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

By Hester Blum | Go to book overview

AFTERWORD

Dana and Melville created a world, not by
the discovery, but by the interpretation of it
.

—W. CLARK RUSSELL

We study the sailor, the man of his hands,
man of all work; all eye, all finger, muscle,
skill, & endurance[;] a tailor, a carpenter,
cooper, stevedore, & clerk & astronomer
besides. He is a great saver, and a great
quiddle by the necessity of his situation
.

—RALPH WALDO EMERSON

In February 1892, several months after Herman Melville died, a long essay titled “A Claim for American Literature” appeared in the North American Review. Written by W. Clark Russell, a British writer of nautical fiction and an advocate for seamen, “A Claim for American Literature” revisits the sea writing of Melville and Richard Henry Dana, whose contributions to their national literature Russell finds an unmatched literary achievement in a time “when men thought most things known.” Significantly, he views Melville’s and Dana’s artistic efforts as a kind of exhumation of the class of seamen: “Two American sailors, men of letters and of genius, seizing the pen for a handspike, prized open the sealed lid under which the merchant-seaman lay caverned.”1 In Russell’s figure, Melville and Dana rescue seamen from the recesses of obscurity through literary attention to the particulars of maritime life. Yet the consequences of a less symbolic burial inform Russell’s reading as well: Melville’s recent death (Dana had died ten years earlier) seems to have summoned this image of excavation for Russell. Melville, as is known, had been largely forgotten in literary circles by the time of his death, and Russell laments his late irrelevance for more than the sake of his literary reputation. If

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