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  • Jack Tar's Story: The Autobiographies and Memoirs of Sailors in Antebellum America
  • Michael D. Thompson (bio)

Sailors, Maritime history, Naval history

Jack Tar's Story: The Autobiographies and Memoirs of Sailors in Antebellum America. By Myra C. Glenn. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Pp. 206. Cloth, $85.00.)

Nineteenth-century Americans had an insatiable appetite for tales of maritime travel and adventure, and antebellum novelists did not disappoint. [End Page 714] Joining these fictional authors were former seafarers who sought to hawk their stories. Jack Tar's Story critically examines many of these autobiographies and memoirs for what they reveal not only about how antebellum sailors remembered their time before the mast but also for how they understood and interpreted transformative experiences such as combat, impressment, flogging, roistering, and moral and religious reformation. Interweaving the narrative are the dual themes of manhood and nationalism, the complex meanings of which, the author contends, were highly conflicted and contested in antebellum America. Throughout the text Glenn emphasizes seafarers' vital role in America's rise to power between the War of 1812 and the Civil War.

The first of the book's five chapters analyzes the autobiographical recollections of both working-class seamen and "gentlemen sailors" (16) as coming-of-age narratives. Whether to escape the stifling constraints of genteel respectability or hardscrabble lives of impoverishment, restless youths went to sea to become men. Beginning these quests for manhood with an exhilarating sense of freedom, independence, and impending transformation, many mariners later recalled the disillusionment of discovering that life at sea was equally or even more oppressive than the lives of dependence and feminized domesticity they fled on land. Optimistic accounts of liberation and masculine empowerment ironically morphed into captivity narratives of hardship, abuse, and imperiled manhood.

The second chapter explores sailor authors' recollections and representations of their resistance to oppression at sea. British impressment gangs and Barbary pirates jeopardized American mariners' pursuit of manhood and freedom, eliciting a bold defense of personal and national pride and sovereignty. Those who fought against the British Navy in the American Revolution and the War of 1812 both contributed to and personified a burgeoning national identity that pitted American liberty, virtue, and honor against British corruption, injustice, and tyranny. Even when captured and imprisoned, naturalized and native-born American Jack Tars alike defiantly resisted subjugation, emasculation, and "slavish dependence" (61) and asserted their manhood and rights as sailors. The next chapter, perhaps the weakest of the book, continues to consider how seamen perceived and interpreted international conflicts through the twin lenses of manliness and nationalism. Memories of combat and captivity during the Haitian Revolution and Latin American wars for independence prompted white American mariners to proudly mythologize and sanitize their own nation's revolutionary struggle. [End Page 715]

Chapter 4 returns to sailors' manly assertion of their rights and opposition to maltreatment, this time at the hands of American ship captains. Harsh punishments at sea, especially slave-like floggings, threatened not only to subjugate and unman white sailors but also to undermine the nation's economy and security. Uniting with reformers, seamen authors provided American readers and lawmakers graphic eyewitness descriptions of the abuse, successfully arguing that to protect sailors' rights, honor, and manly independence was to defend the nation's democratic values and sovereignty.

Antebellum reformers simultaneously were interested in rehabilitating Jack Tar himself. Roistering too imperiled seamen's dignity and manhood, not to mention the welfare of his vessel, shipmates, and nation. Middle-class evangelicals offered mariners an alternative model of manliness that emphasized piety, temperance, and self-discipline, and insisted that—like impressment, imprisonment, and flogging—the "rough" masculinity (145) of traditional waterfront and maritime culture enslaved and emasculated men. In this final chapter Glenn considers how sailor authors navigated, understood, and sometimes challenged moral reform and religious conversion efforts.

Even as Glenn seeks to call attention to these writings as significant historical sources, she warns that autobiographical narratives are "carefully constructed interpretations" (176) of the authors' past experiences, and like any document can be erroneous and deceiving. What makes Jack Tar's Story most valuable to scholars is the yeoman's work the author performed to test...


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pp. 714-717
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