The Sea in Nineteenth-Century English and American Literature Essay - Critical Essays

The Sea in Nineteenth-Century English and American Literature


The Sea in Nineteenth-Century English and American Literature

Throughout its development in both England and the United States, sea literature has traditionally involved three elements: the sea, the sailor, and the ship. At various times, any one of these has emerged as the dominant of the three. The ship has symbolized life itself—representing the background against which many youths, who looked to the sea for adventure and excitement, matured into independent men. The ordinary seaman has held a place of honor, acting as a first-hand witness to the realities of labor exploitation and the brutal conditions at sea. Yet the sea has inspired the greatest amount of interest among writers. Endowed with human qualities, the sea has been portrayed as indifferent, hostile, welcoming, and fickle. It has generated stories involving the challenge of the sea as a force to be conquered and overcome. It has afforded writers the material for adventurous tales of romance and courage. It has been celebrated for its beauty, honored for its mystery, and likened to a mother who offers security to those who seek refuge upon her “heaving bosom.” The sea has provided a vast and powerful landscape for American and English writers alike, and although the histories of the two countries differ, their emphasis on these basic themes is quite similar.

Known in its early history as a seafaring nation, England has had its identity shaped in large part by the sea. Having established and defended a naval empire throughout the course of its history, the nation by the eighteenth century took great pride in its navy, considering it an agent of God. The English seaman, too, was revered as courageous, just, and moral, and considered a prime example of the best of his race. These attitudes were reflected in the novels of Tobias Smollett (1721-1771), one of the country's dominant literary figures of the time, who in such works as The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle (1751) and The Life and Adventures of Sir Launcelot Greaves (1762) focused his nautical writing—although limited in extent and rather satirical—on the Royal Navy.

Toward the end of the eighteenth century and the turn of the nineteenth century, English writings about the sea were influenced greatly by the Romantic movement, which found writers and artists looking to nature for inspiration. The Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1771-1834) wrote his masterwork The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798) during this time. A supernatural story of guilt and punishment, retribution and repentance, The Ancient Mariner narrates the sea voyage of an old sailor who kills an albatross near the South Pole. This act is an affront to the spirit of Nature, who relentlessly pursues and torments the Mariner. Serving as a living warning to others who would defy divine law, the Mariner is doomed to relive his experience through the continual retelling of it throughout the remainder of his life. Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) treated the theme of man versus nature in his gothic “A Vision of the Sea” (c. 1820), a gruesome narrative of a doomed ship's voyage and the ghastly deaths of its crew.

By the first part of the nineteenth century, English novelists like Captain Frederick Marryat (1792-1848) were writing picaresque narratives based on their firsthand experiences. Marryat, who went to sea at the age of fourteen, spent over two decades aboard ship. Writing in the tradition of Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), whose Scottish novels revealed an intimate knowledge of his country's history and people, Marryat included in his sea stories real geographical and nautical details. Popular with young Victorian boys in particular, his adventure tales such as Mr. Midshipman Easy (1836) and Masterman Ready (1841), written with a vivid imagination and an eye toward providing accurate information for his youthful audience, opened up the world of the British naval service to the English. By the latter part of the Victorian era, the English love of the sea was flourishing. Building upon the romanticism of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, the Victorians developed mythic notions of the sea, including its symbolic association with Christian redemption and spiritual rebirth and the assigning of female qualities to the water—based on its mystery, emotion, and sense of restlessness.

The early history of the original thirteen colonies of North America was heavily dependent on water as well. Transplants from England were accustomed to maritime enterprises and relied on the sea for imports and exports—specifically shipping timber from the New World to shipbuilders across the Atlantic—and for the growing whaling and fishing industries. By the late eighteenth century, the newly formed United States entered what has been called the “heroic age.” Lasting from 1775 to 1815, this national era saw the U.S. at war with Great Britain during both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, making maritime activity on the Atlantic hazardous. However, as a result of the need to seek new trading relationships because of trade embargoes and blockades, the U. S. began to emerge as a powerful shipper to the world. After 1812 the maritime industry flourished, buoyed by immigration, westward expansion (including the gold rush), and the overall growth of the world trade market. By the beginning of the Civil War, U.S. ships accounted for about three-quarters of the world's ships. By World War I, however, this number had dropped substantially due to the increased self-reliance of the country.

