"The Test of Salt Water": Literature of the Sea and Social Class in Antebellum America Public Deposited

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  • March 19, 2019
  • Sinche, Bryan Charles
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of English and Comparative Literature
  • In "The Test of Salt Water": Literature of the Sea and Social Class in Antebellum America, I argue that fictional and non-fictional antebellum sea literature offers a valuable lens through which to critique authorial responses to race, social class, and economic mobility. The antebellum sailor populating the pages of the sea narrative was often celebrated as a representative American figure and a source of national pride despite the fact that, as a member of the antebellum working classes, he was a living testament to the limits of economic and social advancement in a nation where such limits were supposedly nonexistent. Authors used this disconnect, as well as the extra-national settings and generic conventions unique to the sea narrative, both to illuminate foundational American ideals and expose the failure of those ideals to improve materially the lives of sailors. In first section of The Test of Salt Water, I draw on writings by common sailors as well as well-known narratives authored by upper-class former seamen such as James Fenimore Cooper and Richard Henry Dana to map the rhetorical battles that helped to define the sailor within antebellum class hierarchies. In the second section, I evaluate sea narratives by Herman Melville, Frederick Douglass, and Martin Delany, each of whom utilized the sailor's social and economic marginality to investigate the racial dimensions of class, labor, and freedom. Ultimately, these authors confront the limits of opportunity for many Americans by positioning the sailor as a liminal figure who-despite showing qualities of both-is neither slave nor citizen.
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  • In Copyright
  • Gura, Philip F.
  • Open access

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