restricted access The Novel and the Sea (review)
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Reviewed by
Margaret Cohen. The Novel and the Sea. Princeton: Princeton, 2010. Pp. xiii + 306. $39.50.

Ms. Cohen has written a study of our most dominant fictional form and its relationship to the continuous body of salt water that covers some seventy percent of our globe. Unlike her predecessors, she includes the eighteenth-century novel as a factor in the development of the nautical novel.

In an examination of British, French, and American novels and their vast literature of eighteenth-century seamanship, Ms. Cohen gestures towards Marxist, feminist, and reception theory critics even as she develops a unique revisionist approach. Borrowing a key term from Joseph Conrad, she seeks to prove that “craft,” understood [End Page 71] by sailors as the art and ethos of seamanship, lent its authority to the development of the novel. She links her study closely to reader-response, and so imagines a “cunning reader,” always female and devoted to novels of adventure by writers exclusively male. Cunning is essential to grasping the nautical craft of Crusoe, Random, and Captain Lade.

The first difficulty with “craft” as an energizing term in eighteenth-century novels is that the word virtually never appears in the ones Ms. Cohen regards as central: Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Smollett’s Roderick Random. There is simply no evidence that either Defoe or Smollett saw literary craft as deriving from nautical skill. Technical aspects of seamanship play a very small role in Crusoe, Captain Singleton, and The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. Smollett had a warm regard for mariners, having served as surgeon’s mate at the siege of Cartagena. But most of his sailors have reverted to land. Despite the long episode on shipboard, there are no examples of seamanship as craft in Random. Ms. Cohen repeats the long title of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner, as if calling him a mariner somehow clinches the argument. Yet his knowledge of the sea is so limited that he will rely on others’ skills to return him to England. The skills that enable him to survive on his island are diverse and not derived exclusively from seamanship. His navigational high points consist of sailing his master’s small boat to escape slavery in Sallee and maneuvering his raft around his island, which he does only with great difficulty and near failure. The sea remains for Robinson a source of danger, never something that he masters. In Milton’s Paradise Lost, which Ms. Cohen identifies with Satan and the sublime, the sea often signifies distance from God, an attitude shared by Defoe. The Novel and the Sea seems oblivious to any religious meaning in Defoe’s work.

In another example of asserting to clinch a point, Ms. Cohen refers to Gulliver as “Captain” to emphasize his nautical skills, even though he does not rise to this rank until his fourth part. Crusoe is never a captain and only consults with the ship’s master about destination. In his parody, Swift uses more naval jargon than Defoe does in Crusoe’s account. But neither contains convincing examples of nautical craft. Comparing these passages with John Paul Jones’s skills in Fenimore Cooper’s The Pilot reveals substantial differences. Cooper, the sailor, understood the controlling craft of seamanship better than either Defoe or Swift, neither of whom ever sailed a real ship.

Perhaps Ms. Cohen recognizes this essential difference implicitly when she casts all British and French nautical novels into a new generic category, “nautical picaresque.” Debatable terminology at best, “picaresque” serves here more as a category of dismissal of the early novel form than a sound classification. Though both Crusoe and Random can be regarded loosely as adventure novels, it is difficult to see them as sharing other similarities.

Confusion is heightened by Ms. Cohen’s inability to distinguish between works of fiction and memoirs by real sailors, granting distinctions are often blurred. Works such as Defoe’s A New Voyage and the more problematical A General History of Pyrates, a cornerstone of J. R. Moore’s Defoe canon, contain few examples of nautical craft. On the other hand, The Four Years Voyages of Captain George Roberts, no longer considered Defoe’s...