Monograph Project #1: Sentimental Seamen

At its heart, this project concerns eighteenth and nineteenth-century U.S. sailors’ deep-sea labors, literary cultures, and emotional lives. Specifically, I track how age of sail societies on ship and on shore gave rise to an imagined class of ideal sailor defined by their affective acuity. Such “sentimental seamen,” I show, necessarily directed their embodied, emotional, and narrative energies towards productive labor at sea. Put simply, ideal sailors knew exactly how to feel, how to labor, and how to describe those feeling labors. Sailors’ economic requirement to log this labor— as well an impulse to accurately log one’s feelings— thereby powered complex forms of materialist, labor-based sentimental writing. That is, sailors’ appeals to oceanic signifiers and mechanisms of labor shaped both representations of fellow feeling and feeling itself. To recover sentimental seamen’s narrative contours, I fashion a new maritime archive. I analyze manuscript sources such as logbooks, journals, portage bills, and account books. I also address material artifacts like scrimshaw, captains’ whips, and sailors’ hair. Sailors’ printed memoirs, trade magazines, shanties, poetry, and fiction reinforced this ideal on shore and gave sailors the tools to regulate their bodies at sea. As each show, an ideal sailor navigated their hearts as they did the waves, wind, and weather. These texts also confirm that the sentimental seamen ideal was, in act and in word, an impossible standard of regulated and monetized feeling. Active sailors variably met its terms even as maritime institutions invariably enforced them. In practice, this literary-historical figure exemplified the capitalistic and colonial forms of affective exchange built into early American maritime culture. In turn, this text reanimates the feeling bodies that powered an American age of sail.

Sentimental seamen’s unique tactile ability— their feeling bodies—operated on both material and emotional registers. This project is in part, then, a new history of shipboard labor’s affective contours. Recent studies of shipboard culture— including Leon Fink’s Sweatshops at Sea (2011), Matthew Taylor Raffety’s The Republic Afloat (2013), Brian Rouleau’s With Sails Whitening Every Sea (2014), and Nancy Shoemaker’s Native American Whalemen and the World (2015)— centralize sailors’ singular labors if not their feelings. As I show, sailors’ daily lives—including their intimate isolation, their hierarchical organization, and their communal labor— made affective acuity a technical skill like any other. Indeed, age of sail technology required a crew of skilled sailors, or “hands,” to coordinate labors headed by a captain and his officers. Forms of call and response wedded crews, as did choreographed movements. Such acts of social cohesion, rather than individual discretion, defined daily life. Thought another way, sentimental seamen exercised proper fellow feeling towards all oceanic bodies. These bodies included: the ocean’s ecological bodies, maritime culture’s textual bodies, a vessel’s technical body, a crew’s social body, and the sailor’s own body. This embodied unity required forms of homosocial desire (including but not limited to sexual desire) that could be both deeply fulfilling and unmistakably coerced. Indeed, economic obligations defined the sentimental seamen ideal: proper feeling was productive feeling. Specifically, the accumulation of valued emotional ties was itself an act of economic accumulation in which self-interested “free” exchanges advanced capitalist markets. In other words, seamen’s emotional sense was primarily measured in dollars and cents. Sailors who broke this contract faced social pressure or violent punishment that would recall them (and anyone watching) to proper feeling. In sum, the sentimental seamen ideal confirms shipboard life’s deeply fulfilling yet unmistakably coerced affective currents.

Sentimental seamen’s affective acuity was predicated on their refashioning of sentimental forms to suit oceanic labors. This project is in part, then, a new literary history of American age of sail manuscript and print culture’s sentimental investments. Literary sailors’ scholarly visibility has swelled with texts like Hester Blum’s The View from the Masthead (2008), Myra Glenn’s Jack Tar’s Story (2010), Jennifer Schell’s A Bold and Hardy Race of Men (2013), and Paul Gilje’s To Swear Like a Sailor (2016). As each agrees, sailors’ literary production was bound to their shipboard one. Shipboard labor’s affective elements, I extend, were both enacted and reflected in narrative. Literary products on ship and on shore concretized the sentimental seamen ideal and, through their public dissemination, gave sailors the tools to regulate their bodies. The generic structure of official documents like logbooks, for example, advanced the notion that only feelings tied to embodied skill must be recounted. Forms of visual culture—including watercolor paintings in journals, domestic scenes carved in scrimshaw, and non-narrative markings made logbooks— also sustained the sentimental seamen’s laboring ideal while signaling their feelings’ extra-textual dimensions. Popular print accounts debated sailors’ ideal emotional orientation and advised them on its enactment. Figures like Richard Henry Dana Jr. married the official log and the public memoir to support their emotional narratives’ claims to truth. Memoirists of color, including freepersons such as Nancy Prince and John Thompson, strategically invested in log forms to convey the sentimental seamen ideal’s particular dangers and promises for nonwhite subjects. Herman Melville, James Fenimore Cooper, Frederick Douglass, and other canonical authors invoked sentimental seamen in their maritime fiction to debate maritime culture’s economic and social ideals. In each case, sentimental literary form followed oceanic laboring function. By extension, this new canon of sailors’ literature confirms sentimental form’s transoceanic ripples and modulations.

In six chapters, I consider vital elements or moments that shape the sentimental seamen ideal.

Intro: “Feelings I know”: (Un)Feeling Archives

Introduces the regulated and monetized feelings that powered age of sail vessels and primed sentimental seamen as literary-historical ideals.  

Ch. 1: “Long shore feelings”: Feeling Departures

Maps sailors’ attempts to name or enact the embodied and affective shifts required to establish unified deep-sea laboring orders of productive feeling.  

Ch. 2: “One head and one voice”: Captaining Feeling

Charts captains’ and officers’ role as sympathetic subjects whose bodies, voices, and bondage-making organized ships’ hierarchical affective exchanges.  

 Ch. 3: “You Miss a Man”: Feeling Death

 Establishes moments of shipboard death as fundamental threats to shipboard affective order as well as opportunities to validate materialist, labor-based fellow feeling.

 Ch. 4: “Bound…to Take a Voyage”: Feeling Race

 Highlights the (often failed) shipboard promise of multiracial fellow feeling and recovers nonwhite sailors’  investment in sentimental form to validate their laboring identities.  

Ch. 5: “Like Living Forms”: Feeling Ecology

 Probes sailors’ dual logging of ecological and affective states as well as their embedding of homely sentiments in oceanic artifacts such as scrimshaw.

 Ch. 6: “With Life on Board”: Wifely Feeling

 Tracks the interspecies forms of fellow feeling that result from sailor-wives’ social isolation in a shipboard affective and laboring order.

 Epilogue: “An Affectionate Leave”: (Un)feeling Ports

 Considers the material and emotional tension at the heart of sailors’ return to shore given the sentimental seamen ideal’s incompatibility with landed domestic attachment or society.

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