In the midst of growing national interest in the condition of sailors, the early sea novels of James Fenimore Cooper—the first volumes of maritime fiction to be produced by an American author—were published. Barbary captivity and British impressment had awakened political and domestic sympathies for American seamen in the period between the Revolution and the War of 1812. Their cause was aided by the seamen’s own writings: in the form of captivity narratives and anti-impressment tracts and in newspaper piecework and letters printed in literary magazines, American sailors documented their experience of international insecurity. Among those taking special notice of seamen’s lives were reformers, and charitable societies for seamen appeared in great profusion, as discussed in Chapter 1. The actions of seamen’s societies were part of a broader wave of reform movements in the United States in the 1820s–40s that preached temperance, religion, charity, chastity, and literacy. Other, more secular movements, especially those that concentrated on the working conditions of wage laborers, likewise included sailors in their efforts. The burgeoning sea trade and its galvanizing effect on the American economy made its own case for the value of sailors to the nation, especially in the aftermath of the largely maritime War of 1812. As seamen became objects of domestic sympathy, they became objects of literary interest as well. Their own memoirs found an audience with nonspecialist readers, even as fictional representations of maritime life (mostly by nonsailors) tried to replicate the authentic voice of the American mariner.
The maritime world might have appeared an especially inviting landscape for both literary exploration and national definition in the first half of the nineteenth century, particularly as nationalist periodicals of the early antebellum era issued the call for a distinctly American literature. If the nation’s military and economic prosperity increasingly found their greatest expres-