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

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

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

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

Synopsis

At a crucial time in American history, narratives of women in command or imperiled at sea contributed to the construction of a national rhetoric. Robin Miskolcze makes her case by way of careful readings of images of women at sea before the Civil War in her book Women and Children First. Though the sea has traditionally been interpreted as the province of men, women have gone to sea as mothers, wives, figureheads, and slaves. In fact, in the nineteenth century, women at sea contributed to the formation of an ethics of survival that helped to define American ideals. This study examines, often for the first time, images of women at sea in antebellum narratives ranging from novels and sermons to newspaper accounts and lithographs. Anglo-American women in antebellum sea narratives are often portrayed as models of American ideals derived from women's seemingly innate Christian self-sacrifice. Miskolcze argues that these ideals, in conjunction with the maritime directive of "women and children first" during sea disasters, in turn defined a new masculine individualism, one that was morally minded, rooted in Christian principles, and dedicated to preserving virtue. Further, Miskolcze contends that without the antebellum sea narratives portraying the Christian self-sacrifice of women, the abolitionist cause would have suffered. African American women appealed to the directive of "women and children first" to make manifest their own womanhood, and by extension, their own humanity.

Excerpt

Recently, tales of sea adventures have surfaced in various arenas of American popular culture. Building on the blockbuster success of the 1997 movie Titanic, television and film industries have produced shows and movies that often derive their central drama from a disaster at sea, whether it is the result of a whale's wrath (NBC's adaptation of the literary scholar Nathaniel Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea, 2001), a plane crash (Tom Hanks in Castaway, 2000), or destructive weather (The Perfect Storm, 2000). Best-selling nonfiction such as Erik Larson's Isaac's Storm: a Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History (1999) likewise reflects the reading public's interest in historical stories of survival at sea. These contemporary manifestations of sea adventures are, I believe, rooted both in Americans' interest in their nation's history and in an anxiety over an inability to survive in the absence of technology.

In simple terms, we are drawn to survival stories set at sea because they expose “the naked truth” about ourselves and an American ethic of survival. This ethic is imagined to have been derived from the survival experiences of early Americans, and it is one we hope to share in as an audience. Early American immigrants are portrayed as having survived the unforgiving ocean and uncivilized wilderness while propagating an ethic of family and loyalty, and a self-reliance rooted in the hope for a better society. Likewise, many African American narratives, such as the print and film version of the story of the Amistad, Charles Johnson's The Middle Passage, Toni Morrison's Beloved, and John Edgar Wideman's Sent for You Yesterday work to interpret traumatic sea crossings and their influence on . . .

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