Thursday, April 22, 2010

Poe's Sea Of Darkness

I’m working up a rather loose idea for this chapter that resituates Poe as maritime writer taking The Narrative of the Life of Arthur Gordon Pym, "The Gold Bug", and "Descent Into the Maelstrom" as a sort of maritime gothic trilogy within his repertoire. I’m currently in search of an argument to support this reading. I tend to get mulish about my arguments, or more precisely, about the necessity of having an argument. It’s one part laziness, one part vanity on my part. Aren’t my readings clever? Do I really have to make a claim to support them? At the heart of this is a guilty yet steadfast conviction that I really shouldn’t have to work hard and people should just give me jobs and money regardless. A rather dangerous attitude have in the current academic climate, n’est-ce que pas?

But to return to the matter at hand, Poe’s approach to the sea is difficult in part because all of my conclusions feel obvious and thin. The trio of tales all jive with Poe’s anti-romantic gothic approach literature. The primary question I’m grappling with is, why does it matter that they’re sea tales? Poe’s preoccupation with Jeremiah Reynolds’ South Sea Expedition and his use of the Globe mutiny have been pretty well covered. Ditto for Poe’s ambiguous position on slavery. Trying to locate myself in the criticism is proving more difficult than first imagined.

Both Pym and "The Gold Bug" present some interesting moments to talk about piracy and slavery. Pym, whose romantic notions of seafaring are dashed when he is first entombed within the ship for days before emerging in the midst of a violent mutiny, experiences an approximation of the Middle Passage wherein boarding the ship means the end of freedom instead of the beginning. Pym's fear of the mutineers seems centered primarily on the black cook one of the ringleaders. That fear becomes transmuted from fear of entrapment to fear of being taken unwilling along on a pirate expedition as the mutineers gradually turn their interests towards lawlessness. Poe uses piracy to critique Pym's imperfect understanding of freedom and his hyper-romantic notions of adventure. His love of adventure and defiance of his father's wishes compared with his horror at the mutineers anticipation of a pleasure cruise for profit in the Pacific islands smacks of a certain hypocrisy.

"The Gold Bug" is a bit more complicated. It's not properly a sea tale but it does use the hunt for Kidd's pirate treasure. There's an air of menace that hangs over the first part of the story, while Legrand's motives are hidden and his actions erratic. Once the treasure is discovered and he explains how he cracked Kidd's code the second half of the book reassures us that possibility for madness and murder was never really there. Except for the ending when the narrator asks about the skeletons found alongside the treasure. Legrand's reply knocks us back to moment of Legrand's rage at Jupiter's blundering.

"That is a question I am no more able to answer than yourself. There seems, however, only one plausible way of accounting for them--and yet it is dreadful to believe in such atrocity as my suggestion would imply. It is clear that Kidd-- if Kidd indeed secreted this treasure, which I doubt not--it is clear that he must have had assistance in the labor. But, the worst of this labor concluded, he may have thought it expedient to remove all participants in his secret. Perhaps a couple of blows with a mattock were sufficient, while his coadjutors were busy in the pit; perhaps it required a dozen-- who shall tell?" (Poe 596)

This classic Poe, deconstructing the method to the madness without letting us forget the madness part of the equation. Logic and rationality are not proof against madness, desire and chaos. Pirates and piracy are false symbols of romantic freedom and native intelligence.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Red Rover, Red Rover, Let Scipio Come Over

I'm finally working on Chapter 2 of the diss tentatively titled "Deconstructing the American Romantic Pirate." This is always the best part of the process: reading, flagging, taking note of every little thing that might be of interest. I finished going through Cooper's The Red Rover this morning which was a good way to start the process. I've always found reading Cooper to be something of a pain (overwrite much JFC?). And turgid prose plus a lot of impenetrable sailing jargon equals me wishing I'd gone ahead with the Melville chapter instead of this one. But I'm actually excited about this chapter, because this is the "rollicking adventure" chapter.

The Red Rover is a great book for me because it's a historical novel written in 1824 that takes place in Newport, RI in 1756. The character of the Red Rover is a pirate who sails in a ship called the Dolphin which travels under several guises. At the novel's opening it is lying in the harbor as a (drumroll please)...slave ship! Cooper plays with this comparison between the dubious character of the slave ship and the feared yet largely mysterious character of the pirate ship at several times during the novel. Slaving is by turns referred to as honest and shameful. Piracy is roundly condemned yet sympathizers are found at every turn. And of course there is the question on how free all sailors are , black or white, at sea.

