- Crafty Sailors, Unruly Seas:Margaret Cohen’s Oceanic History of the Novel
Maritime studies, as traditionally practiced by naval historians and marine archaeologists, concentrates its efforts on battles, cargoes, and coastal events. But the more recent development of an interdisciplinary oceanic studies has sought to place continental issues in the background, focusing instead on the space between the mariner’s departure and arrival. Part of the argument for oceanic studies is that the experience of being a voyaging culture indelibly marks other—terrestrial—expressions, such as national philosophies, literature, and art. However, until recently, as Hester Blum argues, “[t]he oceans comprise a realm in which cultural exchange, whether dominant, resistant, or just circulatory, has not been of primary concern in its own terms—that is, independent of the seas’ function as a passage for travel.”1 Still developing as a field, practitioners try to understand the importance of oceanic space and history to modern culture; the particular experience of maritime laborers, passengers, and captives; and the significance of transported and transplanted people, crops, and animals to biological and ecological environments. Margaret Cohen’s recent monograph The Novel and the Sea (2010), a relatively early work in this fluid discipline, makes a strong case for the value and promise of oceanic literary studies. [End Page 861]
This ambitious book can be separated into two broad hemispheres that contain the main argument, and an “Interlude.” The first main section examines the early modern period and a longish eighteenth century to 1824. The second covers roughly 1824 to the early 1900s but concludes looking toward the twentieth century and beyond. The intervening “Interlude” is concerned with developments during a long Romantic period.
The book opens with two lengthy chapters, “The Mariner’s Craft” and “Remarkable Occurrences at Sea and in the Novel,” and a slight third, “Sea Adventure Fiction, 1748–1824?” which examine early modern treatises on seamanship and narratives written following Captain James Cook’s voyages as precursors to Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and the eighteenth-century maritime adventure novel. Cohen imaginatively and convincingly proposes a relationship between the technical and traditional lore of the pragmatic seafarer, his “craft,” and the influence of maritime fiction and nonfiction on the development of the novel over the eighteenth century. By reproducing the rational logic of the early modern sea narrative, the maritime adventure novel produces what Cohen calls a “cunning reader” (79), who imaginatively enters the voyage narratives, novels, and explorers’ reports to enact a readerly “mariner’s craft,” or “a poetics of problem-solving” (86).
The “Interlude,” titled “The Sublimation of the Sea,” addresses the fascination with the sublime that for many characterizes a long Romantic period from Milton to Byron. This chapter’s “sublimation” insists on the depopulation of the sea as it is reimagined by poets as an empty aesthetic space devoid of craft. Cohen provides compelling readings of Milton, Byron, and—especially welcome—John Falconer’s long poem The Shipwreck, (1762), as well as reviewing the aesthetic works of Edmund Burke, Lord Shaftesbury, Joseph Addison, and John Baillie. The contrast of Dutch maritime genre painting with Turner’s later works is particularly rewarding. However, her assertion that during “the eighteenth century, the qualification of sublime was increasingly applied by philosophers and writers to the ocean cut off from work” (115) is incomplete. Cohen does not read the nautical panegyrics of Edward Young that sought to render mercantile achievement in terms of aesthetic sublimity or the renewed popularity of the georgic during the period. The georgic is a poetic form dedicated above all else to depicting work, especially agricultural labor, although eighteenth-century [End Page 862] poets expanded the definition to include other trades. Cohen’s otherwise excellent reading misses the opportunity to discuss Falconer’s Shipwreck in terms of its close relationship to the georgic and to broaden her Romantic period to include James Thomson and other eighteenth-century poets deeply concerned with Britain’s “peopled ocean.” While Romantic literature most famously turns toward contemplation...