The common seaman in nineteenth century American fiction
Lindgren, Charlotte H
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The role of the common seaman in nineteenth century American fiction is a revelation of the interest in the common man, the growth of democracy, the agitation for humanitarian reform, and the quest for nationalism which characterized the new nation between 1790 and 1865. The fictional seamen not only represent the actual men who shared the crowded quarters of the forecastle, but perhaps they are also a manifestation of the spirit of American democracy and the development of a native mythos. The sea has always been basic to American life and thought. In the opening years of the century, trade with the Orient was highly profitable. American whalers explored the islands of the Pacific and became familiar with the watery wastes from the Arctic to the Antarctic. With the establishment of a strong Navy following the War of 1812, America became one of the great maritime powers of the world. Later in the century when the frontier lured young men of adventure away from the sea and foreign crews filled the forecastles of ships, conditions on board American vessels worsened. Harsh treatment, bad food, long hours, and low pay discouraged men of ability from a maritime career. Yet there were always men who grew restless on land and, like Melville, returned to the sea. It was a piece of extraordinary good fortune that the forecastles of American ships contained three such eloquent spokesmen as James Fenimore Cooper, Richard Henry Dana, Jr., and Herman Melville. The fiction written by these men reflect their own experiences at sea. Cooper sailed in the early days of the century when a young man of ability could begin at the bottom and rise to the quarter-deck. Captains felt a paternal interest in their crews, and men were loyal to their ships. Dana represented the gentlemen of good family who sailed before the mast to restore their health and see life firsthand. A lawyer in later years, he fought to bring about legal reforms for the betterment of seamen. Herman Melville served in every maritime branch-merchantman, whaler, and frigate--in the later years when captains were tyrannical and the crew represented the outcasts of all nations. He saw in their problems not only the need £or maritime reform but the universal suffering or all mankind. Of course, there were romantic novels of the sea. Henry Cheever, Edward Judson, and Captain Ingraham wrote of noble young tars and wicked villains, but to counterbalance these popular tales were the factual narratives of genuine seamen--Nathaniel Ames, Amasa Delano, J. Ross Browne, and Josiah Cobb. Although English writers had already popularized maritime literature, America's unique contribution was the development of seamen such as Long Tom Coffin who, like Jonathan, the Yankee farmer, and Leather-Stocking, the frontiersman, represented a stock figure. Except for the legend of Captain Kidd and the tales of pirates who buried treasure or smuggled along the Atlantic coast, America had little folklore, but her writers created a feeling of mythos through the use of allegory and symbolism. The seaman hero of American fiction was based on fact, but he also was representative of the democratic individual freed from the stultifying restrictions of civilization. Closer to the sea than the land, he was part of the American dream which visualized the typical American as solitary, courageous, ingenious, and kin to the natural elements. The invention of steam-driven vessels and the advent of the Civil War brought the age of sail to an end. New legislation and shorter voyages improved conditions for the common seamen. The "old salt" like the pioneer became part of America's heritage.
Abstract: 3 p. at end. Autobiography: 1 p. at end. Thesis (Ph. D.)--Boston University. Bibliography: p. 255-268.
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