Nautical Literature

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The United States in the first half of the nineteenth century was a country that looked to the sea. The largest towns were seaports. These acted as the economic engines of the country, controlling exports, distributing imports, and accumulating and investing capital. This is the context in which the American novel developed. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that James Fenimore Cooper, for instance, most celebrated for his tales of frontier life, also wrote over a dozen works of nautical fiction. What is surprising is just how effectively such nautical novels tackled questions about the emerging nation.


There have always been sea stories, but Cooper (1789–1851) invented the sea novel, a work in which, in the words of Thomas Philbrick, "the principal characters and action are defined by the oceanic environment that surrounds them" (Introduction, p. ix). Cooper's first work, Precaution (1820), was a novel of manners, but in his first sea novel, The Pilot (1823), he starts to say something really significant about American life. The "Pilot" commands a frigate off the coast of England; his mission is to capture prominent Englishmen in order to force a modification of the British policy of impressment. What is striking in Cooper's novel is the sense of the Pilot as an American hero, a romantic individual outside any conventional social order. This connects with motifs repeatedly evident in American nautical novels: a sense of landlessness, of having no roots, which develops into an impression of the vastness of the sea and the isolation of the mariner. With its English setting, however, The Pilot seems to be still caught up in the past; it is as if the United States at this point is still defining itself in relation to Britain.

If The Pilot hints at the difficulties involved in forging a new identity, it is in The Red Rover (1827) that Cooper really explores the problem. The hero, a pirate, has rejected the past and become an outlaw. But a sense of American identity here involves far more than just an endorsement of rebelliousness. The Rover is happiest in command of his ship, where he feels liberated; the ship is free and represents freedom. In a similar way, his crew delight in the challenge of the voyage. The complication is that the Rover displays a callous disregard for life, imposing extreme forms of physical abuse upon his crew. The novel allows its readers to appreciate that, as against a simple idea of freedom, the reality of the United States is a set of contradictions; that is to say, the country's democratic ideal is at odds with the way in which it actually conducts itself. One way in which this is apparent in Cooper's novels is in his references to race; he returns repeatedly to the paradox of the existence of slavery in a country committed to liberty.

The setting of a ship provides an ideal stage for posing such dilemmas. It is an environment where a body of men have come together for their mutual advantage; men from different backgrounds must work together as they venture forth to places that are still waiting to be fully explored. But the structured regime of the ship, and the possibility of the abuse of power, raises questions about how authority is exercised in a democracy. Within this framework, Cooper confronts a range of issues, and issues that changed during his lifetime. By the time of Afloat and Ashore (1844) both Cooper and the United States had moved on. The novel has two main characters: Miles, who chooses a career at sea, and Rupert, who enters a lawyer's office. Cooper's focus here is on competing images of the nation's identity: the risk-taking existence of a sailor and the more cautious life that has evolved on the shore. But this is only one aspect of Cooper's grasp of the divisions in American society in the years before the Civil War. Slavery is again an issue in Afloat and Ashore, as is class. The sailor Smudge is a character who oversteps the mark; Miles is a gentle person, but in his position of authority he does not hesitate to hang Smudge. This and other events in the novel repeatedly demonstrate that it is clearly impossible to reconcile the variety of America with a unified vision of America.


Nautical novels look at the society Americans have created, but they also look to the future. A repeated impression of venturing into the unknown, and at the same time a sense of establishing an American empire, is most obvious in land-based narratives of the first half of the nineteenth century, where the travelers take possession of the American continent. A similar impression is evident in nonfictional nautical texts of the era, such as Owen Chase's Narrative of the Most Extra-Ordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship "Essex" (1821), Charles Stewart's A Visit to the South Seas (1831), Edmund Fanning's Voyages round the World (1833), and Francis A. Olmsted's Incidents of a Whaling Voyage (1841). Of particular interest is Charles Wilkes's five-volume Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition (1845). The motivation in the voyages described by these texts might ultimately be economic but also present in all these narratives is what Bert Bender describes as "the essential motive for all literary voyages: the desire for renewal, discovery, light" (p. 4). Such qualities are especially prominent in Richard Henry Dana's Two Years before the Mast (1840); by the end of his tale, Dana is glad to leave the sea, but before this his experience is one that brings an idea of freedom, a sense of space, and a spirit of adventure.

Inevitably, however, darker notes intrude in such sagas; Dana's work also conveys, for example, the autocratic, bullying regime on the ship. In Edgar Allan Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838) the immediate impression is of an adventure story set aboard a merchant ship sailing to the South Seas, but the work quickly becomes a disturbing fantasy in which Poe confronts the tensions that characterized his native South. What consistently informs such works is the consciousness of a gap between the original, innocent and inspiring conception of the United States and how the country has actually developed. For example, Cooper's final nautical novel, The Sea Lions (1848), constructs a sense of the world spinning out of control, a feeling prompted by the author's unease with what he sees as the downward-leveling tendencies of democracy.


Herman Melville (1819–1891) is a preeminent figure in the tradition of American nautical literature. In the five works that precede Moby-Dick (1851) the protagonists are all wanderers on the ocean. Typee (1846), Omoo (1847), and Mardi (1849) are suffused with a tantalizing sense of venturing into the unknown. This is particularly true in Mardi, in which the narrator abandons his ship, establishes a relationship with a young woman, and then, when she is kidnapped, embarks upon a kind of allegorical exploration of the world. Redburn (1849) is much more straightforward as an account of a young man's first sea voyage on a trader bound for Liverpool, his experiences onboard and in England, and his return to the United States. White-Jacket (1850), set on a manof-war, is based on Melville's experience of service on the United States in 1844 and focuses on the degrading conditions on the Neversink. The narrator is the maker and wearer of the white jacket that throughout the journey causes him grief.

