- “A Bold and Hardy Race of Men”: The Lives and Literature of American Whalemen by Jennifer Schell, and: Antebellum at Sea: Maritime Fantasies in Nineteenth-Century America by Jason Berger
“A Bold and Hardy Race of Men”: The Lives and Literature of American Whalemen
Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013. xiv + 262 pp.
Antebellum at Sea: Maritime Fantasies in Nineteenth-Century America
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012. x + 338 pp.
These two recent books on antebellum American maritime literature share a question about fantasy: both ask how the cultural fantasies about common sailors functioned in the nineteenth-century imagination even when these were at odds with the actual lives and working conditions of maritime laborers. Schell looks to a large archive of whaling narratives to examine their investment in an idealization of working-class masculinity that valued production, autonomy, and physical skill over attributes such as the restraint and formal education associated with the middle and upper classes. She writes that these “fantasies—even those that proved to be unrealistic or that could be easily discredited—were compelling because they provided physical laborers with a useful way of understanding their lives and their national significance” (17). Berger’s explicitly Lacanian study examines maritime narratives to establish the “significant political relationship among fantasy, desire, and maritime experience in antebellum America” (2). As in Schell’s analysis, maritime narratives offered nineteenth-century Americans a way to make sense of a complex cultural landscape. Berger’s aim is to do more than show how maritime literature reconciled and complicated these complexities or how they misrepresented historical facts to advance the work of capital, nation, and empire. After all, fantasies rarely diminish in power by one’s “simply . . . coming to some epiphany about the illusory nature of one’s ideas” (Berger 138). Berger’s Lacanian framework allows him to illuminate the function of maritime fantasies in national discourse, what he identifies as their “social and [End Page 99] ideological work, as opposed to social and ideological content” (11). Although these studies are methodologically and stylistically distinct, taken together they provide significant insights into the centrality of maritime literature in the antebellum national imagination.
Schell opens with the claim that despite recent interdisciplinary interest in maritime literature, even the most significant studies have tended to treat their objects of study “monolithically” (xi), without differentiating between types of nautical work and how the specificity of that work might affect the writing and reception of maritime narratives. Schell looks to an extensive archive of works related to the whaling industry, which were shaped by the centrality of economic production as opposed to combat or exchange, the focus of narratives about the naval and merchant services. In order to explore the “thematic, symbolic, and artistic complexity” (xii) of whaling narratives, Schell traces a historical arc that begins in the late eighteenth century with Crèvecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer and ends in the late nineteenth century, throughout which American whalemen were transformed into exemplary “romantic heroes,” representatives of a particular kind of idealized American masculinity (4). Borrowing the term “producerism” from Robert Westbrook, and situating herself explicitly in the fields of labor history and masculinity studies, Schell builds her analysis around the concept of “producerist fantasies.” These fantasies have their roots in Revolutionary-era rhetoric, which valorized agrarian and artisanal modes of production as the keys to America’s future success. She connects the specialized work of whaling, which remained fairly constant even as other sectors of the economy mechanized, to these early valorizations of productive labor. In the public imagination, whalers also possessed a set of specialized physical skills requiring bravery, independence, and strength, which transformed nature into valuable products that increased the wealth and prestige of the industry and the nation. In the terms of this fantasy, the whaleman was not just an exemplary worker but also an exemplary American man, as these narratives were often meditations on national values and identity. The most dominant forms of “producerist fantasies” around whalemen did not entirely exclude other ways of writing about the industry; however, according to Schell these fantasies were flexible and powerful enough to absorb...