Scipio Africanus is one of the first sailors we meet. He's not exactly a slave, but he's also clearly not free. He refers to his companion Richard "Dick" Pip as a "Master" and Cooper, through Pip, makes reference to his "degraded" and "ignorant" state. Yet, as the novel progresses, we gradually become acquainted with Scipio's sailing expertise. Throughout the novel he remains something of a mystery. Cooper plays with both the practice of naming slaves after Classical figures and assumptions concerning black intellect by repeatedly setting Scipio up to be object of derision only to have him reveal himself to be more canny than those around him realize.

My tentative plan for this chapter is to analyzee Cooper's treatment of piracy in this book alongside Poe's in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. What I'm thinking right now is that looking books that use sea tales to arrive at different conclusions regarding the lessons of the Revolution will be a good way to shore up my arguments regarding using sea fiction as political critique. But it's always risky to go into a chapter with too narrow an agenda. And there is so much in The Rover Rover to explore that I don't want to overlook anything.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

There Be Pirates in The Family

One of Bellamy's pirate buddies was a Frenchmen named Olivier Le Vasseur, more popularly known as "La Buse" (the buzzard). The two made trips between New England and the Virgin Islands before La Buse decided to go off and sail with Chris Moody.

My mother has a cousin whose last name is Levasseur who lives in Massachusetts. When she half-jokingly asked if they were by chance related to the pirate Le Vasseur, he said, "Well yeah actually we are." We're currently trying to acquire a complete family tree. Granted, I can't claim blood lineage given that it's a connection by marriage. Still, you never know where weird personal connections come from.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Whydah Exhibit

The Whydah exhibit was interesting although a little thin on physical objects. The ship broke into pieces during the wreck and the most of what washed up on the beach was spirited away by scavengers. Much of the exhibit was reconstructions of the ship with mannequins.

One thing that the curator(s) did particularly well was contextualizing piracy within the Atlantic triangle, specifically the relationship between piracy and slavery in the early 18th Century. The rise in transatlantic commerce made piracy attractive due to both the temptation posed by the riches to be gained and due to the fact that sailor life aboard merchant ships was pretty hard. After the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713 ended the wars with Spain and the need for privateers, many sailors were left unemployed and vulnerable to pirates Pirates impressed both black and white sailors as well as the slaves captured in their slave ships raids (this wasn't always the case. As W. Jeffery Bolster points out, pirates were just as likely to sell slaves as to free them). Blackbeard's crew may have been as much as 60% black.In fact, there is some speculation that the massive crackdown on piracy prior to 1730 was spurred by the threat piracy posed to the slave trade

One of the more gruesome and haunting displays was of the shoe, stocking, and shinbone of a boy named John King who's estimated to have been between 8 and 11 years old. King and his mother were passengers of one of the ships captured by Bellamy's crew, and King was so enamored by the pirates that he threatened to kill his mother if she tried to stop him from joining them. He died with most of the Whydah's crew.

In terms of my own work, it's hard to say precisely how much will be useful. There were 2 things that might make it into the chapter if only as footnotes.

  • The alterations made to the Whydah by Bellamy's crew seem similar to descriptions of the San Dominick in Benito Cereno. The partitions were removed to reflect the egalitarian ethos embraced by pirates.
  • Cotton Mather was judge presiding over six members of Bellamy's fleet. He freed one who alleged to have been impressed into service.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Revision and the Illusion of Completeness

Discussing chapter revisions is simultaneously excruciating and liberating. You are purged of delusions of completeness, disabused of any sense of your own brilliance, and finally reassured that you're "almost there." You are also, at least for a little while, free from that dark isolated cave so necessary to writing, and in talking about your work more aware of how things are coming together beyond the immediate chapter. And having done the hardest work of wrestling with concepts in the first draft, you are now allowed to pay more attention to nuance, argument, etcetera.

So instead of moving on whole-hog to pirates, I'm going to start with the revising process with small excursions into pirate territory for variety. In terms of revising, The next few weeks I'm going to concentrate on some key questions brought up at the workshop.

  • Principles of Selection
  • The Historical Phenomenon of the Maritime Imaginary
  • The Relationship Between Insurrection And Revolution
  • The resonance of Haiti and American Revolution within the Context of the 1850s

The narrative isn't as clear as it initially seemed. The progression from swamp to sea of course makes mores sense at the end of the chapter than at the beginning which, naturally, that the chapter essentially as to be rewritten backwards. Having teased out the close readings of the texts I now need to go back and do what I set out to do in the first place and make the controlling elements the progression from swamp to sea rather than letting my close readings guide the chapter. I think I'm going to spend the next couple of days concentrating on the introduction and then go back to the swamp. Sigh.

