The steamboat and the petticoat: Revisions of the maritime romantic ideal in America

Date of Completion

January 2007


Women's Studies|Literature, American|Gender Studies




My title reflects the trope I have identified in turn-of-the-century fiction that conflates technology and gender in order to highlight a number of complex social tensions. The closing of the American frontier has its parallel in the end of the "Age of Sail." This romantic concept, often associated with maritime nineteenth-century America, even today evokes a nostalgia recognized by the most landlocked of Americans. My research begins with the literary development of the Age of Sail in American literature in James Fenimore Cooper's romantic conception of a particularly American sea novel and ends with the sea as setting for social realism in Eugene O'Neill's sea plays. Maritime literature often depicts the ship as a masculine space, far removed from the domestic world of women. I argue that the increasing presence of women on board and in texts during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries complicates male and female authors' representations of gender, race, and national identity. The dissertation focuses on a specific aspect of maritime literature that, until now, has not received scholarly attention: the ways in which female characters and writers reshape the maritime romantic ideal. By investigating the influence of autobiographical and fictional writings on each other—including the ways in which female and male authors draw on conventions of objective realism (such as the captain's log book), adventure romance, personal diary writing, and sentimental fiction—I demonstrate the ways in which female perspectives and the female presence in sea literature disrupt and revise traditional versions of the maritime romantic ideal.^ By considering a broad range of texts, I am able to identify the transformation of literary and rhetorical devices across genres. For example, Sarah Orne Jewett's fictional women, like the real protagonists of voyaging captains' wives' diaries, navigate boundaries that define domestic and public realms for women travelers and writers. Similarly, diarists revise traditional representations of symbolic females in maritime literature as they write themselves as protagonists of their own texts. The scope of my dissertation is intended to contribute to a new understanding of the literary function and social implications of female characters in maritime fiction.^