- The Novel and the Sea
Is the sea additive or transformative? As an object of critical analysis, does the sea resemble, say, the desert, a previously neglected ecosystem which, when its role as the setting for certain literary or historical events is brought under scrutiny, enriches our understanding? Or is it more akin to, for instance, ideology—something that, once we become aware of its presence, forces a rethinking of everything we thought we knew? After reading Margaret Cohen’s wonderful The Novel and the Sea, only one answer is possible. The contours and import of maritime fiction; transatlantic and cross-channel literary relations among Great Britain, the United States, and France; the function of romance in modernity; the reading practices adventure stories demand; the origins of literary modernism; the history of the novel itself: all changed, changed utterly.
To take the measure of these transformations, one can do no better than begin with the last item on the list. By Cohen’s lights, the modern European novel came into being when Daniel Defoe sought fame by competing with and borrowing from the most successful kind of writing in early eighteenth-century Britain, the maritime book. The result was The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner (1719), a text whose innovations, she shows, derive from key aspects of non-fictional accounts of maritime exploration: plain style and a plot constructed around “remarkable occurrences” (68), happenings singular enough to merit inclusion in the constitutively terse ship’s log. The entailments of this new genealogy of the novel are many. To mention only the most far reaching: by aligning the novel as such with adventure, Cohen contests the dominant view of the genre as principally concerned with interiority. Action, problem solving, and work become what the novel was about from the start. As a consequence, not only do maritime fiction and related forms suddenly seem central to the history of the genre, other types of novel take on an unfamiliar appearance. “Would Pamela, too, then,” asks Cohen, “be a form of adventure novel?” Yes, she concludes, insofar as Samuel Richardson’s heroine employs “feminine practical reason . . . to negotiate the edges of class society” (13).
In the texts she treats at most length, such negotiation proceeds by way of what, following Joseph Conrad, Cohen calls “craft”: “the mariner’s capacity,” specifically the ability to manage the demanding technology of a sailing ship in extreme conditions (4). The Novel and the Sea asks us to understand the novel and its myriad incarnations as intimately bound up with the fate of craft. Defoe, Tobias Smollett, Alain René Lesage, and the Abbé Prévost, writing at the height of the age of sail, celebrated craft as the apotheosis [End Page 178] of human agency. By 1824, the year James Fenimore Cooper published The Pilot, the fictional theater of craft had moved from far-flung regions to the waters framed by Europe and North America. Thus relocated, craft becomes more a matter of routine, but Cooper added interest by intensifying his narrative technique. Defoe had invented what Cohen labels, in one of several felicitous neologisms, “performing description,” narration that collapses the distinction between showing and telling by deploying maritime (and other) terms of art without bothering to define them, forcing readers to puzzle through problems along with protagonists (76). Cooper pioneers “gripping description,” in which “the obscurity of technical language both intimates and blocks information, suggesting the force and power of men who can maneuver such intricate technologies, even as the specifics of the maneuvers remain vague” (160). As the nineteenth century unfolded, the continued routinization of sea travel, the completion of the Suez Canal, and above all the replacement of sail by steam spelled the end of craft and its uniquely empowered agents. But out of the wreck emerged modernism: “Melville and Hugo invented the modernist novel from sea fiction, responding to the decline of craft” (200). They and Conrad took craft both inward, bringing the necessary rigor of life at sea to bear...