Melville writes in a tradition of nautical fiction, but he is clearly a writer in a different league: his works always move beyond our framework of expectations. White-Jacket, for example, is a powerful indictment of conditions and leadership in the U.S. Navy. As such, it poses the kinds of questions about the abuse of power that are aired repeatedly in nautical novels. By focusing on a brutal regime Melville, like Dana (Dana encouraged Melville to develop his experiences on the United States into a work of fiction), constructs an implicit analysis of the condition of the United States at a crucial stage in its expansion and development. The text operates powerfully at this level. The regime on the Neversink is oppressive, with extreme punishments for minor misdeeds. And perhaps even more disconcerting is the general air of indifference in relation to the sailors' lives. The most appalling example is the unnecessary amputation of the leg of a sailor by the ship's doctor, an act of brutality that results in the man's death. As always in nautical fiction, abuse of the body undermines any pretence of a reasonable social order. More specifically in an American context, the impression of the ordinary seaman as disposable is obviously incompatible with the notion of a society that has broken away from the European social model.

As powerful as Melville's critique is, however, this is not the most striking feature of the work. What is most likely to challenge the reader's expectations is the significance of White Jacket himself. Dressed so distinctively, he appears to be a symbolic figure, but it is difficult to be sure what effect is intended. In a puzzling way, White Jacket actually seems superfluous to the critique of the navy that the work offers. As such, he becomes a wild card, a figure that unsettles the narrative. His presence is consistent, however, with a more general impression that many of the incidents and details in White-Jacket cannot be accommodated within any coherent or convincing overall interpretation of the text. Rather than explain White Jacket, therefore, it seems more reasonable to suggest that the character evades comprehension.

Whereas White-Jacket is often strange, Moby-Dick (1851) is much stranger, and even more baffling. It was written at a significant moment, when whaling was still the United States's leading industry. Yet even as the novel was being written, the United States was turning its back on the sea, with the land as the new and only frontier that really mattered. A great deal of criticism of Melville's works since the late twentieth century has focused on just how sharp his analysis is of the economic, social, and cultural conditions of the country, at a time when the agricultural economy was being overtaken by an industrial economy. Whaling was part of the new industrial order of the United States, but, with an imminent collapse of the demand for whale oil, it was on the verge of becoming an activity associated with the past. When Moby-Dick is seen in this context, it becomes possible to account for the novel's baffling nature. As the maritime frontier lost its central role in the American imagination, the nautical story seemingly began to lose its commanding capacity to make sense of the country; inexplicable elements started to intrude into the story. Indeed, it is as if Melville uses the form of the novel to exploit a sense of the vastness and mysteriousness of the ocean in a way that subverts all attempts at explanation. The novel repeatedly sets the unpredictability of the sea, the voyage, and life in general against the human impulse to assume command, to explain and to understand. This irresolvable tension is anticipated in White-Jacket: it offers a damning and coherent critique of the U.S. Navy, but at the same time there is a sense of much that is elusive in the text.

The classic American nautical novel was never just a story about the sea and sailors. It was, unavoidably, a story about the whole structure of a trading nation and the social and cultural order that evolves in such a society. In the United States of 1820–1870, a series of books attempt to make sense of the nation through an examination of the maritime activity that was so central in determining the character of that nation. But in Melville, as the maritime frontier loses its central role in the American economy and imagination, the form of the nautical tale is stretched to its limits in trying to sustain its traditional role. After Moby-Dick the nautical novel was no longer a distinctive feature of American literary culture; consequently, Melville's masterwork stands as the final extravagant, even self-parodying, flourish of the genre.

See alsoMaritime Commerce; Moby-Dick;Two Years before the Mast


Primary Works

Cooper, James Fenimore. Afloat and Ashore. London: Bentley, 1844.

Cooper, James Fenimore. Sea Tales. New York: Library of America, 1991. Includes The Pilot (1823) and The Red Rover (1827).

Dana, Richard Henry, Jr. Two Years before the Mast andOther Voyages. 1840. New York: Library of America, 2005.

Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. 1851. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Melville, Herman. White-Jacket; or, The World in a Man-ofWar. 1850. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Poe, Edgar Allan. The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. 1838. New York: Penguin, 1999.

Secondary Works

Bender, Bert. Sea-Brothers: The Tradition of American SeaFiction from "Moby-Dick" to the Present. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988.

Kopley, Richard, ed. Poe's "Pym": Critical Explorations. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1992.

Labaree, Benjamin W., et al. America and the Sea: AMaritime History. Mystic, Conn.: Mystic Seaport, 1998.

Philbrick, Thomas. Introduction to The Wing-and-Wing; or,Le Feu-follet, by James Fenimore Cooper, pp. ix–xv. New York: Henry Holt, 1998.

Philbrick, Thomas. James Fenimore Cooper and theDevelopment of American Sea Fiction. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1961.

Selby, Nick, ed. Herman Melville, "Moby Dick." New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

Sundquist, Eric J. "Exploration and Empire." In TheCambridge History of American Literature, vol. 2, Prose Writing 1820–1865, edited by Sacvan Bercovitch, pp. 127–174. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

John Peck