Introduction - American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes



Only the sea is like a human being; the sky is not, nor the earth. But the sea is always moving; always something deep in itself is stirring it. It never rests; it is always wanting, wanting, wanting.

—Olive Schreiner, The Story of an African Farm

The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation. The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.

—Kate Chopin, The Awakening



Both Olive Schreiner’s South African perspective and Kate Chopin’s Louisiana reflection attest to the sea’s power to pull at, and charm, human thought and action. Schreiner’s simile binds the sea to humanity; Chopin’s personification gives the sea human voice and limb. Such linkage has given rise to literary outpouring of a wide spectrum of moods and genres from earliest times to the present. The sea swells with praise and keens in lamentation; in its simultaneous constancy and movement the sea provides both impetus and object for extended contemplation. Writing in the middle of the twentieth century, Charles Olson, Melville scholar and Black Mountain poet, makes vital the long-standing connection between humankind and the sea: “The beginning of man was salt sea, and the perpetual reverberation of that great ancient fact, [is] constantly renewed in the unfolding of life in every human individual” (13). At the heart of Olson’s thought is Herman Melville’s certainty: “Yes, as everyone knows, meditation and water are wedded forever” (ch. 1).

In his fine introduction to America and the Sea: A Literary History, a thoroughgoing discourse on the sea’s seminal influence on the history and literature of America from early development to modern times, Haskell Springer begins with an elemental contradiction: “[W]ater is the joiner of human beings and the center of their communities ... also the separator, the border, the dangerous boundary” (1). These two poles define the range of human interaction with the sea, from passive water-gazing from the shore or a safe vantage on a calm sea, to active navigating under harrowing conditions. In this insightful survey of ways in which American authors have responded to the sea both as meditative water-gazers and as voyagers living out literal and archetypal journeys, Springer metaphorically searches the sea for its “voices” of enchantment, death, and life; he reveals the sea in its many guises, its motion and movement, its complex gender associations. As if to match the richness of this imaginative and enduring literature, articulating the sea has historically taken varied forms: oral legends, myths of creation and hardship, sagas of endurance and sacrifice, narratives of logbooks and journals and diaries, poetry, plays and chamber dramas, sermons and broadsides, chanteys and ballads, essays, short stories, and novels.

Springer surveys the powerful effects that exploring, slaving, whaling, fishing, shipping, trading, and waging war have had on sea literature produced in early and recent America. To take a single outstanding example, the debt that the vitality of the New England coast owes to the sea is enormous; it is manifest in the largest and most luminous maritime literary outpouring of any region of America. Springer also notes the shift at the dawn of the twentieth century “from business to pleasure” (12) in human associations with the sea, and he demonstrates how literary reflections parallel that shift. Herman Melville, James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe, Richard Henry Dana Jr., Walt Whitman, Eugene O’Neill, Sarah Orne Jewett, Celia Thaxter, and numerous additional authors all relay personal seagoing experience and/or create enduring visions of the many ways the sea transforms the human psyche.



Four years after becoming an American citizen, W. H. Auden analyzed maritime iconography in Cervantes, Coleridge, Poe, and Melville to explore the nature of the romantic spirit in three essays collected under the title The Enchafed Flood. The act of putting to sea, says Auden, “separates or estranges” (7) as one moves from land, severing ties to home, fleeing from memory, freeing the spirit. It is at sea where decisive events happen, those “moments of eternal choice” (13); occurrences on land seem transient by comparison. Such are fine validation and recommendation for studying literature of the sea. A place of freedom and independence, of potentiality, perpetual motion, and hidden life, the sea also signifies for Auden a condition of loneliness and alienation, as many American sea authors confirm.

