In the first half of this book my aim has been to detail the participation of antebellum American sailors in literary print culture: how they achieved literacy, how they acquired and shared books while at sea, and what forms their own forays into authorship took. By the 1840s, sea writing was a wellestablished genre, and its practitioners drew on several important antecedents. Captivity in North Africa motivated the first collection of sailor writing. The nautical fictions of James Fenimore Cooper subsequently built on the interest in America’s maritime standing and history that emerged after the War of 1812, when sailors were relatively safer from piracy and impressment. The narrative model provided by Dana’s Two Years before the Mast, in turn, became the touchstone for the literary productions of dozens of common seamen. In discussing the literary culture of American sailors, I have been interested in how their working lives coexisted with—indeed, mutually drove—their imaginative lives. In the first three chapters, my attention to the intellectual lives of seamen has been focused on their reading practices and on the formal and rhetorical means through which their writings presented nautical experience to their audience. I now turn to the theoretical work that sailor narratives perform. The three chapters that follow explore the system of maritime knowledge of seamen’s narratives in its visual aspects, its textual incarnation, and its moments of failure.
In the second half of this book I propose that sailors developed a materialist epistemology by which the practices of mechanical labor become the empirical basis for both applied and imaginative knowledge.1 Their narratives insist on a recognition of the physical work that enables moments of reflection and speculation. Sailors were not unconscious mechanics; they accumulated knowledge through physical and mental work, yielding a generalized form of nautical expertise. In turn, this expertise allowed them to “read” the sea as a