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  • Jack Tar’s Story: The Autobiographies and Memoirs of Sailors in Antebellum America
  • Niklas Frykman (bio)
Myra C. Glenn. Jack Tar’s Story: The Autobiographies and Memoirs of Sailors in Antebellum America. New York: Cambridge UP, 2010. xi + 194 pp. ISBN 978-0521193689, $85.00.

In Myra Glenn’s telling, Jack Tar’s story is not one of the sea, not one of faraway places or of that peculiar world enclosed by wooden walls, the deep-sea going ship. It is instead a story, told over and over again by dozens of seafaring men, of the United States itself. Like several other recent works in both history and literary studies, Glenn’s new book systematically sifts through the autobiographical writings of native-born and naturalized mariners in order to disentangle the tightly interwoven and contested constructions of manhood and national identity during the antebellum era. Given the great popularity of the genre at the time, as well as the prominence of maritime imagery in early nationalist discourse (“Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights!” propelled the nation into its first declared war in 1812), we do well to listen as Glenn expertly uncovers for us the tensions and anxieties that lurked beneath Jack Tar’s many stories.

The book develops its argument through five thematic chapters. Following a substantial introduction in which Glenn explains why we may want to pay attention to antebellum sailor narratives, chapter one explores the ways in which sailor memoirists and autobiographers later in life made sense of their youthful decision to go to sea. Whether sons of the New England gentry or the destitute working class, their hope had been, they recalled, to find a place, far from the strictures of shorebound life, where boys were made into men, only to realize that the captain’s tyrannical powers kept them infantilized far more than they had been anywhere on land, including, as in Richard Henry Dana’s case, at Harvard College. The threatened loss of freedom and independence, critical to contemporary understandings of both manhood and American national identity, loomed large also in narratives that covered the War of 1812, the subject of chapter two. By emphasizing their plucky resistance against the Royal Navy’s press gangs, however, seafaring memoirists not only redeemed their manhood, they also fused their individual struggles with that of the nation at large, threatened continuously, just like its mariners, by [End Page 346] British tyranny. Several writers even likened impressment to slavery, but few, it seems, took the opportunity to develop a comprehensive abolitionist position. Instead, as Glenn chronicles in chapter three, white American seafarers contrasted their own brave struggles against British oppression with the horror, chaos, and violence which they witnessed in revolutionary Haiti and South America. Chapter four surveys how the sailors, having thus drawn a clear, racialized line of separation between themselves and African-descended slaves, then could safely launch into a critique of flogging, a mode of labor extraction appropriate perhaps for slaves but certainly not for brave, honest tars, the best that American manhood had to offer. Finally, in chapter five, Glenn analyzes the often fraught attempts that some writers made to smooth their path to full acceptance into the national fraternity of genuine citizens by distancing themselves from the image of jolly Jack Tar in favor of the pious, self-controlled middle class man that was emerging as normative by the mid-nineteenth century.

And there we have it: Jack Tar’s story from youthful exuberance through emasculation and redemption to full mature citizenship in the white male republic. But Glenn does not take Jack at his word. Using log-books, muster rolls, pension files, prisoner of war records, and other relevant documents from both British and US archives, she has systematically verified that he is speaking the truth, and in the process identified a number of fictional narratives that historians have routinely assumed to be genuine, such as Elijah Shaw’s Short Sketch that went through several editions in the early 1840s. This in itself will be one of the book’s enduring contributions, and one for which generations of historians and literary scholars will be grateful.

Glenn’s emphasis on the truthfulness...