- Women & Children First: Nineteenth-Century Sea Narratives & American Identity
In the ambitious book Women & Children First, Robin Miskolcze marks an important intervention in the current revaluation of maritime studies by arguing that images of women at sea were intertwined with a national crisis in masculinity and political identity in nineteenth-century America. Drawing on the work of Atlantic studies scholars such as W. Jeffrey Bolster, Donald P. Wharton, and Paul Gilroy, Miskolcze reveals how national dramas were often played out on the seas, particularly through narratives involving women and maritime disaster. Her central argument revolves around anxieties over the capitalist drive toward individualism in the latter eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries, particularly as ideas defining manhood through duty to community and family gave way to the nineteenth-century cult of the self-made man. Shipwreck narratives involving women made use of the selfless behavior of men in saving women and children as a means to measure the moral scope of national manhood, providing a justification for American exceptionalism. These narratives, Miskolcze argues, were highly malleable. They provided both didactic materials for religious leaders to enforce Christian ideals of divine punishment and salvation and counterbalances to the morally destabilizing self-made man. They also allowed for white men of virtually any economic class to display valor and selfless behavior. Miskolcze singles out the international humiliation that the United States faced after the sinking of the USS Arctic, in which panicked officers and sailors saved themselves but left 314 of the 400 passengers to perish, including all of the women and children. This disgrace, Miskolcze argues, helped to codify the emerging maritime adage of "women and children first" (xi).
Following the introduction, Miskolcze continues with chapters on Middle Passage narratives, Englishwomen and US shipwreck narratives, and the figure of the cross-dressed female sailor in antebellum US literature. The section on the Middle Passage contains some of the author's strongest claims, highlighted by an original and important analysis of its symbolic role in Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. The Middle Passage, [End Page 164] Miskolcze claims, provided Jacobs with the central metaphor of her enslavement: her hiding in the small attic space in her grandmother's shed as her means of escape. Even though Jacobs was not taken across the Atlantic herself, Miskolcze reads her description of the confining space as drawing on the experiences of slaves in the holds of ships, what she terms "a reshaping of the cultural memory of the Middle Passage" (77). Reading Jacobs's reference to Robinson Crusoe as an attempt to shift from slave ship to shipwreck narrative, Miskolcze highlights Jacobs's refashioning of herself from object to subject as she associates herself with the reasoning narrator and dynamic survivor of Daniel Defoe's tale of shipwreck (78–79). Analyzing the references to maritime travel and peril as structuring Nancy Prince's writing, Miskolcze here also persuasively demonstrates how African American women in the nineteenth century made use of the cultural memory of the Middle Passage in diverse and productive ways (74–77).
The remainder of the book is concerned with English and American women at sea, both in the highly popular early-nineteenth-century Barbary captivity narratives and as cross-dressing sailors in works such as Fanny Campbell, The Female Marine, and James Fenimore Cooper's maritime novels. In these chapters, Miskolcze argues that shipwreck narratives and maritime novels "[use] the sea as a site for acting out the social concerns of the dominant social imaginary" (101). These concerns took the form of challenges to US national identity in the wake of the War of 1812, as with the publication of highly popular accounts of British femininity at risk on the seas and through Cooper's naval trilogy, in which anxieties of westward expansion for a new generation of American men are represented through the figure of the cross-dressed sailor. Such texts intriguingly move east into the Atlantic to explore the West in imaginative fashion, substituting the open sea for...