Early American sea literature is believed to have begun with the oral traditions of Native Americans, who recited stories of the common experiences of whaling and fishing, cultural folklore of how the land had been created from the great waters, and seminal encounters with others from across the sea. Early American settlers wrote of their experiences at sea—recalling their treacherous journeys across the ocean in poems, narratives, and journal entries. By the first half of the nineteenth century, the sea occupied the same place in the American psyche as the American frontier occupied after 1850. Seen as a place of freedom and soul-searching for the individual, the sea was largely romanticized by Americans who heralded it as a safe haven far from the evils and distractions of society. This romantic view extended to the life of the sailor, a way of life that seemed to offer adventure, freedom, and escape from the increasing industrialization of society. In reality, the majority of seamen, many of whom signed on as inexperienced youngsters, were hardly prepared for the harsh environment onboard ship, and accompanying low wages. In fact, most sailors made one trip and never went to sea again. One of the most significant nineteenth-century pieces of literature documenting these truths is Two Years Before the Mast (1840) by Richard Henry Dana, Jr. (1815-1882). A sailor from 1834 to 1836, Dana recounted his transformation from a bookish, effete young man into a self-reliant and mature individual during his years at sea. More importantly, however, Dana spoke of labor abuses toward merchant seaman, including the serving of bad food, the harsh physical punishments meted out for minor infractions, and the abuses of authority onboard ship. Ultimately, Dana claimed that the seamen were considered nothing more than indentured servants or slaves.

It was the romantic view of the sailor and of life at sea that prevailed throughout this first half of the nineteenth century, however, and it was during this time that American sea fiction was born. Known as the originator of the genre, James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851) dominated American sea fiction, eventually writing twelve maritime sea novels. Cooper was a well-educated and wealthy young man when he went to sea as a common sailor at age sixteen, after having been expelled from Yale for misconduct. Five years later, in 1811, he resigned his commission and in 1824 published his novel The Pilot, which scholars agree marked the beginning of the genre. As a forerunner to Herman Melville, Cooper wrote during the height of the Romantic movement in America, and these romantic, idealized notions were reflected in his novels. To Cooper, the sea was a positive force, offering freedom and building character in those who chose to experience maritime life.

Although Cooper is remembered for establishing the genre, Melville (1819-1891) is arguably the best known writer of American sea fiction. With several years of experience at sea—including two years as a harpooner on a whaling ship in the southern Pacific—Melville used many of the settings and events from his own life in his novels, reshaping them as fiction in an effort to understand the world around him. Melville published his masterpiece, Moby-Dick, in 1851. In essence an epistemological quest, the novel is, on the surface, the story of Ahab the mad captain of a whaling ship and his zealous search for the great albino whale who had maimed him earlier. With Moby-Dick, scholars have argued that Melville provided a romanticized and inaccurate picture of the whaling industry, depicting a world in which men traded the monotony of their lives in the city for the excitement and adventure of the sea. In reality, most whalers led lives that were monotonous, dirty, and even brutal.

From the mid-nineteenth century to the turn of the twentieth century, sea fiction reflected several significant changes in the American social and cultural landscape: the end of the use of sailing ships, the closing of the Western frontier, and the publication of Charles Darwin's controversial On the Origin of Species in 1859. Sea literature was most profoundly affected by this latter development, with attention turned toward investigating the biological origins of man and attempting to resolve the conflict between the theme of brotherhood among seamen and the question of survival of the fittest. Furthermore, in abandoning romantic notions of a coming to terms between man and the natural power of the sea, late nineteenth-century writers of sea fiction took the position that man was no match for the powerful, hostile, and unfeeling natural environment. During this realist-naturalist period, from 1870 to 1910, writers such as reporter and journalist Stephen Crane (1871-1900) portrayed the gloomy and disheartening view of the individual as helpless against the forces of nature. In his short story “The Open Boat” (1898), Crane told a tale of shipwreck and survival, recounting the narrative of four men of varying intellectual and physical powers who are stranded on a boat in the ocean. Not one of the men is able by his own powers to overcome the hostility of the sea—only chance or fate can save them.

Themes in American maritime literature changed after the writing of Moby-Dick as the focus shifted from the recounting of adventures at sea to the contemplation of questions of consciousness. Walt Whitman (1819-1892), for example, in his Sea-Drift sequence of poems (first published in the 1881 edition of Leaves of Grass), examined the theme of individual identity. In poems such as “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” “On the Beach at Night,” and “As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life,” Whitman addressed the narrator's experience with the power and vastness of the sea, exploring questions of the known and unknown and the mysteries of the natural world. By the end of the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century, sea literature shifted again, as writers like Jack London (1876-1916), Richard Matthews Hallet, and Archie Binns began again to recount their own adventures at sea.

