1933). First and foremost in the popular dissemination of maritime-related stories in America was Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (1850-1853). While this is by no means the earliest or the most specialized periodical relating to maritime affairs, it brought to the American masses a tremendous assortment of marine-related articles and illustrations. Within the first six months of publication, there appeared articles on sailors being attacked by sharks, the story of the storm-tossed steamer Hibernia and her mad cook, shore-whaling off the Cape of Good Hope, and a notice of the U.S. Congress passing legislation forbidding the flogging of sailors in the navy.

December 1851 saw illustrated articles on Henry Grinnell’s American Arctic* Expedition in search of Sir John Franklin and on the Boston Tea Party. There also appeared a brief announcement about the squadron being sent from New York to Japan under Matthew Calbraith Perry* to initiate trade, the famed Japan Expedition. In January 1854 the maritime history of Dutch and English relations with Japan formed a thirteen-page article directly related to the Perry expedition. That March, the Grinnell Expedition was again featured with an illustrated follow-up article based on the experiences of Elisha Kent Kane, doctor in the U.S. Navy, as published in his book The U.S. Grinnell Expedition in Search of Sir John Franklin: A Personal Narrative (1853).

In March 1856, two extraordinary articles appeared in Harper’s New Monthly. The first, a twenty-five-page piece entitled “Commodore Perry’s Expedition to Japan,” gave Americans their first glimpse of the inhabitants of “that strange country.” There were illustrations of Japanese merchants, peasants, and regents as well as street scenes and architecture, in addition to a portrait of Perry himself. The next article, “The Story of the Whale,” was on a subject equally strange and remote to most Americans. It combined cetology with whaling history, descriptions of technology, curious events both real and imaginary, and a romantic description of life at sea away from “licentious civilization” (466).

Harper’s also produced an illustrated weekly, Harper’s Weekly, a Journal of Civilization (1857-1916). Published in New York, it was a powerful organ of public opinion, forming the basis for illustrated history books. The most dramatic illustrations often accompanied the shortest stories. For instance, the cover illustration for 25 June 1864, the “Burning of the Steamer Berkshire, on the Hudson River, on the Night of June 8, 1864,” is based on six short paragraphs, and the large and terrifying wood engraving “Parrot on a Rampage” is based on a single paragraph describing how, in a storm, a monstrous Parrot gun broke loose from its stays onboard the U.S. steamer Richmond off Mobile (14 May 1864). An impressive two-page illustration from 13 February 1864 of “The United States Sloop of War Richmond on Blockade Duty, off Mobile” gave the public a dramatic look at the nature of naval activities during the Civil War. This story was supported by another two-page illustration, “A Story of the Sea, Incidents in the Life of a Sailor,” which had as its focal vignette, naturally, a shipwreck,* and is surrounded by other vignettes of “Heaving the Lead,” “Furling Sail,” and “In a Foreign Port” (12 March 1864). Shipwrecks were often recorded and pictured in every illustrated newsweekly of the nineteenth century; likewise, many new vessels, especially those incorporating unique naval architecture, received special notice.

There were other illustrated magazines, such as the weekly Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper (1855-1891), published in New York and hyped as “The Pictorial and Literary History of the Times.” Some of its marine- related articles were decidedly historical and literary. In the issue of 7 January 1871, Harriet Prescott Spofford’s eight-column article, “Some Legends of the New England Coast: The True Account of Captain Kidd,” decries the activities of New England coastal treasure-seekers and then fully describes the life and times of this merchant-captain-turned-pirate, including his trial and hanging.

As in any free-press journal of the American Union, Leslie’s has its editorial side as well. The issue of 21 January 1871 devotes a column and a half to upholding the good name of the Civil War admiral David Dixon Porter, who came under attack by General Benjamin Franklin Butler over a private letter he had written in wartime condemning the actions of General Ulysses S. Grant. Other marine-related articles from 1871 include “Winter Life among the Wreckers” (18 February), an illustrated story of the American storeships Supply, Saratoga, and Hunter en route to Havre to supply foodstuffs to war-torn France (18 March), the explosion of the ferryboat Westfield (12 August), and a charming little cover story, “The Belle of the Voyage,” which highlights the attentions that a beautiful woman may obtain from the captains of transatlantic voyages (8 April). Many interesting whaling stories appear in this publication.

America’s first illustrated newsweekly, Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion (1851-1854), which later became Ballou’s Pictorial DrawingRoom Companion (1854-1859), featured an exalted view of a busy Boston harbor as its masthead. Like Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, these periodicals are a combination of literature, history, current events, and valuable knowledge. Within the latter category one could find such articles as the 28 January 1854 two-page spread “Minute Representation of an American Line-of-Battle-Ship, with Full Explanation of Its Parts.” This includes two superb views: an exterior broadside view delineating the sails, rigging, hull, and structural components of the vessel and an interior cutaway showing the arrangements of the various decks and the activities therein.

