American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes
SEA-DELIVERANCE NARRATIVES. Sea-deliverance narratives are as old as human experience on water. A “sea-deliverance” story is one told by a survivor of an experience in which the sea is not only the stage on which it takes place but also a player in the drama. The experience is often terrifying, sometimes violent and cruel, sometimes an adventure, but always transforming. Those who live to tell the tale of sea deliverance are possessors of profound new knowledge and are now compelled to tell their story. In the telling of it, their re-creation allows others to experience it vicariously. The narrators describe their sea deliverance in the language and culture of their particular time and place, but the story itself is universal and timeless. Like the archetypal hero of a hundred cultural myths, the sea deliverance hero passes through a process of separation from the known world, of trial upon the sea, of transformation, and of return to the safety of the shore, driven now to re-create the experience for others so that they may be likewise transformed by the power of the story.
American sea deliverance has a rich background in the ancient mythology of the Middle East and of Greece, in Irish and Norse mythology, in the Bible, and in British literature, especially of the Renaissance. In America the wellspring of sea deliverance is in accounts, narratives, and poems of Atlantic-crossing experiences of early explorers and travelers. In American sea-deliverance literature, the archetypal voyage* is combined with a search for a New World, a new Jerusalem, a lost Eden where youth may be recovered and a golden age re-created.
The Log of Christopher Columbus (1492-1493), for example, is a sea- deliverance narrative as well as a daily record of the expedition. Columbus’* account of a violent storm on the return voyage has the basic elements of a sea-deliverance narrative, including his attempt to preserve the story of his voyage by sealing a parchment copy in waxed cloth inside a cask and heaving it overboard. The shipwreck* of Sir Thomas Gates’ Sea Venture in the Bermudas in 1609 was the occasion for a sea-deliverance poem, “Newes from Virginia” (1610) by Richard Rich. William Strachey’s “True Reportory of the Wracke, and Redemption of Sir Thomas Gates” (1625) was read by Shakespeare and influenced his writing. Henry Norwood’s “A Voyage to Virginia” (1732) describes famine and death on board the ill- fated Virginia Merchant. John Josselyn’s Account of Two Voyages (1639) includes his poem “And the Bitter Storm Augments,” on sailing into a violent storm at sea.
For these early writers and their audiences, the sea experience was an example of God’s providence. The narrative re-created the events dramatically so that the audience not only understood the meaning of the story intellectually but also experienced it emotionally and spiritually. The storms, shipwrecks, famine, and pirates* of sea life are drawn so as to illustrate the reality of the Christian life. What in the nature of the sea is terrifying and disorienting is made comprehensible. The sea voyage and deliverance are metaphors for spiritual pilgrimage. The hero’s journey is to an understanding of God’s providence, and his narrative is a call to faith for the audience who hears or reads it.
Among American seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century writers, the providential sea deliverance is especially well developed, and it reinforces a sense of uniqueness not only among New England’s Puritans and Pilgrims but also among Maryland’s Catholics. William Bradford of Plymouth Plantation in 1620 and Father Andrew White, an English Jesuit en route to Maryland in 1633, both record instances of providential sea deliverance in their voyages. Three generations of New England’s Mather family used the sea-deliverance story as moral exemplum. Richard Mather’s Journal for 1635 records a dramatic escape from a storm on his original Atlantic crossing, and both his son Increase in his Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providences (1684) and grandson Cotton in Magnalia Christi Americana (1702) devote entire chapters to sea-deliverance narratives. Richard Steere’s long poem A Monumental Memorial of Marine Mercy (1684) creates a psychological portrait of passengers and crew caught in a violent storm as well as an extended metaphor for the Christian’s passage from ignorance to truth. Anthony Thatcher’s 1635 letter describing his shipwreck and loss of his family is especially poignant. Philip Ashton’s Ashton’s Memorial* (1725) relates his capture and eventual escape from pirates, and the Narrative (1760) of Briton Hammon, a black slave from Marshfield, Massachusetts, recounts his shipwreck and capture first by Indians and then by the Spanish and then escape to, and combat with, the British navy before returning to his master thirteen years later. The conflicting and antagonistic accounts by John Dean (1711) and Christopher Langman (1711) of the shipwreck of the Nottingham Galley and subsequent cannibalism on Boon Island constitute one of the more infamous incidents of early New England maritime history, addressed in a contemporary novel by Kenneth Roberts.*
In the eighteenth century, as the American colonies became a maritime country, the taste of the age evolved away from providence as a controlling aesthetic. Neo-classicism and the concept of the sublime created a new distance and point of view from which the mysterious and explosive power of nature could be viewed within an ordered whole. Sea-deliverance literature reflected these changing aesthetic attitudes, and the expanding commercialism and nationalism of the new nation subsumed the early sense of uniqueness developed in providential writings in a larger vision of manifest destiny to exploit the blessings of nature in a new continent. The sea was at once a protector of the new nation and a reminder of the explosive power of nature. J. Hector St. Jean de Crevecoeur’s chapter on Nantucket* in his Letters from an American Farmer (1782) represents the new aesthetic and new nationalism of the American sea literature. The ocean for Crevecoeur represents both unbounded opportunity and protection from the oppression and corruption of Europe. His New Man, the American, asserts himself on the ocean as well as on the prairies or in the forest.
Philip Freneau’s* poetry likewise saw oceans as American lakes on which to proclaim American virtue and patriotism. His poetry of the sea is, in part, like “The British Prison Ship” (1780), patriotic and heroic. He also saw the sea from a more reflective and tragic point of view, and these poems evoke the transience not only of life at sea but of all human life. The power and timelessness of the ocean are contrasted again and again in Freneau with the vulnerability and transience of human life. Poems such as “The Argonaut” (1788), “Hatteras” (1789), and “The Wanderer” (1790) evoke the poignancy of sea experience, its essential loneliness and separation from society; in that way Freneau’s nascent romanticism elevates sea experience to a metaphor for all human experience.
The fullest literary use of sea deliverance came in the American romanticism of the early nineteenth century, a period paralleled by America’s greatest maritime commercial power. The three decades before midcentury produced Washington Irving’s* “The Voyage” in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819); James Fenimore Cooper’s* The Pilot* (1824) and other maritime novels; Richard Henry Dana’s* Two Years before the Mast* (1840); Edgar Allan Poe’s* The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket* (1838); and most significantly, Herman Melville’s* sea novels, culminating in Moby-Dick* (1851).
Despite the decline of sailing ships in the later nineteenth century, sea- deliverance themes continue to find expression in American literature in, for example, the naturalism of Stephen Crane’s* “The Open Boat” (1898) and Jack London’s* The Sea-Wolf* (1904) and in twentieth-century novels such as Herman Wouk’s* The Caine Mutiny (1951), Ernest Hemingway’s* The Old Man and the Sea* (1952), and more recently, Peter Matthiessen’s* Far Tortuga* (1975) and Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage* (1990). In their metaphorical and symbolic use of the ocean in combination with a spiritual “voyage” as a central concern, both T. S. Eliot’s* “The Dry Salvages” (1941) and Robert Lowell’s* “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” (1945) are poems very much in the sea-deliverance tradition. [See also “PIETAS IN PATRIAM”]
FURTHER READING: Huntress, Keith, ed. Narratives of Shipwrecks and Disasters, 1586-1860. Ames: Iowa State UP, 1974; Springer, Haskell, ed. America and the Sea: A Literary History. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1995; Wharton, Donald, ed. In the Trough of the Sea: Selected American Sea-Deliverance Narratives, 1610-1766. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1979.
Donald P. Wharton