American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

SHIPWRECK LITERATURE. Shipwrecks have always been a popular subject in American literature. For early settlers, the perilous voyage* from Europe to America was a providential test, and disasters at sea were interpreted as signs of divine disfavor. Living in a world rife with typological significance, survivors and observers of shipwrecks could not avoid making a connection between a journey at sea and the journey of life, so maritime tragedies were perceived as jeremiads that warned people not to stray from the righteous path. Yet shipwreck accounts also carried a promise of deliverance; no matter how devastating the disaster, someone always survived to tell the tale, and the survivors could not help but see God’s hand in their survival.

One of the first to collect shipwreck accounts in order to discern a pattern of divine dispensation was Increase Mather, whose Essays on the Recording of Illustrious Providences (1682) included a number of maritime misadventures. Many were borrowed from James Janeway’s popular English collection, Mr. J. J.'s Legacy to His Friends (1675), but Mather also included several accounts he collected from American sources, of which Anthony Thatcher’s account of 1635 and Ephraim How’s account of 1676 were especially important. Similarly, both Cotton Mather and William Shurtleff exploited shipwreck as a providential call for repentance. On 11 December 1710, the Nottingham Galley was cast up on the rocks of Boon Island, off the coast of Massachusetts, and Captain John Dean and his crew remained stranded on the barren rocks for three weeks, suffering great misery and deprivation before resorting to cannibalism. In London, Dean published a narrative of the shipwreck, A True Account of the Voyage of the Nottingham Galley (1711), but the story was too compelling to set aside. In Compassions Called For (1711) Mather used the Dean text to supplement his call for reform, and a quarter century later in Distressing Dangers and Signal Deliverances (1727) Shurtleff also made use of the Dean text as an illustration of divine power.

The most popular of all early American shipwreck narratives was Jonathan Dickinson’s God's Protecting Providence Man's Surest Help and Defense in Times of Greatest Difficulty and Imminent Danger (1699). Frequently republished in both England and America and translated into German and Dutch, Dickinson’s narrative reached nearly thirty separate editions. While on a voyage from Port Royal to Philadelphia, Dickinson and twenty-three others were shipwrecked off the central coast of Florida during a fierce storm on the night of 23 September 1696. For three months the survivors struggled up the coast until they finally reached Charleston on 26 December, but not before several of the party had died from hunger and exposure. While stressing divine mercy for their deliverance, Dickinson offered a straightforward account of their ordeals and endurance.

In The Wonderful Providence of God (1730), William Walling narrated how he survived eight days on a floating wreck, and both Joseph Bailey in God's Wonders in the Great Deep (1749) and Nathanael Peirce in An Account of the Great Dangers and Distresses and the Remarkable Deliverance of Capt . Nathanael Peirce (1756) relate how they survived on the hulks of ships that had foundered during storms. One of the most harrowing of such narratives is Barnabas Downs’ A Brief and Remarkable Narrative of the Life and Extreme Sufferings of Barnabas Downs (1786). Shortly after setting sail, Downs’ privateer, the brig Arnold, was wrecked during a terrible snowstorm near Plymouth Harbor on 26 December 1778. During the first night sixty of the crew died, and two days later the nearly frozen Downs was thought to be dead when the rescuers finally reached the Arnold.

Two of the most interesting narratives from the late eighteenth century were Daniel Saunders’ A Journal of the Travels and Sufferings of Daniel Saunders (1794) and Benjamin Stout’s Narrative of the Loss of the Ship Hercules (1800). Unlike the earlier providential accounts, these are highly developed texts detailing the experiences of the captains and crews after they ran aground while on distant voyages. Saunders, a seaman on board the Commerce bound for Bombay, was part of a group of seventeen sailors who, after wrecking on the Arabian coast, struggled along the desert shore for over a month with little food or water, only nine surviving the ordeal. Less concerned with the spiritual significance than with the physical experience, Saunders closely describes the hardships he endured and his interaction with the Arabs he encountered. Reflecting the changes in the post-Revolutionary literary marketplace, the printer attempted to exploit the exotic setting by adding an ethnographic appendix on Arabian culture. Stout’s narrative was set in an equally alien world and even less concerned with providential lessons. While sailing from India to England, Stout and his crew were wrecked on the South African coast during a storm in June 1796, and for several weeks they traveled through the country until they reached the Cape of Good Hope. Although fearing the local tribes, Stout and his crew were kindly treated; he ironically describes the Dutch and English colonists as being less civilized than the natives.

