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The Novel and the Sea by Margaret Cohen (review)

From: Studies in the Novel
Volume 45, Number 4, Winter 2013
pp. 707-709 | 10.1353/sdn.2014.0006

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I expected to find in The Novel and the Sea a new angle from which to view the development of the European novel, one that broadens the field of inquiry and adds yet another sub-history to the “History of the Novel” canon. Instead, Margaret Cohen’s fascinating book changes the playing field altogether: it persuasively elucidates entirely new criteria by which we can understand early European and American novels and their development across both time and space. Like the practice of “craft” that Cohen outlines in her first chapter, her argument is executed with deftness, skill, and “compleat knowledge” (37).

Cohen’s main aim in this text is to show how maritime ethics—and specifically, the practice of craft—are adopted and repurposed in early British, French, and American fiction. Cohen’s focus on the poetics of craft forces us to reconsider many of our long-held beliefs about the novel. Indeed, “Sea adventure depicts action rather than psychology, its organization is episodic, and it measures plausibility by performance rather than mimesis. The heroism of skilled work substitutes for education and love” (11). In Cohen’s purview, even virtue—that hallmark of the domestic novel—becomes less important than the mariner’s craft, which encourages “heroic performance in dangerous zones, often at the edges of existing knowledge and society” (12). As Cohen suggests, we might see all novels operating according to adventure poetics, particularly those that feature characters on the margins of society (perhaps even Pamela and Evelina are adventure novels that “test their heroines’ mastery of a kind of feminine practical reason” [13]). Cohen also suggests that the novel itself develops in a way parallel to adventure fiction in its dedication to exploring edge zones and its centrifugal travels across time and space. The upshot to all this is breathtaking: Cohen invites us to “revise the dominant narrative about the rise of the novel” not just by making a place for adventure fiction, but also by reconsidering “our long-standing prejudice that those processes and events defining the modern novel occur on land” (13). As Cohen sees it, the modernity of seafaring has been obscured from view, when in fact maritime activity was central to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and central to the literature of this period.

Cohen commences The Novel and the Sea by outlining the practice of “craft,” largely through a close reading of James Cook’s first journal, which narrates the navigator’s harrowing encounter with the still uncharted Great Barrier Reef. Focusing on Cook’s description of the practices that saved his ship and crew, Cohen disentangles the elements that make up craft—e.g., “prudence,” “protocol,” “endeavor,” “resolution,” creative problem solving, and “compleat knowledge.” Importantly, Cohen also links the mariner’s craft to the “plain style” that came to define the travel writing of the early eighteenth century. Thus, it is the mariner’s craft—rather than the New Science—that gave rise to the popularity of plain style, as well as its promise of authenticity. Cohen’s exposition of craft in this chapter also allows her to demonstrate one of her recurrent points: despite scholarly debates about “the novel’s seeming lack of interest in work,” as Cohen sees it, “Work does appear in the guise of craft” (12).

Though Cohen begins her study with a familiar text—Robinson Crusoe—she reinterprets Crusoe’s character by explaining “how Defoe wrought his new poetics of adventure from the mariner’s ethos of craft” (60), which he released “in competition with the success of the maritime book” (7). Throughout this chapter, Cohen demonstrates how exactly Defoe altered maritime tropes to make them more appealing to readers, in part by reading Crusoe side-by-side with William Dampier’s nonfictional travelogue. For example, Defoe creates “performing descriptions” (75), which allow otherwise static descriptions to produce “dramatic yield” (77). He also extends the process of Crusoe’s problem-solving, thus “enabl[ing] the reader to savor the mastery of the character” (68) and test “whether [solutions] are operable” (73). Scholars of the novel should take note that “[t]his plausibility of performance contrasts with a plausibility of mimesis, which measures events and characters according to...

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