The privations of an actual sea voyage are perhaps nowhere better expressed than in Stephen Crane’s metaphorical short story “The Open Boat.” The story is drawn from Crane’s experience as a correspondent aboard the steamship Commodore, just prior to the Spanish-American War. The vessel, with its cargo of arms and munitions, was illegally bound for Cuba. When engine trouble caused her to sink, Crane and three of the crew spent a harrowing thirty hours afloat in a ten-foot dinghy. First published as “Stephen Crane’s Own Story,” Crane transformed the episode into myth with “The Open Boat,” a story with the barest of plotlines that pits the wrath of a bitter January sea against the vulnerability of weakened humans. The unnamed men in the story are incapable of meditatively appreciating the “glorious ... play of the free sea, wild with lights of emerald and white and amber” (pt. 2) because they are preoccupied with the life-or-death labors of bailing the boat and pulling the oars. The “subtle brotherhood” (pt. 3) that develops among the men is their only hedge against the blank indifference of Fate and the “diabolical punishment” that she metes out: tumultuous wind and formidable waves, cryptic gestures from a man on shore, and the bitter irony of the strongest swimmer drowning when the men jump for shore before the dinghy swamps. Only at a physical and temporal remove, after having survived the agony, do the three survivors feel they are able to become “interpreters” of the sea, finally able to gaze across it and face its meaning in their lives. As the writings of Poe and Melville and Cooper and London attest, being at sea is, more often than not, life-threatening: the interpretation comes at a price.

While navigating the sea can be physically demanding and downright dangerous, it can also be emotionally and spiritually clarifying. Melville knew this better than anyone. His character Bulkington from Moby-Dick, having just returned from a four-year voyage, restlessly signs aboard the Pequod for another term at sea; because “land seemed scorching to his feet,” he sought “all the lashed sea’s landlessness again” (ch. 23). He is the archetypical water-gazer, a “deep, earnest” thinker who craves “the open independence of. . . [the] sea” and for whom “in landlessness alone resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God” (ch. 23).

The craving for the clarifying, healing properties of water can lead to selfdiscovery. Thomas Farber’s On Water, a pastiche of literary and scientific musings on the maritime, brings together the kinds of water-gazing, waterreading, and physical immersion to which poets, novelists, philosophers, and naturalists have aspired in attempting to interpret the “highest truth” of landlessness. Early in the work, Farber offers the only statement recorded by the pre-Socratic philosopher Thales, in which all other quotations and observations in his book become suspended: “ ‘Everything is water, water is all’ ” (9).

The sea’s impact upon the human imagination is also the subject of British author James Hamilton-Paterson’s The Great Deep: The Sea and Its Thresholds. The sea, he says, is “reservoir of private imagery and public myth. ... We are full of its beauty, of that strange power it gives off which echoes through our racial history and fills our language with its metaphors” (9). Sensing the human insignificance that was so apparent to Crane adrift in his open boat, Hamilton-Paterson remarks that a man alone in the deep, “in this wide salt world ... is nothing” (247). He comments, too, on the sea’s “special melancholy and ... power to haunt,” as shown in “a capacity to conceal, [in] the ability to stand for time and the quality of erasure” (143), and in the mythic power behind the very notion of “the Deep” (165). The sea retains, says Hamilton-Paterson, “its psychic force, its sonorous and chilling stateliness, its amalgamation of height and depth, of gulfs of space and of time” (193). Some water-gazers, of course, become literally overwhelmed: Edna Pontellier in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and Owen Browne in Robert Stone’s Outerbridge Reach both seek immersion in the sea as their death.

Derek Walcott, 1992 recipient of the Nobel Prize in literature, is a modern-day water-gazer whose stance before his native St. Lucia sea is anything but passive. Plumbing the meaning of the sea with urgency, he illuminates what the sea can erase and how it can bless. Some of his best poetry and drama capture his personal and ethnic Caribbean identification with the sea and the profoundly liberating sea change that called him to celebrate his native people in their own voice. An early poem, “The Schooner Flight,” affirms the sea’s necessity in his life and art and asserts that his true theme is “the bowsprit, the arrow, the longing, the lunging heart” (361). The sea is the primal flow and force within his 324-page epic Omeros; it unites distant shores of ancient Greece with modern Caribbean beaches, levels great empires, and generates a visceral aesthetic. The title of the poem is the Greek word for Homer; Geert Lernout is among critics who have hailed the epic as a modern version of the Odyssey (96). The title also refers to the poem’s shape-shifting protagonist, elusive as the sea’s many moods, whose multiple guises include Homer, Proteus, Dante, the sea, a white marble statue, a foam-headed old man called Seven Seas with a dog perpetually nipping at his heels, and a poet-narrator who bears an uncanny resemblance to Derek Walcott.