One of the most significant developments in the shipwreck genre was the advent of large anthologies. In 1804 Archibald Duncan published his multivolume The Mariner’s Chronicle in London, which anthologized nearly thirty different accounts (including the Dean, How, and Stout narratives). Two years later the Duncan text was pirated in Philadelphia, and in 1813 Andrus and Starr, two Hartford printers, again published it, under the title Remarkable Shipwrecks. In addition to all of Duncan’s original material, they added an account of an 1809 shipwreck and a patriotic series of sketches describing naval battles between English and American ships during the War of 1812. As an indication of both the genre’s and the book’s popularity, the printers included a twenty-eight-page list of subscribers, a total of nearly 5,000 names. The Philadelphia printer Matthew Carey was equally interested in exploiting the genre’s popularity, and in 1810 he published two separate collections, Narratives of Calamitous and Interesting Shipwrecks and Interesting Narratives of Extraordinary Sufferings and Deliverances. Taking half of his material from Duncan and gathering the other half from various sources, including an Indian captivity narrative, Carey published eight narratives in each of his texts, and it is likely that the success of one encouraged him to publish the other.

During the 1830s three other popular anthologies were published, each subsequently reprinted several times. The first was an edition of The Mariner’s Chronicle, by Deacon Durrie, Henry Peck, and Lorenzo Peck, published in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1834. Borrowing freely from Duncan, the printers added a number of other accounts of shipwrecks that had occurred since 1804, especially several recent steamboat explosions as well as descriptions of whales, polar bears, icebergs, maelstroms, pirates, and famous sea battles. Demonstrating the advancements in printing technology, the Durrie and Peck text was stereotyped, included twenty-five engravings, and ran nearly 500 pages. Equally ambitious was R. Thomas’ 1835 collection, Interesting and Authentic Narratives of the Most Remarkable Shipwrecks. Similarly based on Duncan but also drawing from many later shipwrecks (particularly the tragic 1833 account of the Amphitrite Convict Ship, in which only 3 of 136 survived), the Thomas text was perhaps the most popular of all antebellum shipwreck anthologies. Similar to the Durrie and Peck and the Thomas texts was Charles Ellms’* Shipwrecks and Disasters at Sea (1836). The author of several other well-liked collections, including The Pirates’ Own Book (1837), Ellms catered to a popular audience and compiled material from a variety of sources in order to reach a mass market.

Perils at Sea, published as the fourteenth volume in Harper’s “Boys and Girl’s Library” (1852), was intended as a juvenile* book and marketed to school districts. The collection contained eight accounts that, according to the publisher’s preface, were chosen for their piety and fortitude in suffering.

While shipwreck anthologies sold well in the literary marketplace, a number of separate accounts also attracted large audiences. A Narrative of the Shipwreck and Unparalleled Sufferings of Mrs. Sarah Allen, for instance, was printed in at least three editions between 1816 and 1817. While on a voyage from New York to New Orleans, Allen’s ship sprang a leak and sank along the Florida Gulf coast; for nearly a month she and other survivors wandered along the desolate coast until they were discovered by Indians. An even more exotic tale of being shipwrecked and stranded was A Journal of the Shipwreck and Sufferings of Daniel Foss, a fictional Robinson Crusoe-type narrative published in two editions during 1816. Supposedly, Foss was the only survivor of a ship that foundered in the Antarctic,* and for five years he lived alone on a barren island.

One of the most widely known and important single narratives was Owen Chase’s* Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whaleship Essex* (1821), from which Herman Melville* borrowed for the climactic scene in Moby-Dick* (1851). But the story of a whaleship being sunk by a sperm whale was only a part of the Chase narrative. After their ship was sunk, the Essex survivors remained at sea in three open boats for over three months. Not only were the bodies of the dead cannibalized, but the cabin boy was shot for food. Melville was given a copy of the Chase narrative by Lemuel Shaw, his father-in-law, but he also encountered the story in several of the anthologies. The Thomas collection included an abbreviated narrative of the Essex tragedy, and Durrie and Peck’s The Mariner’s Chronicle contained Captain George Pollard’s version of the events, a brief account that had originally been published in London. Other contemporary versions of the Essex tragedy were published in 1824 by Thomas Chapple, who remained on Henderson Island, and in 1831 by Daniel Tyerman and George Bennett, who discussed with Pollard the events surrounding the Essex.

Perhaps the most important of all antebellum narratives was James Riley’s* An Authentic Narrative of the Loss of the Brig Commerce (1817). In August 1815 Captain Riley and his crew were shipwrecked off the coast of what is now Western Sahara, and they were finally ransomed to the English consul in Mogadore by Arab traders. Returning to the United States a year later, Riley wrote an extensive account of his shipwreck and captivity, which remained a steady seller for many years.

Riley’s text was actually a part of a larger genre of Barbary Coast captivity narratives. From the 1790s to about 1820, a score of narratives, plays, and ballads was published depicting English and American sailors, usually shipwrecked, in captivity along the North African coast. In Horrors of Slavery; or, The American Tar in Tripoli (1808), William Ray recounted the year and a half he spent in captivity after his ship foundered on the Barbary Coast. Similarly, in the fictionalized History of the Captivity and Sufferings of Maria Martin (1809), Martin related experiences during the five years she was a slave in Algiers after her husband’s ship ran aground.