Representative Works

Kate Chopin
The Awakening (novel) 1899

Samuel Taylor Coleridge
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (poem) 1798; published in Lyrical Ballads

Joseph Conrad
The Mirror of the Sea: Memories and Impressions (essays) 1906

James Fenimore Cooper
The Pilot: A Tale of the Sea (novel) 1823
The Red Rover: A Tale (novel) 1827
The Water Witch; or, The Skimmer of the Seas: A Tale (novel) 1830
The Two Admirals: A Tale of the Sea (novel) 1842
Afloat and Ashore; or, The Adventures of Miles Wallingford (novel) 1844
The Sea Lions; or, The Lost Sealers (novel) 1849


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Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Thomas Philbrick (essay date 1961)

SOURCE: “Dread Neptune's Wild Unsocial Sea: The Sea in American Literature Before 1820,” in James Fenimore Cooper and the Development of American Sea Fiction, Harvard University Press, 1961, pp. 1-41.

[In the following essay from his landmark study, Philbrick offers a detailed overview of the development of American sea fiction, providing a comprehensive survey of early works in the genre by both British and American writers.]

During the first half of the nineteenth century the sea occupied much the same place in the imaginations of many Americans that the continental frontier was to fill after 1850. The sea exerted the same appeal to the individual: it offered...

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Cynthia Fansler Behrman (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: “The English Romance with the Sea,” in Victorian Myths of the Sea, Ohio University Press, 1977, pp. 11-23.

[In the following excerpt, Behrman focuses on the many sea myths prevalent in late Victorian England and discusses how these myths were represented in the literature of the time.]

I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by
I must down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied


Who hath desired the Sea?—the sight of salt water unbounded—
The heave and the...

(The entire section is 5340 words.)

Bert Bender (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: “The Voyage in American Sea Fiction after the Pilgrim, the Acushnet, and the Beagle,” in Sea-Brothers: The Tradition of American Sea Fiction from Moby-Dick to the Present, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988, pp. 3-18.

[In the following excerpt, Bender traces the transformation of American sea literature from its “golden age” of the 1840s through the end of the nineteenth century.]

You got to have confidence steering.

—Ernest Hemingway, To Have and Have Not

Richard Henry Dana, Jr., “changed the face of maritime fiction” in America by publishing his “voice from the...

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Haskell Springer (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “Introduction: The Sea, the Land, the Literature,” in America and the Sea: A Literary History, edited by Haskell Springer, University of Georgia Press, 1995, pp. 1-31.

[In the following essay, Springer surveys the maritime history of the United States and provides an overview of the beginnings of American sea literature.]


… In their westward movement, starting before there was even an “America” in human consciousness, Europeans encountered the seas that led to the New World and then later helped to define it. The Atlantic, the world's stormiest ocean, was, very early in modern European history, an economic and...

(The entire section is 9011 words.)

Criticism: Major Figures In American Sea Fiction—Cooper And Melville

Robert J. Schwendinger (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: “The Language of the Sea: Relationships between the Language of Herman Melville and Sea Shanties of the Nineteenth Century,” in Southern Folklore Quarterly, Vol. 37, No. 1, March, 1973, pp. 53-73.

[In the following essay, Schwendinger studies the similarities between Melville's language and the language of nineteenth-century sea shanties—songs with a swinging, or lilting rhythm, often sung by sailors while onboard ship.]

Over the years Herman Melville's language becomes the language of the sea as do sea shanties of the 19th Century, and similarities exist between both, in tone, symbols, figurative language, and subject matter. That Melville was concerned...

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William Hamilton (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: “Melville and the Sea,” in Soundings, Vol. 62, No. 4, Winter, 1979, pp. 417-29.

[In the following essay, Hamilton discusses Moby-Dick's sea in terms of its theological significance to Melville.]

For I say there is no other thing that is worse than the sea is
For breaking a man, even though he may be a very strong one.

Homer, Odyssey, VIII, lines 138-39

In Moby Dick the sea appears to mean virtually everything. It is the home of both the nursing whale-mothers and the rapacious shark. It has a serenity that can nearly cure Ahab's monomania; it is also darkness and death. It is in any case the primary...

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Charles H. Adams (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: “Cooper's Sea Fiction and The Red Rover,” in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 16, No. 2, Autumn, 1988, pp. 155-68.

[In the following essay, Adams argues that Cooper's sea novels generally take place in a sort of middle ground between the shore and the sea—a neutral area that metaphorically represents the hero's inner conflict between authority and personal liberation.]

