Life on the Sea as Literary Inspiration Analysis

Romanticism and Identity

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The rise of Romanticism and its concern with individual identity brought with it the world’s greatest sea novelist. Herman Melville was, like Cooper and Dana, a sailor, and he made his career writing about the sea. Melville’s early works, Typee (1846) and Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas (1847), for example, are fact-based accounts of his experiences as a sailor. His masterpiece, Moby Dick: Or, The Whale (1851), however, has, in addition to its factual and realistic descriptions of life on the sea, a highly symbolic structure. The sea for the character Ishmael represents the possibilities for self-definition. The book can be interpreted as a search for God; it is also certainly a quest for individual identity in an age of national uncertainty. The sailors on board the Pequod come from all races and form an alternative society; this pluralistic society serves as an implicit comment on American social identity. Melville’s short fiction also uses shipboard society to question the national identity: “Benito Cereno,” for example, tells the story of a revolt on a slave ship and is a scathing indictment of American identity. Melville’s short, posthumous sea novel, Billy Budd, Foretopman (1924), also serves as a critique of American society. Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat” discusses the brotherhood the immense sea fosters. As does Melville, Crane imagines individual identity as related to a community. For these writers, the sea serves not as an escape from American society but as a means of apprehending what lies at the bottom of social identity: the physical and emotional need of one person for another.