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Antebellum at Sea

Maritime Fantasies in Nineteenth-Century America

Jason Berger

Publication Year: 2012

In the antebellum years, the Western world’s symbolic realities were expanded and challenged as merchant, military, and scientific activity moved into Pacific and Arctic waters. In Antebellum at Sea, Jason Berger explores the roles that early nineteenth-century maritime narratives played in conceptualizing economic and social transitions in the developing global market system and what these chronicles disclose about an era marked by immense change.

Focusing on the work of James Fenimore Cooper and Herman Melville, Berger enhances our understanding of how the nineteenth century negotiated its own tenuous progress by portraying how a wide range of maritime stories lays bare disturbing experiences of the new. Berger draws on Slavoj Žižek’s Lacanian notion of fantasy in order to reconsider the complex way maritime accounts operated in the political landscape of antebellum America, examining topics such as the function of maritime labor know-how within a transformation of scientific knowledge, anxiety produced by conflict between gender-specific and culture-specific forms of enjoyment, and how legal practices illuminate troubling juridical paradoxes at the heart of Polk-era political life.

Addressing the ideas of the antebellum age from unexpected and revealing perspectives, Berger calls on the conception of fantasy to consider how antebellum maritime literature disputes conventional views of American history, literature, and national identity.

Published by: University of Minnesota Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-9

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pp. ix-x

There are many people who have made this book possible. If not debts, I have indeed accrued benefits from interactions at various stages of composition. My earliest conceptions of the project were formed while I was a graduate student at the University of Vermont, and I am, on...

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INTRODUCTION: Bewitching Sea

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pp. 1-21

On November 25, 1842, an eighteen-year-old midshipman named Philip Spencer approached another crew member on board the USS Somers. Taking the sailor, Mr. Wales, aside, Spencer quietly bound him to secrecy and then pulled a piece of paper covered in Greek writing from his...

Part I: Fantasy and the Common Sailor

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pp. 23-35

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CHAPTER 1: Fantasies of the Common Sailor; or, Enjoying the Knowing Jack Tar

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pp. 25-55

Coleridge’s well-known scene in which a hoary mariner’s enchanting presence arrests the att ention of a young wedding guest unintentionally pinpoints a salient aspect of the future American antebellum literary marketplace: the developing role of the author in catching and...

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CHAPTER 2: Tarrying with the National: Fantasizing the Subject of State

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pp. 57-93

If the sailor is a specter-like catalyst for antebellum maritime fantasies, then for many of this era’s related narratives, the nation might be viewed as a common symbolic denouement. Indeed, maritime endeavors were paramount to the young country’s economic, military, and...

Part II: Polynesian Encounters Redux

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pp. 95-107

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CHAPTER 3: Tattoos in Typee: Rethinkning Melville's "Cultural Grotesque"

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pp. 97-121

The construction of antebellum national subjectivity that the previous chapter begins to explore emerges in part through experiences within the era’s expanding geopo liti cal landscape. In terms of the frequent encounters across and around the Pacific, the native tattoo...

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CHAPTER 4: Melville’s “Porno-Tropics”: Re-Sexuating Pacific Encounters

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pp. 123-172

This chapter opens with ravishment. And begins where it will also end: with the impassioned impasse of desire. Imploring the enigmatic native queen Hautia to reveal her connection to his lost beloved, Yillah, Melville’s sailor makes a futile att empt to command an understanding...

Part III: Ocean-States of Exception

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pp. 173-185

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CHAPTER 5: The Crater and the Master's Reign: Cooper's "Floating Imperium"

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pp. 175-195

In this age of Guantanamo, inconsistencies within the American judicial-political landscape haunt the notion of democracy. Building on the work of Carl Schmitt, Giorgio Agamben avers that such contemporary juridical paradoxes correspond to the way that political power more generally...

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CHAPTER 6: The Sublime Abject of Democracy: Melville's "Floating Imperium"

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pp. 197-238

An asylum for the perverse,” “an asylum for all drunkards,” “a sort of State Prison afloat.”1 Indeed, Melville fancies that the fictitious U.S. man-of-war Neversink is all of these. But more than an imperious and segmented floating caldron of vice, the ship, built of “parts of a Chinese...

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EPILOGUE: Incomplete Sea

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pp. 239-245

The sea is not full. And it is hoped that, reciprocally, this book’s own shortcomings and perhaps short shriftings might be seen as symptoms of an open process at work. I close with Melville’s haunting fantasy of violence as a way to emphasize the contestatory and at times ambiguous...


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pp. 247-304


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pp. 305-338

E-ISBN-13: 9780816681754
E-ISBN-10: 0816681759
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816677061

Page Count: 328
Publication Year: 2012