LIFESAVING LITERATURE. In 1871, spurred to action by a series of
sensational wrecks along the New Jersey coast, Congress passed legislation
to organize and fund the U.S. Life-Saving Service (1871–1915) on a national scale to create a system of well-dispersed stations with salaried crews
on the Atlantic, Pacific, and Great Lakes* coasts. Technological innovations,
such as self-bailing lifeboats, networked telegraph communications, and the
breeches buoy—a system of ropes, pulleys, and a buoy or life-car that could
be used to ferry wreck victims from ship to shore—coupled with routine
patrols enabled lifesaving crews to warn vessels to safety with red Coston
flares or to respond to shipwreck.* The new system proved unparalleled,
reducing the number of drownings while quelling the public’s outcry for a
solution to the devastating loss of life in shipwreck.
In 1915 the Life-Saving Service was combined with the Revenue Cutter
Service (1790–1915), which was charged with enforcing maritime laws, to
form the Coast Guard. By this time, the Life-Saving Service had rescued
more than 177,000 people from wrecks, helped to prevent countless other
maritime disasters, and operated from more than 270 stations. In 1939 the
U.S. Lighthouse* Service (1789–1939), responsible for maintaining maritime navigational aids, also merged with the Coast Guard.
Lifesaving crews—local watermen familiar with a district’s unique coastal
characteristics—were generally hired for the winter storm season. Although
the majority of surfmen were white, some crews were racially diverse. For
instance, Native Americans from the Wampanoag tribe on Martha’s Vineyard and the Shinnecock tribe on Long Island were integral to both volunteer and paid lifesaving efforts. In 1880 the lifesaving crew at Pea Island
Station on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, under Richard Etheridge’s leadership, became the service’s first all-black crew.
The Life-Saving Service’s success was widely celebrated in contemporary
literature and art and, as coastal tourism became increasingly popular, was
also reflected in the rise of spectatorship at the scenes of wrecks. Not only would spectators gather to view the aftermath of wrecks, as Henry David
Thoreau* vividly describes in his account of the wreck of the St. John in
Cape Cod (1864), but crowds would also turn out to observe lifesaving
crews’ drills and dramatic rescue efforts. When Thoreau wrote Cape Cod,
aid to shipwrecked mariners in Massachusetts depended on the volunteer
lifeboat crews and charity houses of the Massachusetts Humane Society, one
model for the nationally organized lifesaving system. Shipwreck metaphors
infuse Thoreau’s narrative; in the chapter “The Beach,” the narrator explores
a dilapidated and seemingly abandoned charity house near the beach.
In comparison, naturalist Henry Beston’s* The Outermost House (1928)
records his experiences while living near the outer beach on the arm of Cape
Cod.* Unlike the barrenness of Thoreau’s charity house, the nightly presence of Nauset station coastguardsmen walking their assigned patrols to
warn ships of danger or to respond to groundings offered Beston companionship as well as a strong sense of protection. Drawing on the history of
lifesaving on the cape, in the chapter “Lanterns on the Beach,” Beston describes the duties of the coastguardsmen and elaborates on the hardships
endured by surfmen in performing their mundane, yet quietly heroic, tasks.
Media representations, from newspapers, to weekly and monthly magazines, fueled public interest in lifesaving by featuring dramatic rescue narratives. For example, “The United States Life-Saving Service” in Scribner’s
Monthly (January 1880) and “The American Life-Saving Service” in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (February 1882) educated readers about the
history and operations of the service while recounting the details of rescues.
Many such essays argued in favor of increased federal funding for the service
based on its incredible success. To help readers fully appreciate the romantic
drama of lifesaving narratives, articles were often accompanied by illustrations of rescue equipment and surfmen in action. The service’s widely circulated annual report documented the yearly activity in each of its thirteen
districts as well as featured prose accounts of the most memorable wrecks
and rescues. From 1876 to 1889, William D. O’Connor, a professional
literary figure and assistant to the general superintendent, compiled the annual report and, through his vivid writing, helped to generate public interest
in lifesaving. O’Connor’s posthumously published Heroes of the Storm
(1904) includes many of his most dramatic entries about the surfmen’s
strength and heroism. In the poem “Patroling Barnegat,” published in
Leaves of Grass (1881), Walt Whitman,* a friend of O’Connor, describes
surfmen’s dedication in patrolling a beach lashed by a furious gale.
Not all lifesaving literature glamorized the actions and valor of the surfmen. Rebecca Harding Davis,* in a Lippincott’s Magazine essay “Life-Saving
Stations” (March 1876), complicates her praise for the Life-Saving Service
in New Jersey by linking the surfmen to questionable wrecking practices and
the notorious “Barnegat pirates,”* renowned for luring ships to destruction
for profit and famous for their inhospitality. In “The Open Boat” (1897), based on his experiences during the foundering of the Commodore off the
coast of Florida, Stephen Crane* challenges the national exuberance over
the success of lifesaving. Although the correspondent argues that the coast
reached by the survivors is protected by houses of refuge rather than fully
manned lifesaving stations, the men in the boat experience cycles of hope
and despair based on their expectations of rescue by the Life-Saving Service.
After they think they see a lifeboat being wheeled along the beach, for
instance, their relief turns to disgust when the lifeboat turns out to be an
omnibus filled with tourists.
Widespread reporting about the Life-Saving Service also helped to carry
its exploits beyond literature to become the focus of great marine epic paintings such as Winslow Homer’s The Life-Line (1884) and The Wreck (1896).
In these, as in many of his other seascapes, Homer captures the drama and
ambiguous success of humans’ efforts to survive at the margin of land and
sea in the teeth of elemental forces.