The naval memoir Life in a Man-of-War, published anonymously in 1841, provides a witty account of a cruise in “Old Ironsides,” or the legendary warship Constitution. Rather than an account of military exercises or engagements, though, Life in a Man-of-War presents a cultural history of shipboard life in the American navy. The narrator, working in a self-described “scribbling vein,” aims to document—in “the rude, unpretending, and unpolished style” of a common sailor—the “disquietudes, delights, sorrows, joys, troubles, and perplexities” of the naval service.1 The narrator’s avowed lack of literary pretension is a conventional move, certainly. His confession to a “scribbling” urge aligns him with other nineteenth-century would-be authors who felt the itch to write in a market that could newly accommodate literary amateurs.2 Yet his self-deprecating gesture toward the conventions of narrative writing does not deny this sailor literary authority. “Nothing is lost on him that sees / With an eye that feeling gave,” the epigraph to Life in a Man-of-War reads; “For him there’s a story in every breeze, / A picture in every wave.”3 Sailors may joke and lark, the narrative suggests, but they still are part of a broader fraternity of feeling.
Early in Life in a Man-of-War, the reader is invited to survey the groups of sailors who congregate on the decks in their time of leisure. The narrator is presumably a member of this crew, for the memoir is credited only to “a foretop-man,” or a common sailor who works high in the foremost mast. Among those engaged in sewing or napping, one group of idlers in particular stands out. The narrator, shifting his prose account into verse form, calls attention to
A literary group of three or four,
Discussing the merits of some novel o’er
“Have you read Marryatt’s Phantom Ship all through?”