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  • Antebellum Fantasies of the Common Sailor; or, Enjoying the Knowing Jack Tar
  • Jason Berger

He holds him with his glittering eye The wedding-guest stood still, And listens like a three years’ child: The Mariner hath his will.

—Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

The renewed emphasis on the knowledge of the exploited seems to me to be very profoundly motivated structurally. The question is knowing whether this is not something that is entirely dreamed up.

—Jacques Lacan, Seminar XVII1

Coleridge’s well-known scene where a hoary mariner’s enchanting presence arrests the attention 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 holding the gaze of a growing market of consumers. Though here the old mariner is a fictional storyteller, as genres of maritime narratives develop and proliferate in the years after the War of 1812, the interface, or to use Deleuze and Guattari’s term, interference,2 between the roles of author and sailor becomes a central issue.

Framing the positions of author and sailor in such a way suggests an element of ambiguity within the dynamics of their relationship. Indeed, antebellum maritime narratives include an array of possible structural relations between the two: with lifelong common sailors writing of their [End Page 29] adventures and plights; relative middle-class and upper-class writers portraying their experiences of work at sea; authors transcribing or translating common sailors’ stories; or writers, in the tradition of the romance, penning fully fictional and semifictional maritime accounts.

Reading such narratives through a Lacanian notion of fantasy, this essay explores the links between antebellum maritime narratives and maritime labor and argues that the literary marketplace’s anxiety about the issue of authenticity can be seen as a symptom of foundational fantasies about class and labor experience. Focusing on texts such as Richard Henry Dana Jr.’s Two Years Before the Mast (1840) and James Fenimore Cooper’s Ned Myers; or, a Life before the Mast (1843), I examine these fantasies by rethinking the apparent anxiety-ridden impasse between antebellum maritime narratives and the experiences of common sailors they seek to depict. Ultimately, my line of argument shifts from the popular theoretical perspective that views this gap as a result of a symbolic failure to represent a heterogeneous and liminal “other” by exploring how, paradoxically, such failures may be a necessary prerequisite for the fantasies that undergird and constitute these very narratives.3 In this vein, I argue that, within these maritime narratives, the position of the common sailor becomes a fantasmatic locus of enjoyment. Grounding this position in a historical transition that sees the domain of knowledge shifting from what Lacan describes as the master’s discourse (a social link where the slave is the source of knowledge) to the university discourse (a modern arrangement where institutions condition knowledge), I explore the tenuous dynamics of how these narratives may attempt to garner jouissance (surplus enjoyment) from the sailor’s supposed experiences. Such an approach situates these texts within the antebellum literary marketplace and seeks to examine more closely how they may have operated in this era’s symbolic economy of knowledge and desire.

The early nineteenth century marks a new horizon in the way common sailors were popularly figured, as well as the way their tales functioned in society. Departing from Francis Bacon’s seventeenth-century presentation of sailors as a threatening horde and monstrosity 4 and Tobias Smollett’s eighteenth-century comical dupe, this era often found the sailor in the role of both romantic hero and purveyor of knowledge. Whereas the circulation of sailors’ tales among port cities was a source of alternative information about foreign peoples and experiences throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, this knowledge takes a different form and plays a different function in an antebellum era marked by the proliferation of published maritime narratives. That is to say, while sailors’ knowledge most assuredly included information about alternative experiences—of [End Page 30] cultural others, of geographic spaces, of laboring experiences, and of social formations—it is also important to consider how this knowledge operated in...


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