Cooper's sea novels generally blur the traditional distinction in maritime literature between sea and shore. The dichotomy persists in Cooper's works between the shore as a realm of conflict and the sea as one of resolution between, as W. H. Auden puts it in The Enchaféd...

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Criticism: American Sea Poetry And Short Stories

Max L. Autrey (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: “The Word Out of the Sea: A View of Crane's ‘The Open Boat,’” in Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 30, No. 2, Summer, 1974, pp. 101-10.

[In the following essay, Autrey contends that the death of Billie in “The Open Boat” demonstrates the futility of man's struggle for independence and freedom.]

Although presented as an anticlimax and beautifully understated, the death of the oiler holds the key to Stephen Crane's study of mankind in “The Open Boat.” As the most significant single occurrence in a work composed primarily of inner action, Billie's drowning gives meaning to the final periodic comment:

When it came night,...

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Robin Riley Fast (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: “Structure and Meaning in Whitman's Sea-Drift,” in American Transcendental Quarterly, Vol. 53, No. 53, Winter, 1982, pp. 49-66.

[In the following essay, Fast examines Whitman's Sea-Drift poems as a whole, focusing on how their organization within the larger Leaves of Grass helps to develop the overall themes of self-exploration and the promise of transcendence.]

Criticism of Whitman's Sea-Drift sequence has been almost entirely limited to analyses of “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” and “As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life.” Although many critics have commented on the contrasts between these two poems, none has...

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A. James Wohlpart (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “From the Material to the Spiritual in the Sea-Drift Cluster: Transcendence in ‘On the Beach at Night,’ ‘The World Below the Brine,’ and ‘On the Beach at Night Alone,’” in Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, Vol. 13, No. 3, Winter, 1996, pp. 149-58.

[In the following essay, Wohlpart studies the middle three poems in the Sea-Drift cluster, arguing that these poems clarify Whitman's definitions of transcendence and immortality.]

Several critics have suggested the central importance of the Sea-Drift cluster to the organic integrity of Leaves of Grass. Thomas Edward Crawley argues in The Structure of “Leaves of...

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Criticism: English Sea Literature

Carl H. Ketcham (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: “Shelley's ‘A Vision of the Sea,’” in Studies in Romanticism, Vol. 17, No. 1, Winter, 1978, pp. 51-59.

[In the following essay, Ketcham interprets Shelley's fragment “A Vision of the Sea” as the poet's most direct artistic statement on the theme of man versus nature.]

From the time of the boyish wonderings that prompted his frustrated ghost-hunt at Warnham Church to the spectral events at Casa Magni in 1822, Shelley was probing, uneasily and persistently, at questions which stood ranged along the outer limits of his belief. Again and again he confronted, and fell short of finally resolving, a series of related problems—the scope of the individual...

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Anita Moss (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: “Captain Marryat and Sea Adventure,” in Children's Literature Association Quarterly, Vol. 8, No. 3, Fall, 1983, pp. 13-15 and 30.

[In the following essay, Moss offers a brief overview of two sea adventure stories by Marryat: Masterman Ready and Mr. Midshipman Easy.]

By the time that Charles Dickens had published A Holiday Romance (1868), the stock features of sea adventure stories were so well-known that his nine-year-old character, the would-be writer Robin Redforth, can tell the adventures of one Captain Boldheart and his encounters with cannibals, pirates, and worst of all, the Latin Grammar Master (who gets boiled in a pot by the...

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Scott McEathron (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “Death as ‘Refuge and Ruin’: Shelley's ‘A Vision of the Sea’ and Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” in Keats-Shelley Journal, Vol. 43, 1994, pp. 170-92.

[In the following essay, McEathron examines Shelley's “A Vision of the Sea” as it relates to Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, focusing particularly on how the former poem articulates Shelley's beliefs about both death and humanity's spiritual isolation.]

It has been the persuasion of an immense majority of human beings in all ages and nations that we continue to live after death—that apparent termination of all the functions of sensitive...

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Further Reading


Blish, M. “Melville and the Sea Drifters of Japan.” Melville Society Extracts 76 (February 1989): 14-16.

Traces the many mentions in Moby-Dick of Japanese Sea Drifters—sailors whose boats had been disabled and, as a result, drifted with the Pacific currents.

Candido, Anne Marie. “A New Sea in a New Frontier: American Leadership in The Pathfinder.Etudes Anglaises 44, No. 3 (July-September 1991): 285-95.

Focuses on the Lake Ontario setting of Cooper's novel The Pathfinder.

Cramer, Timothy R. “Testing the Waters: Contemplating the Sea in E[mily] D[ickinson]'s...

(The entire section is 703 words.)