Three years after Omeros appeared, Walcott published a stage version of The Odyssey, another Aegean/Caribbean celebration, this time of the world’s most famous sailor-wanderer, “that man against whom the sea still rages,/ Who escaped its terrors, that despair could not destroy” (160). Physically and emotionally ravaged by the sea and its monsters but now secure in the comforting arms of Penelope, Odysseus, when pressed, confides that he will continue to long for, to gaze toward, the sea. Whatever meaning he will be able to draw from it for his life is, as with Crane’s survivors, a matter for later contemplation.



Maritime inspiration in America arises from the Great Lakes as well as from the Pacific, the Atlantic, the Caribbean, and the Polar seas. Citing Rudyard Kipling’s assertion that the freshwater seas of the Great Lakes are each a “ ‘fully accredited ocean’ ” (2), Springer comments on the literature inspired by those waters in Native American and in European traditions. In fact, in terms of depth and breadth, industry and economy, and the potential for meteorological or technological disaster, the Great Lakes far more resemble a sea than they resemble other waters; in Kipling’s words, the Lakes “engulf... and wreck ... and drive ... ashore” (159). Moreover, as Victoria Brehm proposes in her essay “Great Lakes Maritime Fiction,” these bodies of water figure into two significant traditions within the larger context of sea literature: as an unchanging “presence bent on destruction” (231) and as a myth of conquest limited by technology (232). Brehm suggests further that Lakes fiction is unique in illustrating a truth not shared by most American fiction: the fact of “our own frailty in the face of nature, and our fear” (232). But the most eloquent and persuasive argument for linking the Great Lakes with the ocean is recorded in America’s greatest sea novel, Moby-Dick:

For in their interflowing aggregate, those grand freshwater seas of ours, — Erie, and Ontario, and Huron, and Superior, and Michigan, — possess an ocean-like expansiveness, with many of the ocean’s noblest traits. ... [T]hey float alike the full-rigged merchant ship, the armed cruiser of the State, the steamer, and the beech canoe; they are swept by Borean and dismasting blasts as direful as any that lash the salted wave; they know what shipwrecks are, for out of sight of land, however inland, they have drowned full many a midnight ship with all its shrieking crew. (ch. 54)

For all of these reasons, literature of the Great Lakes has a place within, and is included in, the present survey of American literature of the sea.

In addition to these inland waters, the interior landscape of America partakes of the myths of the sea. In The Great Prairie Fact and Literary Imagination Robert Thacker explores how maritime sensibilities affect human nature even in the landlocked grasslands/farmlands of North America. It is noteworthy, but not uncommon, that a book concentrating on the relationship between the human psyche and the earth should use sea imagery as a touchstone. Early geographers tended to represent the uncharted North American interior as what Thacker calls a “vast inland sea” (52) and to characterize the appearance of the prairie lands themselves as a “level sea of grass” (52).

Thacker evokes nineteenth-century geographer Sir William Francis Butler, who, charting the Canadian Northwest, first encountered the “prairie” traveling northwest from central Minnesota. Significantly, Butler’s narrative of prairie travel begins with an Atlantic crossing during which he observes an “unruffled” sea: “as evening came down over the still tranquil ocean and the vessel clove her outward way through phosphorescent water, the lights along the iron coast grew fainter in distance till there lay around only the unbroken circle of the sea” (Great Lone Land 11). Butler, in fact, several decades prior to Kipling’s use of the metaphor, had termed Lake Superior an “inland-ocean” (Great Lone Land 74) and the Great Lakes themselves “immense inland seas” (Great Lone Land 18). Though his travel narrative does not attain the status of imaginative literature, something about the land and its geography draws Butler meditatively seaward; something in his quest of the soil seeks imagery of the sea for inspiration and validation:


