Women & Children First: Nineteenth-Century Sea Narratives & American Identity

Article excerpt

Women & Children First: Nineteenth-Century Sea Narratives & American Identity Robin Miskolcze. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007.

Everyone knows that when a ship is sinking, women and children get the first seats in lifeboats; then men may take what's left. And the last one to leave is the captain. But what everyone knows is a relatively recent convention, says Robin Mickolcze. In 1854 the US Arctic took four hours to sink after having collided in the fog with a French steamer. Of those who boarded lifeboats, 70% were crew and only 30% were passengers. Not a single woman or child was saved.

News of the disaster was bad enough, but accounts of the selfishness of the men were even worse for a nation that prided itself on being a city on a hill, a Christian model for the rest of the world to followwhat Alexis de Tocqueville had termed American exceptionalism. Miskolcze says this event shook America to its very core: the nation had failed to live up to its own espoused ideals. Three years later the Central America - carrying men, women, children, and gold-was hit by a hurricane on its way back from California. Three-quarters of those on board perished, a quarter of a million dollars in gold was lost, but under the direction of Captain Herndon all thirty women and twenty-six children were saved. This tragedy, horrific though it was, vindicated America's belief in itself. Men had sacrificed their own interests - wealth and life itself-to protect women and children. The nation's outpouring of sympathy was immediate and overwhelming. Newspaper readers subscribed to a fund for the widow of Captain Herndon -as water engulfed the ship, he was last seen on the bridge calmly smoking a cigar-and a monument to his memory was erected on the grounds of the US Naval Academy.

Miskolcze reads antebellum sea narratives-factual and fictional -as coded cultural parables: they portray women as models of Christian and American ideals. What happens to women tests and explores anxieties about national identity. Her first two chapters take a chronological look a sea deliverance stories. Early Puritan accounts manipulated anecdotal details so that survival could be seen as evidence of the providential hand of God's protecting his chosen people: those coming to his New World. At the end of the eighteenth century, accounts showed that shipwreck survival depended not only on God's intervention but also on man's ingenuity. And by the nineteenth century, America was in fascinated by the exquisite sentiment (with an undeniable element of titillation) evoked by accounts of women in danger at sea. The code that demanded saving women served as a moral lesson from pulpit and editorial page.

Miskolcze's final three chapters explore special cases. …