American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

A ROMANCE OF THE SEA-SERPENT (1849). This novel by Eugene Batchelder (1822-1878) is one of the stranger works of American sea literature. Written in six sections called “Coils,” it opens on the yacht Hope as protagonist Dick Forbes and other “beaux and belles” are sailing to Na- hant, Massachusetts, summer resort for the Boston elite, from several weeks at Newport, Rhode Island, a city just becoming the new center of beau- monde fashion. While those on board are recounting stories of the sea serpent, the title character slithers on shore at Nahant, eats a few people, and terrorizes many others, then returns to the sea near the yacht. He listens to the stories about him and, in response to those who are skeptical, attacks and eats them in ironic spite.

The scene then shifts, in parody of John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), to a gathering of the denizens of the deep, presided over by “His Snake- ship.” He tells the others that he is taking a vacation, since he has been invited to several soirees in Newport, which crave the presence of royalty, and to a Harvard commencement, where he is to receive an honorary doctorate. The serpent goes to Cambridge, where he attacks a proctor, escapes to Newport, where he literally crashes the largest ball, and is chased back to sea. Dick Forbes leads a grand attack and vanquishes him and his watery cohorts. Batchelder appends 100 pages detailing the speculations about, and reports of, the existence of sea serpents. The whole is a lighthearted satirical jab at fashionable seaside society and the contemporary fascination with sea monsters.

A second edition of the work was published the same year under the title A Romance of the Sea-Serpent, or, The Ichthyosaurus (by Wave); Also a Collection of the Ancient and Modern Authorities, with Letters from Distinguished Merchants and Men of Science. [See also ALBEE, EDWARD; GHOSTS AND GHOST SHIP LEGENDS; MERMAID LITERATURE]

John Samson