On the pirate front, this weekend I'm headed, finally, to the Field Museum of Natural History's exhibit of the Whydah.

The Whydah's story begins in London in 1715 when the hundred-foot [31-meter] three-master was launched as a slave ship under the command of Lawrence Prince. Named for the West African port of Ouidah (pronounced WIH-dah) in what is today Benin, the 300-ton [272-metric-ton] vessel was destined for the infamous "triangular trade" connecting England, Africa, and the West Indies. Carrying cloth, liquor, hand tools, and small arms from England, the Whydah's crew would buy and barter for up to 700 slaves in West Africa, then set out with them on three to four weeks of hellish transport to the Caribbean. Once there, the slaves were traded for gold, silver, sugar, indigo, and cinchona, the last being a source of quinine, all of which went back to England.

The Whydah was fast—she was capable of 13 knots—but in February of 1717, on only her second voyage, she was chased down by two pirate vessels, theSultana and Mary Anne, near the Bahamas. Led by Samuel "Black Sam"

Bellamy, a raven-haired former English sailor thought to be in his late 20s, the pirates quickly overpowered the Whydah's crew. Bellamy claimed her as his flagship, seized a dozen men from Prince, then let the vanquished captain and his remaining crew take the Sultana.

By early April the pirates were headed north along the east coast, robbing vessels as they went. Their destination was Richmond Island, off the coast of Maine, butthey diverted to Cape Cod, where legend says Bellamy wanted to visit his mistress, Maria Hallett, in the town of Eastham near the cape's tip. Others blame the course change on several casks of Madeira wine seized off Nantucket. Whatever the reason, on April 26, 1717, the freebooter navy sailed square into a howling nor'easter.

According to eyewitness accounts, gusts topped 70 miles [113 kilometers] an hour and the seas rose to 30 feet [9 meters]. Bellamy signaled his fleet to deeper water, but it was too late for the treasure-laden Whydah.Trapped in the surf zone within sight of the beach, the boat slammed stern first into a sandbar and began to break apart. When a giant wave rolled her, her cannon fell from their mounts, smashing through overturned decks along with cannonballs and barrels of iron and nails. Finally, as the ship's back broke, she split into bow and stern, and her contents spilled across the ocean floor.

A slave ship turned pirate ship and wrecked off the coast of New England! Perfect!

Friday, September 18, 2009


Sent out the chapter draft to my dissertation committee on Wednesday. Overall I feel pretty good about the whole process despite a few setbacks and the fact that was two weeks behind my projected deadline. Considering I didn't really start doing to reading for this chapter until early May, and the fact that moving issues ate up about two and a half weeks, this went much faster than the first chapter did. I am, as ever, not happy with the writing. Parts are still clunky and thin, and you can definitely tell when I'm running out of steam on an idea.

The narrative I constructed is probably the strongest aspect of the chapter. Starting with Dred and the swamp, and then moving onto Blake's transition from the swamp to the sea, and finally ending with Madison Washington's insurrection made it easy to keep track of the various threads of the argument. This chapter, far more than the last, gets closer to my concept on how the maritime imaginary operates as both a literary and political trope during this period.

I've also found some interesting stuff that might help me shore up the theoretical underpinnings of my concept of the maritime imaginary. One is Jacques Ranciere's On The Shores of Politics and the other is a very short essay by Foucault called "Of Other Spaces." More on them after my brief hiatus.

September 19th is Talk Like A Pirate Day!

Monday, September 7, 2009

Just Keep Writing, Just Keep Writing*

No ,I haven't disappeared, but I am in the final push to finishing the first draft of this chapter. That kind of writing leaves me a bit too wrung out for blogging.

After I send the draft off, and take a brief break from all things academic, I'm moving on to the fun phase of the dissertation...


If you haven't seen last week's New Yorker yet, it has a review of a new book on the economics of piracy. That, J.F. Cooper's The Rover, and Marcus Rediker's Between the Devil and The Deep Blue Sea will constitute the next series of posts in the not-so-distant future.

Before that, I still have 10-15 pages of writing to go. Sigh. Back to Delany and Douglass' maritime narratives.

*Apologies to both Pixar and Spencer Keralis