Maritime lit types like me have been waiting for a little while for Margaret Cohen’s new book. It was worth waiting for. She covers several centuries of English and French literature, with major treatments of Defoe, Melville, Hugo, Conrad, and many others.
The really great thing about the book, esp its quite amazing first chapter, is the focus on what she calls “mariner’s craft.” Taking an episode in which Cook manages to get his ship off a reef in the South Pacific as the focalizing narrative, Cohen outlines the 14 central feature of the skilled labor that Homer called “metis.” From Prudence and sea-legs through jury-rigging and collectivity to Providence and practical reason, she produces a wonderfully detailed vision of how sailors imagined themselves working on the sea.
The bulk of the book connects that collective knowledge , assembled by generations of writers and sailors — the quote I use as a title for this post is from Champlain — to help understand the international maritime novel. Her readings of Defoe, Conrad, and Hugo’s Toilers of the Sea (which she rightly notes should be translated as “Workers of the Sea”) are especially good. Conrad writes “craft’s eulogy,” she observes, and Falconer’s poem “The Shipwreck” attempts to connect maritime craft to the emerging aesthetics of the sublime (122-5).
I also appreciate the final gestures toward Pynchon’s Whole Sick Crew. Who will write the much-needed study of old Tom as sea-writer?
I started a shelf for sea-lit about five or so years ago, and it keeps flowing over to other shelves. This looks like a great addition. Re Tom’s Whole Sick Crew: Pig Bodine of “V” morphs curiously into Pirate Prentice of ‘Gravity’s Rainbow,” or that wastrel flotsom Slothrop (especially in the Zone); entropy makes soul-flotsom of all of us, our Odyssean immramas without a final shore that anyone can sea. “Inherent Vice” and “Vineland” also follow the Crew in their dissembling. Backwash of history, they keep on keepin’ on, like the crew of the Anubis partying on through the hell of WWII.
Steve Mentz says
Bodine drunken sailors himself through the whole corpus, I’m pretty sure. As a foretopman working with the suspiciously named “Patrick O’Brian” in *Mason & Dixon*, as stoker & teller of sea stories O.I.C. Bodine in *Against the Day*. Maybe someday I’ll chase all this down. I do think *Inherent Vice* is deeply maritime, & I just finished an article on 16-17c dolphin stories that uses a couple pages of *M&D* as a focusing quotation.
I read one of the reviews of your book. You’re a diligent scholar. I’m sure you’ll give GR the proper thalassogistics when it’s time. (Hey, and who is “V” in “V”? Her mystery winds through the book like Anna Livia Plurabelle. And what happened when Mason & Dixon recorded the Transit of Venus down at Cape Hope, where the noise of the sea was like an incoming V-2 rocket? A-and that Pig Bodine shooting blind albino gators in the sewers of NY, somewhere along the same conduit Slothrop in GR got flushed down the toilet at the Roxy trying to retrieve his harmonica — both odysseans lost on the underworld Oceanus, paranoids — like the surfer band in “The Crying of Lot 49” — sleuthing for what passes for meaning, like salvagers in search for the magic book Prospero cast to the wave.