American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

VOYAGE NARRATIVES. Voyage narratives have always been prolific and powerful in Western culture because they represent its centrifugal tendencies in pure and graphic form; they are the core of sea literature.

Within the varied array of writing about the sea, ships, and seamen, the voyage narrative constitutes a central and clearly definable genre. Some of its features emerge as early as Noah’s encounter with the Flood or Jonah’s descent to the bottom of the sea in the belly of a whale. The wanderings of Odysseus established a narrative pattern that has persisted for nearly three millennia, from the Argonautica and the Aeneid in the ancient world, through the Inferno, to modern retellings by James Joyce and Nikos Ka- zantzakis. Some strands of narrative, like deception of the crew and immobilization during a storm, reappear regularly throughout this broad span of literary history, from the Bible, to Christopher Columbus,* Herman Melville,* and Joseph Conrad.

Larger organizing principles like quest patterns and Utopian themes structure many of the voyage narratives collected by Richard Hakluyt in the closing decades of the sixteenth century, Lemuel Gulliver’s voyages in the eighteenth century, and the Caribbean* epics of Ernest Hemingway,* Peter Matthiessen,* and Derek Walcott* in the twentieth century. Other shore genres have gone to sea and established their own maritime variants, including the picaresque romance exploited by Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding, and Tobias Smollett and the sea bildungsroman, whose young heroes are initiated in the pages of Sir Walter Scott, Frederick Marryat, James Fenimore Cooper,* Richard Henry Dana Jr.,* Melville, and Conrad.

All of these literary continuities and many more suggest that unique qualities in the sea experience may, in part, account for the shape and persistent themes of voyage narratives. Sea voyages are inevitably linear in structure, with clear beginnings, middles, and ends; even whaling or fishing cruises have departures and landfalls, the navigator’s essential points of reference in an otherwise trackless waste of water. The ocean retains no imprint of past events on its surface, though its bottom may be littered with historical relics. Add volatility to this surface, which may mirror the sky one day and mount raging obstacles the next, and the images of uncertainty that narratives need emerge from the experience itself. Force a microcosm of human society to endure these vicissitudes in a confined space for a long period of time, and the formula for tension and conflict at the heart of narratives is complete. These elements belong naturally to the experience of voyaging, without literary invention or elaboration, and need only to be refined and ordered by the writer.

Thus, it is not surprising that historical and literary voyage narratives often have a common structure, similar episodes, and shared themes of alienation, endurance, and transformation. Voyages naturally represent a reaching out into the unknown, a test of human ingenuity and skill, and an emblem of the course of human life. In America throughout much of the nineteenth century, such elements were associated with romance, a dominant narrative pattern that insisted on the ulterior meaning of events. In preceding centuries, sea deliverance,* the earliest form of American voyage narrative, had treated the difficult Atlantic crossing as a test of faith as well as human endurance; surviving the storms and reaching the New World were a sign of God’s grace. That vision of divine intervention in an ocean crossing is as old as Columbus,* who vowed to undertake a pilgrimage if he survived a fierce gale on his first voyage back to Europe from America.

Later, the Middle Passage on slave ships became a demonic inversion of the voyage of deliverance, detailing a more horrific crossing from freedom into perpetual bondage. The theological overtones of voyaging faded, but the loading of surface events with metaphysical significance has remained endemic in many American voyage narratives to this day. Such voyages may begin with purposes as simple as fishing, whaling, or racing a yacht, but they end up as quests and acquire the trappings of romance. As Ahab* prepares the Pequod* for his obsessive pursuit in Moby-Dick (1851), the minutest details of a whaleship’s preparations are transformed into rituals. On a much smaller scale, Santiago’s* overreaching in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea* (1952) finds expression in a formulaic motif, “I went out too far.” Captain Raib’s final turtling voyage in Matthiessen’s Far Tortuga* (1975) is marked by signs and omens throughout and has become a quest for knowledge before its disastrous finale. In Robert Stone’s* Outerbridge Reach (1992), partly based on the psychological disintegration of a singlehanded sailor in the 1968 race around the world, protagonist Owen Browne’s quest to live in virtual reality collapses as voices and silences evade his control. In such ways voyages that begin with simple and direct purposes gain metaphysical dimensions that overwhelm their protagonists.