The great ocean itself does not present more infinite variety than does this prairie-ocean of which we speak. ... No ocean of water in the world can vie with its gorgeous sunsets. ... This ocean has no past—time has been nought to it; and men have come and gone, leaving behind them no track, no vestige, of their presence. (Great Lone Land 199-200)


Butler’s later American travel narrative, Wild North Land, is, in part, more symbolic than descriptive; here the Great Prairie, “the vast rigid ocean of the central continent,” is “ocean-like in everything save motion” (49); here the westward migrations of bison are characterized as “the waves of the ocean roll[ing] before the storm” (53). Predating Butler by four decades, William Cullen Bryant had compared billowing Illinois grasslands to an ocean in “The Prairies”; writing fifty years after Butler, an obscure poet of the Red River Valley named Eva K. Anglesburg described the winter prairie of her native North Dakota as being “sculpted like the sea” with “fiery- crested, black-troughed billows roll[ing].” Bryant, Butler, Anglesburg, and other prairie authors who use sea imagery are in venerable company: Melville in the first chapter of Moby-Dick compares the Pacific Ocean to the prairie.

Charles Olson echoed the same sensibility more recently in Call Me Ishmael; for him it was important “to understand the Pacific as part of our geography, another West, prefigured in the Plains, antithetical” (13). In the 1990s Jonathan Raban, author and seafarer, opens his book about Montana homesteaders with nautical imagery: “Breasting the regular swells of land, on a red dirt road as true as a line of longitude, the car was like a boat at sea” (3). In Landscape and Memory, art critic and prize-winning author Simon Schama discusses the ways in which geography shapes mythology, how “place ... exposes its connections to an ancient and peculiar vision” (16). His observation that landscape is “a work of the mind, a repository of the memories and obsessions of the people who gaze upon it” (back cover) can apply as well to the sea’s power and potential; he gives the title “Water” to the second of four parts of his book (and titles subsections “Streams of Consciousness” and “Bloodstreams”). Indeed, one need not be near or on the sea to resonate to it.



Exploring human purpose regarding the open sea is an endeavor that transcends time, place, genre, and discipline. While the kaleidoscope of maritime literature from colonial America to the present is the substance of this encyclopedia, the sea as an intellectual pursuit, it must be acknowledged, also resonates meaningfully into nonliterary disciplines. Two recent books are masterfully representative of how sea literature richly extends, for example, into the fields of art and astronomy: Elizabeth Schultz’s Unpainted to the Last: Moby-Dick and Twentieth-Century American Art and Brett Zimmerman’s Herman Melville: Stargazer.

Throughout the encyclopedia, I have flagged some disciplinary crossovers by citing film or musical adaptations that complement the literature. Other entries, while illuminating literary references, are rooted primarily in nonliterary disciplines—natural science, environmental studies, and history: entries, thus, are included on the naturalist William Beebe, the anthropologist Loren Eiseley, and the environmentalist Rachel Carson. Entries rooted firmly in history include Monitor and Merrimack and other vessel entries, The Red Record, Slave Narratives, and U.S. Exploring Expedition. There are other entries on artistic expression, the broader humanities, and serial publication. Some entries are devoted to art or music: artists Gilbert Wilson and Rockwell Kent, composer Dominick Argento, Philip Glass’ opera The Voyage. Discrete entries on playwrights and plays are complemented by the thematic convergence of drama and the maritime: Drama of the Sea, Melville Dramatizations, Ocean Liner Drama, and Shore Leave Musicals. An entry entitled Nineteenth-Century Periodicals reveals the pervasive voice of the sea within the popular print media of the previous century.