Steamships are another frequent highlight. Saturday, 4 March 1854, features a two-page illustration of “The Collins Fleet of New York and Liverpool American Mail Steamers.” A week later, it is a U.S. mail steamer entering the port of Havana, Cuba. This latter illustration is part of a larger article about Havana, which includes a bird’s-eye view of the city and harbor. The same issue has a half-page illustration of the steamer Eastern City. The 18 March cover story is about the “New Steamship William Norris of Philadelphia.” Other steam vessels featured in 1854 include the Philadelphia iceboat (25 February), the Royal Navy flagship Duke of Wellington (22 April), river steamers Missouri and Humboldt (15 April), the U.S. mail steamship John L. Stephens (1 April), the Himalaya of Great Britain, “the largest steamship in the world” (18 March), the royal mail steamship America (17 June), the steam yacht Sayed Pacha, built for his highness the grand admiral of the Egyptian fleet (10 June), the U.S. steam frigate Fulton (24 June), and the “very artistic and pleasing model of maritime grace and beauty,” the French screw-steamer Laromiguere (3 June). Other miscellaneous marine-related articles included a tribute to Nathaniel Bowditch* (25 March) and an article on Caribbean* underwater archaeology conducted by James A. Whipple upon the Spanish ship-of-the-line San Pedro Alcantara in the waters off the Venezuelan island port of Coche, which includes a detailed illustration of a diver with helmet, air supply, and a diving bell (24 June 1854).

Periodicals specifically written for and about sailors and maritime affairs include The Sailor’s Magazine, and Naval Journal (1828-1933), published by the Seamen’s Friend Society in New York, and The Friend (1843-1925), first published by Samuel C. Damon, seamen’s chaplain, Honolulu. Both magazines were created expressly to promote temperance, Christianity, and the development of a “bond of union,” whereby sailors could be rescued from “the fangs of monsters in wickedness” (Sailor's Magazine, and Naval Journal, September 1828). Articles include poetry, a naval journal, classified advertising, disasters, reports of various seamen’s bethels,* and the Seamen’s Friend Society, as well as features on sailors’ Sabbaths at sea and narrative accounts of all sorts. Other periodicals of a similar nature include The Sea Bird, Devoted to the Best Interests of Sea Men and Their Families (18571860), published in New York by the Mariner’s Family Industrial Society, and Sheet Anchor (1843-1847), published in Boston by Jonathan Howe. Much like the Sailor's Magazine and The Friend, the Sheet Anchor has standard columns relating to seamen’s homes in various cities and ports, poetry and verse, temperance and disasters. It also has book reviews, advertisements, and an obituary column. Whaling-related stories, oil prices, and other whale-fishery matters are frequent.

Literary magazines such as The Knickerbocker, or New York Monthly Magazine (1833-1865), published in New York by John A. Gray, contain occasional articles or stories relating to maritime affairs. Some fairly important maritime writings appear in The Knickerbocker, such as J. N. Reynolds,* “Mocha Dick, or the White Whale of the Pacific: A Leaf from a Manuscript Journal” (May 1839), one of Herman Melville’s* sources for Moby-Dick* (1851). A very informative article from the point of view of marine affairs in nineteenth-century periodicals appeared in the March 1859 issue. Entitled “Seamanship of The Atlantic Monthly,” its author, Duncan McLean, asserts that an article called “Men of the Sea,” from the January 1859 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, which describes sailors as degraded, was written out of inexperience, ignorance, and stupidity. His own assertion that “the seamen of our day have not degenerated” seems more in keeping with publications such as Harper's and Leslie's, where the activities of ships and sailors are extolled rather than bemoaned.

Scribner's Monthly Illustrated Magazine for the People (1870-1930), published in New York by Charles Scribner’s Sons, features the work of prominent authors and illustrators of its time, though not every issue has items of maritime merit. Some examples include “Ocean Passenger Travel” by John H. Gould (April 1891), which outlines both the history of transatlantic steam navigation, including record passages, as well as the comforts and vagaries of the typical passage from the viewpoint of the traveler. An item of particular interest in this article is the bill of fare as described for first cabin, second-cabin, and steerage passengers. In the same issue is a story called “Where the Ice Never Melts; The Cruise of the U.S. Steamer Thetis in 1889” by Robert Gordon Butler, describing the perils of Arctic* navigation and shipwreck. The Thetis had been sent to the Alaskan Arctic for the purpose of building the U.S. government-sponsored house of refuge at Point Barrow, as well as to stand by to help any vessels of the whaling fleet there that may have gotten into difficulty.

By the first half of the nineteenth century, whaling had become such a large and complex industry that in 1843 a newspaper was published in New Bedford entitled Whalemen’s Shipping List and Merchants’ Transcript (1843-1914). Its stated purpose is to provide information to “ship owners and merchants, and not less so to the parents and wives, the sisters, sweethearts, and friends of that vast multitude of men, whose business is upon the mighty deep” (Whalemen’s Shipping List and Merchants’ Transcript, March 1843, p. 8). Every issue lists port of registry, rig, tonnage, captains, owners, dates of departure and arrival, cargo, and miscellaneous comments for every vessel engaged in the industry. It is the primary source for Alexander Starbuck’s History of the American Whale Fishery (1878). [See also CONFEDERATE NAVAL FICTION; COOPER, JAMES FENIMORE; DAVIS, REBECCA HARDING; JUVENILE LITERATURE; LIFESAVING LITERATURE; MELVILLE, HERMAN; PIRATE LITERATURE; POE, EDGAR ALLAN]

FURTHER READING: Exman, Eugene. The Brothers Harper, New York: Harper, 1965; Kouwenhoven, John A. Adventures of America, 1857-1900: A Pictorial Record from Harper’s Weekly. New York: Harper, 1938; Lomazow, Steven. American Periodicals: A Collector’s Manual and Reference Guide. West Orange, NJ: Steven Lomazow, 1996; Mott, Frank Luther. A History of American Magazines. 5 vols. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1930-1968.

Michael P. Dyer