To be sure, the sea romance began as a simpler form in America, and transformations in protagonists’ lives were often more transparent and benign. The first triad of James Fenimore Cooper’s* dozen sea novels, written in the 1820s, had more conventional themes reflecting American patriotism, the delicate beauty of ships, and the opposed valences of male life at sea and companionship with females ashore. After the lapse of a decade during which Cooper wrote his History of the Navy (1839), the eight novels and one biography of the 1840s were more realistic about life on board ships and more concerned with its connection to the politics and economics of life ashore, drawing closer to the social context at the heart of the novel. Some traditions that bridged the gap between the sea romance and the more realistic portrait of life on ships persisted into the twentieth century. The most important of these is the rite of passage or initiation of a youngster at sea. The paradigm in its simplest form appears in Rudyard Kipling’s Captains Courageous* (1897), wherein a boy of the privileged class is suddenly deprived of his advantages and thrust into a menial position on board a sailing ship where he must not only earn his keep but learn to master a new and entirely foreign world.

The sea initiation has a long ancestry in Western culture, stretching back as far as Telemachus, and in America it reappears as the central story in many of Cooper’s novels, in Melville’s Redburn* (1849) and White-Jacket* (1850), and, with more depth and menace, in Jack London’s* The Sea-Wolf* (1904). This same pattern is the source of narrative power in Dana’s Two Years before the Mast* (1840), where it is joined inextricably with another persistent characteristic of voyage narratives: meditation. The meditation in itself is a form of writing native to the experience of seafaring, with a heritage from the Odyssey, through Richard Hakluyt, to Melville, Conrad, Hilaire Belloc, Jan de Hartog,* and many others. Seafaring, through its loneliness in a vast surrounding ocean, promotes inner reflection of a kind that is seldom possible in a busy life ashore, and thoughtful mariners have always succumbed to its power as they try to sustain themselves in a beautiful, but alien, world. In American voyage narratives, both Dana and Melville’s Ishmael* set a pattern for meditation that has been repeated in subsequent journals and novels.

In addition to the self-discovery of the initiation pattern, voyage narratives provide an extraordinary setting for microcosmic anatomies of society. Cooper’s later novels are very much concerned with the social context of seafaring, and Dana, both in Two Years and in his subsequent legal work, sought to define and establish a reasonable role for sailors both on board ship and ashore.

Americans have always been uneasy with the rigid and autocratic command structure of shipboard life, and the infamous Somers* affair of 1842 led Cooper and Dana into opposite camps in a prolonged political and literary dispute about the conduct of her captain, Alexander Slidell Mackenzie*; Henry Carlisle* retells the story of this obscure mutiny,* execution at sea, and court-martial in Voyage to the First of December (1972). Melville anatomized naval discipline in both White-Jacket* (1850) and the posthumous Billy Budd, Sailor: An Inside Narrative* (1924). Charles Nordhoff* and James Norman Hall revisited the most notorious mutiny of the eighteenth century in their Bounty trilogy (1932-1934), and Herman Wouk* invented a plausible modern mutiny in The Caine Mutiny (1951).

The anatomy of shipboard life also appears in other forms that have nothing to do with mutinies. In Looking for a Ship (1990), John McPhee* creates a detailed portrait of contemporary life in the merchant marine. Using a tradition that goes back to Noah, Katherine Anne Porter* loads a whole civilization on board a passenger vessel in Ship of Fools (1945). Here American use of the voyage narrative comes full circle, reversing the sea deliverance to the New World by recrossing the Atlantic on the eve of Europe’s disintegration in World War II. [See also SLAVE NARRATIVES]

FURTHER READING: Bender, Bert. Sea-Brothers: The Tradition of American Sea Fiction from Moby-Dick to the Present. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1987; Carlson, Patricia Ann, ed. Literature and Lore of the Sea. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1986; Foulke, Robert. The Sea Voyage Narrative. New York: Twayne, 1997; Philbrick, Thomas. James Fenimore Cooper and the Development of American Sea Fiction. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1961; Springer, Haskell, ed. America and the Sea: A Literary History. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1995.

Robert C. Foulke