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Antebellum at Sea

Antebellum at Sea: Maritime Fantasies in Nineteenth-Century America

Jason Berger
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by:
Pages: 328
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  • Book Info
    Antebellum at Sea
    Book Description:

    In the antebellum years, the Western world's symbolic realities were expanded and challenged as merchant, military, and scientific activity moved into Pacific and Arctic waters. InAntebellum at Sea, Jason Berger explores the roles that early nineteenth-century maritime narratives played in conceptualizing economic and social transitions in the developing global market system and what these chronicles disclose about an era marked by immense change.

    Focusing on the work of James Fenimore Cooper and Herman Melville, Berger enhances our understanding of how the nineteenth century negotiated its own tenuous progress by portraying how a wide range of maritime stories lays bare disturbing experiences of the new. Berger draws on Slavoj Žižek's Lacanian notion of fantasy in order to reconsider the complex way maritime accounts operated in the political landscape of antebellum America, examining topics such as the function of maritime labor know-how within a transformation of scientific knowledge, anxiety produced by conflict between gender-specific and culture-specific forms of enjoyment, and how legal practices illuminate troubling juridical paradoxes at the heart of Polk-era political life.

    Addressing the ideas of the antebellum age from unexpected and revealing perspectives, Berger calls on the conception of fantasy to consider how antebellum maritime literature disputes conventional views of American history, literature, and national identity.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-8175-4
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. INTRODUCTION: Bewitching Sea
    (pp. 1-22)

    On November 25, 1842, an eighteen-year-old midshipman named Philip Spencer approached another crew member on board the USSSomers. Taking the sailor, Mr. Wales, aside, Spencer quietly bound him to secrecy and then pulled a piece of paper covered in Greek writing from his razor box. Explaining that he was “leagued with about twenty of the crew to get possession of the brig, murder the commander and officers, and commence piracy,” Spencer offered as proof the paper, which recorded the crew members who had assented to mutiny and detailed how the plan would be carried out.¹ This clandestine meeting occurred...

  5. I. Fantasy and the Common Sailor

    • CHAPTER 1 Fantasies of the Common Sailor; or, Enjoying the Knowing Jack Tar
      (pp. 25-56)

      Coleridge’s well-known scene in which a hoary mariner’s enchanting presence arrests the attention of a young wedding guest unintentionally pinpoints a salient aspect of the future American antebellum literary marketplace: the developing role of the author in catching and holding the attention of a growing market of consumers. Though here the old mariner is a fictional storyteller, as genres of maritime narratives develop and proliferate in the years after the War of 1812, the interface, or to use Deleuze and Guattari’s term, interference, between the roles of author and sailor becomes a central issue.¹

      Framing the positions of author and...

    • CHAPTER 2 Tarrying with the National: Fantasizing the Subject of State
      (pp. 57-94)

      If the sailor is a specter-like catalyst for antebellum maritime fantasies, then for many of this era’s related narratives, the nation might be viewed as a common symbolic denouement. Indeed, maritime endeavors were paramount to the young country’s economic, military, and spatial development, playing a salient role in both how and why its mainland domains rapidly expanded via the Louisiana Purchase and the subsequent appropriation of Mexican territories. This process of expansion included, by the time of the Civil War, the construction of a navy that could have menaced the dominating fleets possessed by England and France during the Napoleonic...

  6. II. Polynesian Encounters Redux

    • CHAPTER 3 Tattoos in Typee: Rethinking Melville’s “Cultural Grotesque”
      (pp. 97-122)

      The construction of antebellum national subjectivity that the previous chapter begins to explore emerges in part through experiences within the era’s expanding geopolitical landscape. In terms of the frequent encounters across and around the Pacific, the native tattoo constitutes a central exotic artifact and trope. Indeed, native peoples’ systems of “tattowing” have fired the imaginations of readers since the earliest published account of Cook’s first Pacific voyage, and descriptions of tattoos can be found throughout subsequent maritime narratives of various kinds.

      In the late eighteenth century, these accounts begin to shift from simple anthropological observations by naturalists such as Joseph...

    • CHAPTER 4 Melville’s “Porno-Tropics”: Re-Sexuating Pacific Encounters
      (pp. 123-172)

      This chapter opens with ravishment. And begins where it will also end: with the impassioned impasse of desire. Imploring the enigmatic native queen Hautia to reveal her connection to his lost beloved, Yillah, Melville’s sailor makes a futile attempt to command an understanding of the queen’s knowledge. Lured to Hautia’s Polynesian isle, Flozella-a-Nina, by the memory of Yillah’s beauty, Melville’s heroic paramour has reached one of the last stops on his amorous quest, a quest he romantically resumes at the narrative’s close. With the sailor’s brash and ersatz advance standing in for anxious failure, we get a dramatization of a...

  7. III. Ocean-States of Exception

    • CHAPTER 5 The Crater and the Master’s Reign: Cooper’s “Floating Imperium”
      (pp. 175-196)

      In this age of Guantanamo, inconsistencies within the American judicial-political landscape haunt the notion of democracy. Building on the work of Carl Schmitt, Giorgio Agamben avers that such contemporary juridical paradoxes correspond to the way that political power more generally instantiates and maintains itself via a “state of exception.”¹ On the most basic level, this state marks “the original structure in which law encompasses living beings by means of its own suspension.”² That is, it mirrors the way a sovereign exists in an ambiguous realm at once in and beyond positive law—being able to suspend the law in order...

    • CHAPTER 6 The Sublime Abject of Democracy: Melville’s “Floating Imperium”
      (pp. 197-238)

      An asylum for the perverse,” “an asylum for all drunkards,” “a sort of State Prison afloat.”¹ Indeed, Melville fancies that the fictitious U.S. man-of-warNeversinkis all of these. But more than an imperious and segmented floating caldron of vice, the ship, built of “parts of a Chinese puzzle” (164), houses a myriad of dark caverns and “inexplicable apartments” (127). Hastily written in the summer of 1849 (supposedly in about sixty days),White-Jacket; or The World in a Man-of-Waris the second of two “jobs” Melville wrote afterMardi’s poor sales forced him to revert to standard maritime narratives.²


  8. EPILOGUE: Incomplete Sea
    (pp. 239-246)

    The sea is not full. And it is hoped that, reciprocally, this book’s own shortcomings and perhaps short shriftings might be seen as symptoms of an open process at work. I close with Melville’s haunting fantasy of violence as a way to emphasize the contestatory and at times ambiguous political functions of maritime narratives in the antebellum era. Holding true to a Lacanian notion of the Janus-faced effect of fantasy—a pacifying means to structure reality via desire and, at the same time, a site where the unassimilable excesses of the process take form—these narratives do more than simply...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 247-304)
  10. Index
    (pp. 305-338)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 339-339)