I remember quite distinctly thinking, during Gretchen Woertendyke’s paper on 19c American popular sea romances, that the generic connections between the sea and romance might run quite deep. Might even, in fact, amount to a provisional definition of some of the basic features of maritime literature.
Definitions and lineages are always problematic for romance, that red-headed stepchild of epic and slow time. I’ve wrestled through this somewhat in the book on Elizabethan prose fiction, in which I endorsed the somewhat idiosyncratic claim that The Odyssey is the exemplar of romance, rather than a somewhat oddly-shaped epic.
If romance is, structurally, a genre shaped through the loss-wandering-recovery triad, and if it, as in Homer’s poem, happily accepts a bewildering range of narrative invention and digression as part of its structure, then it makes some sense that the sea should be a major topos, as well as a common setting.
Looking back over waterfall of talks at the Hungry Ocean, I’m struck in retrospect that so many of these texts evince what I’d call the tactics of romance: indirection, sideways progression, obliquity. To some extent, perhaps, those are also just qualities that modern readers like, & therefore emphasize — but the oceans of romance abounded at the conference, from Jean Feerick’s reading of Baconian science to Joshua Gonsalves’s Marxist reading of octupi-fictions, Sophie Gilmartin’s Villette, Matt Rafferty’s confessional narratives. Even less likely suspects — Wordsworth, the coast of Louisiana — had a romance flavor, in the sense that the subjective experience of disorderly wandering wanted to imagine itself as productive or at least conceptually unified thinking.
(I should note, in case any novel studies people are grumbling right now, that I don’t much believe in the radical novelty of the “modern novel” & don’t draw a hard historical line before Don Quixote or Robinson Crusoe or similar texts. I’m with Margaret Doody on that question, certainly.)
If the ocean is the space of romance, so what? Perhaps we can historicize oceanic narratives through the re-deployment of romance tropes — shipwreck, homecoming, storms, etc? Or, maybe better, we can use Jameson’s great phrase about romances — “imaginary solutions to real problems” — to inform our readings of sea lit.
More to come about the Hungry Ocean — I’ve been thinking also about History, through Bernhard’s great talk especially, and Networks via Patsy’s.
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