Though occasional accounts were published throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century, and though shipwrecks continued to be featured as a dramatic device in numerous plays and novels, the shipwreck genre declined as the newspaper business burgeoned. For particularly sensational or tragic events, however, shipwreck narratives continued to be printed, both individually and in collections, and thus they continued to remain a common adventure plot in popular literature.

In more serious forms of literature shipwreck narratives exerted an equally profound influence. Scholars of Edgar Allan Poe* have found several sources for his Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket* (1838) in the literature of sea disasters, particularly his use of both cannibalism and the maelstrom. Sailors casting lots to see who might be killed and eaten so that those remaining might survive appeared as early as the Janeway and Mather texts and also in Strange News from Plymouth: Or, a Wonderful and Tragical Relation of a Voyage from the Indies (London, 1684). Similar incidents can also be found in the narratives about the wrecks of the Nottingham Galley (1710), Peggy (1765), and the Essex (1822), all of which were widely published in the various anthologies. Poe is thought to have used the wreck of the Tonquin* (1807) as described in Washington Irving’s* Astoria (1836) and to have borrowed from texts about the shipwrecks of the Betsy (1756), the Centaur (1782), the Sidney (1806), and the Polly (1811). As an editor and reviewer, Poe probably received copies of the Thomas, Ellms, and Dur- rie and Peck anthologies during the 1830s.

Later authors of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries treated shipwrecks in quite different ways. In “A Tragedy of the South Atlantic,” a whaling story from Thornton Jenkins Hains’* 1903 collection, The Strife of the Sea, the events of the Essex tragedy reveal not natural theology but an aweinspiring, if ruthless, Darwinian world. Stephen Crane’s* naturalistic short story “The Open Boat” relates his 1897 experiences during the shipwreck of the Commodore, which went down with a shipment of arms bound for Cuba. Morgan Robertson’s* 1898 novel, Futility: Or, the Wreck of the Titan, eerily predicts a Titanic*-like disaster when a supposedly unsinkable ship fatally collides with an iceberg. Jack London’s* The Sea-Wolf* (1904) opens with Wolf Larsen’s* rescuing Humphrey Van Weyden in a move that critic Bert Bender (in Sea-Brothers [1988]) sees as pulling the shipwreck survivor from the world of romanticism to one in which only the fittest survive.

Later, in Archie Binns’* novel Lightship (1934), images of Darwinian struggle augment the traditional motif of the sea voyage as quest for knowledge. Using various accounts of the Nottingham Galley wreck, Kenneth Roberts* wrote the novel Boon Island (1956) as a survival tale, and the book was popular enough to be republished several times in the United States and translated into nine different languages. More recently, the shipwreck that ends Peter Matthiessen’s* 1975 novel Far Tortuga* suggests an awareness of the natural world and the tenuous place of humans within it.

The sinking of the Titanic* is one of the most enduring inspirations for modern shipwreck literature, most prominently in Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember (1955), a best-selling novel adapted to an award-winning film (1958). The Titanic provided the name and inspiration for both the 1997 Tony-winning Broadway musical and the 1998 Oscar-winning film. Langston Hughes* in The Book of Negro Folklore (1958) documents a folk story about an African American* named Shine, who worked on board and survived the disaster. No person of color was allowed to sail on the Titanic; world heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson, among others, was refused passage.

In the opening chapter of Cape Cod* (1864), Henry David Thoreau* describes his feelings as he contemplates the 1849 wreck of the Irish brig St. John. Studying the wreckage and the bodies of the immigrants, he stoically meditates about the peaceful sea, which had so recently displayed its deadly power. Shipwreck literature from Homer’s Odyssey to Paul Gallico’s Poseidon Adventure (1969; film adaptation starring Gene Hackman and Ernest Borgnine, 1972) illustrates the danger of being deceived by the ocean’s grand stillness. [See also SEA-DELIVERANCE NARRATIVES]

FURTHER READING: Bender, Bert. Sea Brothers: The Tradition of American Sea Fiction from Moby-Dick to the Present. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1988; Cox, Edward Godfrey. A Reference Guide to the Literature of Travel. Seattle: U of Washington P, 1935; Huntress, Keith. A Checklist of Narratives of Shipwrecks and Disasters at Sea to 1860. Ames: Iowa State UP, 1979; Huntress, Keith. Narratives of Shipwrecks and Disasters. Ames: Iowa State UP, 1774; Landow, George P. Images of Crisis: Literary Iconology, from 1750 to the Present. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982; Springer, Haskell, ed. America and the Sea: A Literary History. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1995.

Daniel E. Williams and Arnold Schmidt