Romanticism and Identity
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.