American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

BRITISH INFLUENCES ON AMERICAN SEA LITERATURE. By the time that Shakespeare’s The Tempest was published in the “First Folio” in 1623, William Bradford had already been governor of the Plymouth colony for two years, and the “brave new world” theme had already begun to shape literature in English. Richard Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations (1589, 1598-1600) helped to create and then satisfy the demand for voyage literature—a form so attractive to readers throughout the following century that the form was followed by Jonathan Swift in his satire Gulliver’s Travels (1726) and by Daniel Defoe in his early and enormously successful fiction Robinson Crusoe (1719). In turn, the shipwreck* motif of the latter must have contributed to William Falconer’s preromantic poem “The Shipwreck” (1762). Falconer’s popular poem fused elements of the sublime as recently analyzed in Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Inquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), while elaborately retaining technical accuracy. In the following decades J. Hawkesworth shaped the public perception of James Cook in An Account of a Voyage round the World (1773). Hawkesworth, a protege of Samuel Johnson, painted an idyllic picture of South Seas life and created an audience for Cook’s subsequent journals: A Voyage towards the South Pole (1777) and A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean (1784). Cook’s exploration of the unfrequented Pacific and skirting of the Antarctic* continent provided Samuel Taylor Coleridge with an imaginative setting for his “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1798), which itself expressed the complete romanticization of the sea. The second great age of English exploration may be said to have come to an end with Cook’s death (in an altercation with natives of Hawai’i in 1779), but a recession of the ice caps encouraged even further polar exploration. The voyages themselves, watchfully chronicled in The Quarterly Review and The Edinburgh Review, provided for the earliest maritime adventures of Horatio Nelson, whose career and character would be celebrated in Robert Southey’s Life of Nelson (1813). Southey’s book had the additional effect of rescuing the portrait of the British tar from the eighteenth-century sentimentalization of songwriter Charles Dibdin and novelist Tobias Smollett. That portrait itself was paralleled by the “Byronic” treatment of maritime character in George Gordon, Lord Byron’s The Corsair (1813) and Lara (1814). William Parry in Journal of a Voyage to Discover a North-West Passage (1821) and especially William Scoresby in An Account of the Arctic* Regions, with a History and Description of the Northern Whale Fishery (1820) demonstrated the sublimity and utilitarian aspects of these forays of exploration and industry.

If the birth of American sea fiction is to be dated from the publication of James Fenimore Cooper’s* The Pilot* in 1824—a fair assumption—the foregoing summary (with perhaps the exception of Hakluyt) might represent a list of Cooper’s reading as he undertook to become the first successful professional American novelist—and the first novelist of the sea. But the initial spur to Cooper’s writing came immediately from Sir Walter Scott’s The Pirate (1821) with its misleading scenes of whale-catching set in the Shetland Islands. Scott’s historical fiction would continue to be more predictive of the American sea novel than that of Cooper’s contemporary Frederick Marryat, whose Frank Mildmay (1829) and subsequent novels continued to be based largely on the caricatures ofBritish seamen originated by Smollett.

Near midcentury two nonliterary events, one briefly influential and the other far-reaching, contributed to shaping the future of sea literature. In 1845 Sir John Franklin, who had previously published accounts of one disastrous expedition and one successful expedition to the north, began his third voyage of Arctic exploration, one that was to end in tragedy and the loss of his own life. The solution to the mystery of Franklin’s disappearance was not made public until the publication of Sir Francis McClintock’s Voyage of the Fox in the Arctic Seas (1859). The same year Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species, a work based largely on observations Darwin had made while a seagoing naturalist and published as Journal of Researches into the Geology and Natural History of the Various Countries Visited by H.M.S. Beagle (1839). Darwin’s earlier work was coincidentally published the same year as Thomas Beale’s The Natural History of the Sperm Whale, a work that was not only immediately recognized as exhaustive and authoritative but one that may also have become the single most important sourcebook in the history of sea literature when Herman Melville* ordered a copy in the spring of 1850.

While Melville and his generation were intimately familiar with the tradition of British sea literature, following the Civil War, Darwin (modified and popularized by Herbert Spencer and T. H. Huxley) exerted probably the greatest influence on American literature of the sea, especially through the works of Frank Norris,* Stephen Crane,* and Jack London.* That this influence most likely was secondhand does not lessen its importance. For these proponents of naturalism, the conflict of romanticism and realism found a challenge in the works of Rudyard Kipling, whose Captains Courageous* (1897) was a romantic-revival treatment of a Darwinian theme, and resolution in the modernism of Joseph Conrad, whose career as a master of fiction followed a career as an officer in the merchant service. Conrad’s Nigger of the Narcissus (1897) added depth of characterization and theme to the conventional storm piece previously best exemplified by Melville’s correspondent William Clark Russell in The Wreck of the Grosvenor (1877). Lord Jim (begun in 1898 but not completed until 1900) expanded the role of the narrator Marlow, who meanwhile appeared in “Youth” (1898) and would appear again in “Heart of Darkness” (1898-1899) and Chance (1913). Conrad’s Typhoon (1902) extended a literary form closely associated with the age of sail into the age of steam. Conrad’s final sea novel, The Rescue (1920), took twenty years to write and is no less a product of the romantic revival than Kipling’s Captains Courageous. Nevertheless, Conrad’s work as a whole indicated a new direction and new level of sophistication not only for sea literature but for all literature in English.

FURTHER READING: Philbrick, Thomas. James Fenimore Cooper and the Development of American Sea Fiction. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1961.

R. D. Madison