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


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.