American Literature, sentimentalism, sailor, mariner, pirate, rescue, conversion, internationalism, seamen ministry society, abolition, Catharine Maria Sedgwick, Maturin Murray Ballou, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and sea narrative, ocean adventure
Sentimental Sailors recovers a largely neglected genealogy of sentimental fiction that promotes non-national forms of personal and collective identity in the early U.S. The “sentimental sailor”— a term that I take from Thomas Mercer’s 1772 poem of the same name — is an antebellum ocean character who works to preserve Christian morals by saving those in physical peril, including individuals who are often considered marginalized or foreign. Appearing in texts across a broad range of genres, this figure develops a humanist, religious identity shaped by ocean adventures. Through acts of rescue, the sentimental sailor encourages citizens on the landed frontier to avoid fixed identities, and to instead develop a mobile fluid mind that could see beyond nationalism and the cultural prejudices of their own communities.While the sentimental sailor is unique to the antebellum era, this figure has gone virtually unnoticed by literary scholars. This oversight, I argue, results from the continued focus of much nineteenth-century American literary scholarship on the relation between literature and conceptions of U.S. national or imperial identity. In particular, scholars have shown that sentimental fiction promotes the idea that a productive and healthy home life will lead to a strong community and nation. For example, Amy Kaplan argues that domestic ideologies unite men and women under a central idea of nationalism, allowing them to stand against outsiders that they considered a threat to the country. Relatedly, Margaret Cohen notes that sea narratives emphasize the ideal of imperialism by showing how labor at sea contributes to the nation’s pursuit of a global saltwater empire. However, the figure of the sentimental sailor does not fit into the imperialist agendas and cultural modes of most domestic and ocean fiction, but rather uses the experience-based education of the sea to advocate a form of cultural internationalism that requires scholars to reconsider the history of nationalism during the antebellum period. Using a range of texts—from canonical works of fiction such as Hope Leslie (1827) and Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), to popular pirate tales such as Fanny Campbell, The Female Pirate Captain (1844)—my project shows how writers used the figure of the sentimental sailor to promote human rights, particularly for women, enslaved persons, and mariners themselves.