Antebellum at sea: United States maritime narratives and constructions of fantasy

Date of Completion

January 2009


Literature, American




The antebellum era saw an unprecedented proliferation of maritime activity and a correlative production of sea-based narratives. While scholars have long viewed the antebellum maritime world as a site of new economic and cultural experiences, I assert that a Lacanian notion of fantasy—one that conceives of narrative as a means to structure desire and social reality—provides a new perspective through which to examine this period and its maritime texts. Analyzing a wide range of narratives, especially the novels of James Fenimore Cooper and Herman Melville, my study contributes to the understanding of how antebellum maritime writings structured political and social energies in a global context. Chapter one explores how anxiety related to the authenticity of maritime narratives may be a symptom of fantasies about class and labor. Looking at Richard Henry Dana Jr.'s Two Years Before the Mast and James Fenimore Cooper's Ned Myers, I rethink the impasse between narratives and the experiences of common sailors they depict—arguing that the position of the common sailor acts a locus of enjoyment. Chapter two uses Cooper's The Pilot to explore the conflicts and contradictions within constructions of maritime national narratives. Ultimately, I suggest that class and national concerns shape Cooper's decision to kill off the common sailor Tom Coffin. Chapter three examines racial and symbolic anxiety surrounding Polynesian tattooing; focusing on Melville's Typee, I reconsider contemporary approaches to Melville's text and antebellum notions of tattooing. Chapter four uses Melville's Pacific-island novels and contemporaneous non-fictional narratives to explore the ideological elements that shape representations of Polynesian women; more specifically, it traces how figurations of native women negotiate fantasy structures' mechanisms and limits. Chapter five situates Cooper's The Crater amid a Polk-era that sees Cooper's domestic political thought taking an admonitory tenor. I argue that by lobbying for vesting power in Constitutional law, the novel defends the existing political valence of a master-signifier of the law that is in jeopardy. Finally, chapter six examines how Melville's White-Jacket reveals bizarre excesses that sustain a new manifestation of normative law. In this vein, I demonstrate how White-Jacket's experiences expose a traumatic ontological shift into a nineteenth-century totalitarian realm. ^