the time that Shakespeare’s The Tempest was published in the “First Folio”
in 1623, William Bradford had already been governor of the Plymouth colony for two years, and the “brave new world” theme had already begun to
shape literature in English. Richard Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations (1589,
1598–1600) helped to create and then satisfy the demand for voyage literature—a form so attractive to readers throughout the following century
that the form was followed by Jonathan Swift in his satire Gulliver’s Travels
(1726) and by Daniel Defoe in his early and enormously successful fiction
Robinson Crusoe (1719). In turn, the shipwreck* motif of the latter must
have contributed to William Falconer’s preromantic poem “The Shipwreck”
(1762). Falconer’s popular poem fused elements of the sublime as recently
analyzed in Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Inquiry into the Sublime and
Beautiful (1757), while elaborately retaining technical accuracy. In the following decades J. Hawkesworth shaped the public perception of James Cook
in An Account of a Voyage round the World (1773). Hawkesworth, a prote ´ge ´
of Samuel Johnson, painted an idyllic picture of South Seas life and created
an audience for Cook’s subsequent journals: A Voyage towards the South
Pole (1777) and A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean (1784). Cook’s exploration
of the unfrequented Pacific and skirting of the Antarctic* continent provided
Samuel Taylor Coleridge with an imaginative setting for his “Rime of the
Ancient Mariner” (1798), which itself expressed the complete romanticization of the sea. The second great age of English exploration may be said
to have come to an end with Cook’s death (in an altercation with natives
of Hawai’i in 1779), but a recession of the ice caps encouraged even further
polar exploration. The voyages themselves, watchfully chronicled in The
Quarterly Review and The Edinburgh Review, provided for the earliest maritime adventures of Horatio Nelson, whose career and character would be
celebrated in Robert Southey’s Life of Nelson (1813). Southey’s book had the additional effect of rescuing the portrait of the British tar from the
eighteenth-century sentimentalization of songwriter Charles Dibdin and
novelist Tobias Smollett. That portrait itself was paralleled by the “Byronic”
treatment of maritime character in George Gordon, Lord Byron’s The Corsair (1813) and Lara (1814). William Parry in Journal of a Voyage to Discover a North-West Passage (1821) and especially William Scoresby in An
Account of the Arctic* Regions, with a History and Description of the
Northern Whale Fishery (1820) demonstrated the sublimity and utilitarian
aspects of these forays of exploration and industry.
If the birth of American sea fiction is to be dated from the publication of
James Fenimore Cooper’s* The Pilot* in 1824—a fair assumption—the
foregoing summary (with perhaps the exception of Hakluyt) might represent
a list of Cooper’s reading as he undertook to become the first successful
professional American novelist—and the first novelist of the sea. But the
initial spur to Cooper’s writing came immediately from Sir Walter Scott’s
The Pirate (1821) with its misleading scenes of whale-catching set in the
Shetland Islands. Scott’s historical fiction would continue to be more predictive of the American sea novel than that of Cooper’s contemporary Frederick Marryat, whose Frank Mildmay (1829) and subsequent novels
continued to be based largely on the caricatures of British seamen originated
by Smollett.
Near midcentury two nonliterary events, one briefly influential and the
other far-reaching, contributed to shaping the future of sea literature. In
1845 Sir John Franklin, who had previously published accounts of one disastrous expedition and one successful expedition to the north, began his
third voyage of Arctic exploration, one that was to end in tragedy and the
loss of his own life. The solution to the mystery of Franklin’s disappearance
was not made public until the publication of Sir Francis McClintock’s Voyage
of the Fox in the Arctic Seas (1859). The same year Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species, a work based largely on observations Darwin
had made while a seagoing naturalist and published as Journal of Researches
into the Geology and Natural History of the Various Countries Visited by
H.M.S. Beagle (1839). Darwin’s earlier work was coincidentally published
the same year as Thomas Beale’s The Natural History of the Sperm Whale,
a work that was not only immediately recognized as exhaustive and authoritative but one that may also have become the single most important sourcebook in the history of sea literature when Herman Melville* ordered a
copy in the spring of 1850.
While Melville and his generation were intimately familiar with the tradition of British sea literature, following the Civil War, Darwin (modified
and popularized by Herbert Spencer and T. H. Huxley) exerted probably
the greatest influence on American literature of the sea, especially through
the works of Frank Norris,* Stephen Crane,* and Jack London.* That this
influence most likely was secondhand does not lessen its importance. For these proponents of naturalism, the conflict of romanticism and realism
found a challenge in the works of Rudyard Kipling, whose Captains Courageous* (1897) was a romantic-revival treatment of a Darwinian theme,
and resolution in the modernism of Joseph Conrad, whose career as a master
of fiction followed a career as an officer in the merchant service. Conrad’s
Nigger of the Narcissus (1897) added depth of characterization and theme
to the conventional storm piece previously best exemplified by Melville’s
correspondent William Clark Russell in The Wreck of the Grosvenor (1877).
Lord Jim (begun in 1898 but not completed until 1900) expanded the role
of the narrator Marlow, who meanwhile appeared in “Youth” (1898) and
would appear again in “Heart of Darkness” (1898–1899) and Chance
(1913). Conrad’s Typhoon (1902) extended a literary form closely associated
with the age of sail into the age of steam. Conrad’s final sea novel, The
Rescue (1920), took twenty years to write and is no less a product of the
romantic revival than Kipling’s Captains Courageous. Nevertheless, Conrad’s
work as a whole indicated a new direction and new level of sophistication
not only for sea literature but for all literature in English.
FURTHER READING: Philbrick, Thomas. James Fenimore Cooper and the Development of American Sea Fiction. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1961.