American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

THE SEA LIONS (1849). The last of the sea novels of James Fenimore Cooper* (1789-1851) and the second to last of his books, The Sea Lions reflects both the historical context in which it was published and Cooper’s mature philosophical and literary thought. In contrast to his earlier sea fiction characterized by stock romantic improbabilities, Sea Lions, published in the same year as Herman Melville’s* Redburn,* reflects the realistic vogue in nautical literature of the 1840s inspired by the immense popularity of Richard Henry Dana’s* Two Years before the Mast* (1840). At the same time, the novel explores issues of spiritual quest and identity probed in a darker vein two years later by Melville (who reviewed Sea Lions) in Moby-Dick* (1851).

The story centers on a sealing expedition on a vessel named the Sea Lion to an island north of Antarctica.* The voyage is financed by a mercenary lay deacon from the Sag Harbor area of Long Island, Ichabod Pratt, and undertaken by Roswell Gardiner, a young, competent, but overly confident seaman. Pratt had learned of the location of an immense rookery on this island from Thomas Daggett, a dying sailor, whose nephew from Martha’s Vineyard, Captain Daggett, outfits a rival ship identical in dimensions and name to Gardiner’s, intending to shadow Gardiner to the secret location. Gardiner’s journey to the island and search for a pirate* treasure in the West Indies, also revealed by the dying older Daggett, are complemented by a quest for spiritual truth. That quest is partly the result of the rejection of Gardiner’s marriage proposal by Deacon Pratt’s niece, Mary, whose orthodox Christian beliefs clash with Gardiner’s liberal Unitarian views.

During the voyage south, Daggett proves to be both a capable adversary and a propitious collaborator, especially in a storm off the Carolina coast and a whale hunt off Brazil. But faithful to his responsibilities to Pratt, Gardiner eludes Daggett off Cape Horn,* only to be rejoined by him on the seal island after a successful harvesting season. Delayed in their departure by Daggett’s greed, both vessels become icebound by a fierce winter that eventually claims Daggett and his crew as its victims. In the midst of the awesome spectacle of nature’s magnitude, power, beauty, and mystery, the ever-resourceful Gardiner is humbled and undergoes a transcendent experience. Aided by the preachments of a pious shipmate, Stimson, passages from a Bible provided to him by Mary, and a sighting of the Southern Cross, Gardiner is converted to an orthodox Christianity that allows him to win Mary’s hand when he returns safely to Long Island. In this manner, Gardiner’s spiritual transformation is made to accommodate Cooper’s own more conservative religious views.

Most notable among the many sources Cooper used to authenticate his narrative are Edmund Fanning’s* accounts of his sealing voyages and Charles Wilkes’ descriptions of the Antarctic* region in Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition (1845). [See also U.S. EXPLORING EXPEDITION]

Joseph Flibbert