GREAT LAKES LITERATURE. An accident of geology, the abandoned
scourings of the Wisconsin glacier, the Great Lakes have made possible a
maritime commerce that began before Native Americans first traded with
Europeans for furs in the sixteenth century. The Algonquian word odawa
first meant “trader” before it was applied to an artificially created tribal unit,
and these precontact mariners ferried copper and furs to trade with tribes
distant from the Lakes. The odawa perfected the first long, lean, indigenous
Lakes vessel—the birchbark canoe—the ancestor of modern, 1,000-foot
bulk carriers. Native culture created the first literature of the Great Lakes as
well, stories about a unique underwater monster, a spiny lynx known as
Micipijiu (Missipeshu), who ruled this world of waters by raising storms
that endangered everyone who traveled there. His malevolence undiminished by time or marine engineering, Micipijiu survives in rock paintings on
the Precambrian Shield on the north shore of Lake Superior, in the texts of
ethnologists such as Henry Rowe Schoolcraft,* in the folklore of freshwater
sailors, and in contemporary novels. His work offers a fitting representative
of waters classed among the most dangerous on earth.
European American history and literature on the Lakes, which began as
early as the Puritan settlements in New England, have always been linked
inextricably with commercial and industrial expansion. Father Louis Hennepin, who accompanied Rene ´ Robert Cavelier, de la Salle in 1679 on the
first ship to sail the upper Lakes, immediately recognized their potential for
development into another Mediterranean basin. The furs ferried east in long
maı ˆtre canoes were the prizes of the French and Indian War (1756–1763)
and the War of 1812 (1812–1815) that defined the fledgling United States
as a nation. Immigrants who later sailed through the Lakes seeking economic prosperity in the Northwest Territories, which were rich in copper,
iron, salt, limestone, lumber, and prairie land, followed routes developed by
Native Americans and extended by the great drive for economic and national
expansion that characterized the nineteenth century. They created a concentration of agriculture, industry, and urban enterprise that defined American and Canadian* business and inspired what is commonly thought of as
Great Lakes literature: the novels of freshwater merchant marine culture.
This literature, initiated by an anonymous novel titled Scenes on Lake Huron* in 1836 and by James Fenimore Cooper’s* The Pathfinder* in 1840,
began as a response to class and cultural conflicts on the emerging frontier.
When Cooper pits Jasper, the young captain of a Lakes vessel, against Cap,
a tradition-bound saltwater mate, their encounter epitomizes the North
American experience of western expansion: survival demanded new skills and
a willingness to break with centuries-old traditions. Herman Melville* joined
this contest with “The Town-Ho’s Story” in Moby-Dick* (1851), describing
the Lakes there as “swept by Borean and dismasting blasts as direful as any
that lash the salted wave” (ch. 54) and creating another Lakes sailor who
triumphs over a traditional saltwater captain.
Once frontier culture was superseded by industrialization, however, the
romantic cast of Lakes fiction could no longer be sustained except in historical novels. The industrialization of the Great Lakes in the nineteenth
century coincided with the rise of realism in the United States; therefore,
the fiction created was a proletarian, working-class literature such as Richard
Matthews Hallet’s* Trial by Fire (1915) and Jay McCormick’s* November
Storm (1942), novels that attempt to make sensible experiences that were
harrowing but still misunderstood because they took place on freshwater
“lakes.” Hurricane-force storms, few harbors of refuge, technological obsolescence, disastrous deflation, and the vertical integration of shipping led
only to death or failure for many who thought to participate in the dreams
of independence first delineated by Cooper. As the twentieth century progressed, Lakes merchant marine literature became a culturally contested site
once more, this time divided between realist and postrealist indictments of
industrialization, such as David Mamet’s play Lakeboat* (1970), and historical romances that attempted to re-create a past free of the class, gender,
and racial conflicts that still prevailed.
Women’s literature, however, charts a different course. When the Great
Lakes were a maritime frontier with the concomitant fluidity of gender roles,
women participated in the world outside the home, working as cooks on
ships, sailing to remote outposts as missionaries, and keeping lighthouses.*
Women writers could board a boat in Buffalo, New York, and within a few
days be at the edge of the wilderness, then return home and write about
their experiences in travel narratives, one of the most salable genres of the
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Others who grew up on the Lakes
were able to develop lucrative careers as writers after the Civil War, when
the conjunction of widespread literacy, mass-circulation magazines such as
Harper’s and The Atlantic, and eastern readers’ desire to escape the problems of the Industrial Revolution and urban immigration created a market
for escapist local-color fiction. Mary Hartwell Catherwood* and Constance
Fenimore Woolson,* among others, began their careers publishing short
stories set on the Lakes. Although writers often portrayed their women characters’ lives as difficult, they also described the freedom that the Lakes allowed them: to work, to achieve, to be free in the small boats and canoes
This freedom and the self-respect that accompanied it were frequently
linked with the example of American Indian women. European American women early recognized that Indian women had great freedom and
respect in their societies: they could own property, divorce their husbands
and retain custody of their children, and participate in community decisions.
Nineteenth-century white women writers had few models of feminine
achievement in their own culture, and on the Great Lakes, where Indian
and white cultures had lived together for centuries, the example of Indian
women was powerful, particularly after capitalistic industrialization diminished women’s opportunities to participate outside the home.
Thus, the legacy of Indian life on the Great Lakes survives not only in
the texts collected by ethnologists but in the fiction of white writers as well,
particularly in the late twentieth century, when the themes of Great Lakes
fiction change once again. No longer a site of contention about the
traditions of sailing or the exploitation of workers, recent maritime literature
such as Joan Skelton’s The Survivor of the Edmund Fitzgerald* (1985) critiques the ideologies of the postindustrial cultures of the Lakes. This fiction
suggests that unrestrained development and resource extraction reflect a
nineteenth-century viewpoint that is no longer viable and that mythic creatures such as Micipijiu, who becomes a character in Skelton’s novel, may
reflect earlier cultures’ acknowledgment of the limits of technology and human ability.
As Cooper pointed out in The Pathfinder, new places require new ideas.
Only by recognizing the contending forces that created the regional maritime literature of the Great Lakes can readers understand its complexity.
Because the development of the Lakes coincided with the Industrial Revolution in the United States and the collateral rise of the realistic mode in
literature, much of the imaginative literature portrays English-speaking,
white, working-class lives, the culture that dominated the Lakes after 1776,
and the decline of French and Indian influence. Although African Americans* were early drawn to the Lakes because the Northwest Ordinance of
1787 outlawed slave trading, and the historical record offers tantalizing
glimpses of black shipping operations, no literature of their lives on the
Lakes has been discovered.
Thus, readers must approach Great Lakes literature from multiple perspectives: as a classic literature of the sea celebrating a way of life that was
dangerous and difficult but sometimes rewarded those with luck and courage; as a literature of resistance written by women and who made their own
place on the frontier and later in the industrialized world that followed it;
and as a fragmented record that seldom includes natives and other people
of color. Without this complicated viewpoint, readers risk reducing the maritime literature of the Great Lakes to a story of men before the mast, a
shorter story than it was.
GREAT LAKES LITERATURE. An accident of geology, the abandoned