This survey aims to immerse the reader in the world of maritime literature; it also prompts the reader to seek the sea in prairie and city as well as on the coast or in the deeps. Contemporary culture in recent years is experiencing a maritime resurgence. Sessions on literature of the sea are being hosted at conferences of the Modern Language Association, the American Culture Association/Popular Culture Association, and the College English Association, among other academic venues. Art exhibits celebrating the sea have been mounted from Ketchikan, Alaska, to New Bedford, Massachusetts. An experimental theatre piece, “Ahab’s Wife or The Whale,” premiered in Snug Harbor Cultural Center in 1998, and in 1999 composer Laurie Anderson toured from New York to California with her avant-garde rendition of “Songs and Stories from Moby-Dick.” Performing and recording technomusician Moby claims to be a blood relative of Herman Melville. Recent films—Deep Blue Sea, Titanic, Amistad, Jaws, and White Squall— help make the sea an enduring cinematic icon. Remountings of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd by the Metropolitan Opera, Orson Welles’ Moby-Dick Rehearsed by the Theatre Workshop of Nantucket and the Berkshire Theatre Festival, and realizations of Rudyard Kipling’s Captains Courageous by the Manhattan Theatre Club and Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge by Chicago’s Lyric Opera infuse new musical and dramatic interest in the nautical classics.

Given constrictions of our publication length and production schedule and the ever-swelling ranks of contemporary literary and artistic expression, the works that are described within this volume should be taken more as a representative than as a definitive account of the American maritime literary scene. Worth further examination are many new titles that were either published too recently to be surveyed here or are in some way tangential to our purpose; bibliographic information for these is provided in the further reading list.

Some of these new books fictionally embellish the lives of established authors (Frederick Busch’s The Night Inspector, Larry Duberstein’s The Handsome Sailor, Stephen Marlowe’s The Lighthouse at the End of the World, Roger McDonald’s Mr. Darwin’s Shooter) and familiar characters (Sena Jeter Naslund’s Ahab’s Wife or, The Star-Gazer); some extend the historical record (Antonio Benitez-Rojo’s A View from the Mangrove, Robert D. Ballard and Will Hively’s The Eternal Darkness). Reflective narratives of experiences at sea or on the coast are being published: Peter Nichols’ Sea Change: Alone across the Atlantic in a Wooden Boat, Steve Callahan’s Adrift: Seventy-Six Days Lost at Sea, Linda Greenlaw’s The Hungry Ocean: A Swordboat Captain’s Journey, Gordon Chaplin’s Dark Wind: A Survivor’s Tale of Love and Loss, and Jennifer Ackerman’s Notes from the Shore. New histories, some illustrated, are appearing: Benjamin Labaree’s America and the Sea: A Maritime History, John Szarkowski and Richard Benson’s A Maritime Album: 100 Photographs and Their Stories, Patrick Dillon’s Lost at Sea: An American Tragedy, Warren F. Spencer’s Raphael Semmes: The Philosophical Mariner, Donald A. Petrie’s The Prize Game: Lawful Looting on the High Seas in the Days of Fighting Sail, Timothy J. Runyan’s Ships, Seafaring and Society: Essays in Maritime History, Peter Maas’ The Terrible Hours. New printings of old biographies, such as Joseph C. Hart’s Miriam Coffin or, The Whale-Fishermen, keep significant ideas before us. Other authors are reimagining legends: Richard Ellis’ Imagining Atlantis, Janet Lembke’s Skinny Dipping: And Other Immersions in Water, Myth, and Being Human, Lena Lencek and Gideon Bosker’s The Beach: The History of Paradise on Earth. Some escape novels appropriate sea themes: Philip Caputo’s The Voyage, Paul Garrison’s Fire and Ice, James Powlik’s Sea Change, Robin Beeman’s A Minus Tide, Gene Hackman and Daniel Lenihan’s Wake of the Perdito Star, and Marge Piercy and Ira Wood’s Storm Tide. Children’s literature, too, continues to draw minds seaward: Bruce Balan’s Buoy: Home at Sea, Kimberley Knutson’s Beach Babble, Debra Fraisier’s Out of the Ocean, Cynthia Rylant’s The Islander, Susan Shreve’s Jonah the Whale, Michael McCurdy’s The Sailor’s Alphabet.

“When he left the beach, the sea was still going on” (Omeros 325); so says Derek Walcott of his protagonist Achilles and the Caribbean Sea in the line that closes his maritime epic. These are reassuring words: no human mind will have the final vision, and no human voice will speak the final word about the sea. This encyclopedia is but one attempt to gather together the most meaningful of what literary America has thought, sensed, and imagined about this fluid and potent element. I await the next.

Jill B. Gidmark