- Shipwreck Modernity: Ecologies of Globalization, 1550–1719 by Steve Mentz
I am surviving Shipwreck Modernity—for now, anyway. Steve Mentz's latest monograph, the formally innovative Shipwreck Modernity: Ecologies of Globalization 1550–1719, is the rare scholarly work that creates an intentional, immersive reading experience. In the narrative preface, Mentz orients his readers to "the shipwreck that is this book," telling us that its chapters, interchapters, and interruptions "follow the narrative arc of shipwreck from crisis to immersion to salvage"—small comfort before he immerses us completely, creating a reading experience that mirrors the "felt experiences" he traces through a vast archive to argue "that shipwreck models and responds to global ecological crisis" (xxxii).
Mentz centers his study on a sixteenth- to eighteenth-century "shipwreck microgenre" of sermons, historical and legal works, poetry, the diaries of seventeenth-century mariners Jeremy Roch and Edward Barlow, and canonical literary works such as Shakespeare's The Tempest, Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, John Donne's The Storm and The Calm, and Camões's Lusiads, among many others (xxxii). Over seven chapters, Mentz sets these texts against a turbulent historical backdrop of English maritime expansion and empire building that positioned seafaring, the ocean, and shipwreck prominently in the period's cultural imagination, drawing his wide-ranging argument forward to the present through works from Herman Melville's Moby-Dick to James Cameron's Titanic and Bob Dylan's 2012 album Tempest. Mentz uses these texts, and his analysis of the "maritime meanings" they contain, to position "shipwreck at the metaphorical center of an ecology of saltwater globalization … join[ing] current efforts in oceanic literary studies to unpack the diverse cultural and psychological meanings of the sea" (xiv, xxix). In so doing, he develops three concepts—wet globalization, blue ecology, and shipwreck modernity—that will certainly prove useful to environmental humanities scholarship. [End Page 162]
A professor of English at St. John's University, Mentz's teaching and research interests include ecocriticism, early modern English literature, and the marine environment. His previous books include At the Bottom of Shakespeare's Ocean (London: Continuum, 2009) and Romance for Sale in Early Modern England: The Rise of Prose Fiction (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2006) and the edited collections Oceanic New York (Brooklyn, ny: Punctum, 2015), The Age of Thomas Nashe: Text, Bodies and Trespasses of Authorship in Early Modern England (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2014), and Rogues and Early Modern English Culture (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004). He was also the designer and curator of the 2010 Folger Shakespeare Library exhibit Lost at Sea: The Ocean in the English Imagination, 1550–1750. Mentz is the author of several articles, blogs regularly at The Bookfish (www.stevementz.com), and contributes to the digital journal Underwater New York. He is also an avid swimmer, a practice and sensibility that underpins his discussions of shipwreck and felt experience in Shipwreck Modernity as well as his 2012 article "After Sustainability" (pmla) and his essay "Shipwreck" in Jeffrey Jerome Cohen's collection Inhuman Nature (Washington, dc: Oliphaunt Books, 2014).
In Shipwreck Modernity, Mentz builds on and is indebted to Hans Blumenberg's discussion in Shipwreck with Spectator of the metaphorics of shipwreck. Crucially, though, Mentz reminds us that shipwreck, like the global ocean, is not just a metaphor or collection of tropes but a material reality with a present and a future—and a long, painful history. Mentz insists that shipwreck's casting of human bodies into the ocean is essential for understanding our current experience of climate crisis and ecological collapse. His most impressive feat in Shipwreck Modernity is his use of the very form and reading experience of his book to model his argument that we are already living in such a shipwreck. Mentz only allows this recognition—"drying out," in his terms—at the end of the book (4). By this point, we've read our way through a sweeping argument that works through a turbulent, associative melee of narrative and analytical chapters, musing interchapters, and interruptions—short paragraphs in...