The View from the Masthead: Maritime Imagination and Antebellum American Sea Narratives.

As much literary history as exploration narratives, this fascinating study examines both several classics of American fiction and the reading habits of sailors. Blum has gathered a great deal of information about the working-class forecastle men and their interest in reading. For transcripts of their reading reactions, their dealing with ennui, and the production of literature for their use see entries in these anthologies for Cheever, Colnett, Dana, Delano, Little, Mercier, Porter, and several other whalemen.

p. 34: While there is a historical record of the contents of certain official naval libraries and of the portable loan libraries provided by charities, few catalogs of the contents of merchant or whaling ship libraries have survived. One rare example can be found in the logbook of the whaleship Charles W. Morgan, in which a mate recorded the contents of the ship’s library. His list heavily features travel narratives, conduct books, and novels (particularly those of Cooper, Bulwer [Lytton], and Marryat, although Pamela and Humphrey Clinker also make the list)…. It is important to reiterate that these unofficial seamen’s libraries, while containing some religious tracts and instructional manuals, were primarily composed of travel narratives, histories of voyages, and other adventurous fare, which more appealed to the tastes of most sailors.

p. 35: In time, most ships provisioned themselves with libraries prior to their voyages, and mariners continued to participate in the selection of the texts. In Life in a Man-of-War, the distribution of the library is attended with great interest. Some “three or four hundred volumes” comprise the library, which includes the works of Scott, Marryat, Cooper, Irving, and Bulwer. When the jolly tars came forward with avidity and subscribed their mites towards repaying the purchase money, and felt pleased to think that they had now in their possession a stock of intellectual food to beguile the heavy tediousness of the cruise, or to refresh their thirst for mental acquirements” [p. 108].

p. 113: Strikingly, maritime experience is routinely figured in sea writing as a form of reading or book knowledge, which requires—and produces—a special capacity for vision…. William Leggett’s Naval Stories, for example, features a young midshipman “full of blood and blue veins” who has an “inexperienced eye”; to this novice—who thinks he “see[s] all there is to be seen”—a visible calm means a “dull and lazy night.” Only the “practiced and keen eye” of a weathered old seaman, Vangs, who unlike the well-placed midshipman is a command seaman, can discern a coming gale. He presents his experiential knowledge of the future to the young officer as a text: “I read [the storm] in a book I have studied through many a long cruise.” What he reads in the sea’s book, is not just the “dirty” weather illegible to his younger shipmate but his own imminent death at the hands of that very storm…, reading is presented as a metaphor for sailor experience.