Posted by: Blue Lou Logan | April 7, 2013

Munson Paper #1: Defining American Maritime Studies: A Dialectical Approach


Mystic Seaport

This is the first of what I have, perhaps presumptuously, named the ‘Munson Papers.’  In the summer of 2012, educators met at the Frank C. Munson Institute of American Maritime Studies at the Mystic Seaport Museum for an intensive six-week seminar.  I had no possibility of attending:  Not only am I on the opposite coast, but also I am a Doctoral Candidate in Ethnomusicology, with a background in Anthropology, not an established scholar of maritime history.  Nevertheless, with my piratical leanings and the mental spark ignited by involvement with Seattle’s Center for Wooden Boats, and with the beneficence of Dr. Glenn Gordinier, Robert G. Albion Historian at Mystic Seaport and Co-Director of the Munson Institute, I have embarked on a journey of academic discovery by obtaining the full readings of the seminar.  There were no ‘assignments’ for the Institute, so I invented my own.  These essays will be a means for me to sow hundreds of pages of literature into coherent ideas, to flex some writing muscles, and to venture into a realm of interest that will, perhaps and hopefully, lead to a new personal and professional direction.  First, however, we must define the topic itself.

At face value, “American Maritime Studies” may seem an easy field to demark.  ‘Maritime‘ simply means ‘of the sea,’ although ‘marine‘ means much the same.  To distinguish the two, ‘maritime’ implies, perhaps, those things on or near the sea instead of those things in or under the sea.  ‘Maritime’ also implies human impact and interaction–‘maritime culture,’ not ‘marine biology.’  With the primacy of human agency comes the notion of history.  Without getting overly theoretical, ‘history‘ we may define as the course of cultural events or, more specifically, the past and the narrative and record of it.  ‘America,’ by the typical bias, means the United States, or at the utmost the North American continent.  Yet if we then define “American Maritime Studies” tentatively as ‘the history of the United States and the sea,’ to which do we give priority, the ocean or the country?  In the introduction to America and the Sea: A Maritime History–essentially the ‘textbook’ of the Munson Institute–the authors write, “Maritime history should convey more than the profits of merchants, or the victories of admirals, or even the struggles of ordinary mariners (Labaree and Fowler, et al 1998: 12).”  The authors are contesting what appears to be the common conception of American Maritime Studies.  They are stating that maritime history must not be reduced to economics and war, that the relationship between man and the sea is complex and must be studied from many, varied perspectives.  The definition of the field might have intrinsic oppositions instead of being a superficially unified whole.

To put American Maritime Studies in perspective, a theoretical approach is useful…at least to me.  In an effort at complete disclosure, I must admit that the dominant paradigms during my education in anthropology were Structuralism in the mode of Claude Lévi-Strauss and late MarxismPostmodernism, in 1992, had yet to conquer all of the grand narratives and send cultural studies into the infinite realm of discourse and deconstruction.  It may thus seem old-fashioned to some that I still consider binary oppositions and the Hegelian notion of the dialectic valuable analytical tools.  I do not pretend to able to explain “thesis, antithesis, and synthesis” or “the negation of the negation” better than the next guy.  The point is this:  History progresses by the constant push and pull of opposing forces and concepts in an ever-changing process that produces both critical moments and a gradual evolution of things and ideas.  The essence of the dialectical approach is that contradiction is inherent to all things, and the “mediation” of these internal oppositions in specific contexts creates observable, possibly recorded events.  History is how conflict is resolved at different times, in different places, and in different ways.  I would thus like to look at the subject matter of American Maritime Studies as several dialectical sets.  These are not meant to be definitive. Rather, I see this approach as a framework to interpret the maritime past and the maritime present by showing how an array of interrelated oppositions both drive and reflect the course of history.  These dialectical sets can be broadly categorized into dialectics of perception, dialectics of historical process, and finally the intersections of perception and history.


Rising of a Thunderstorm at Sea by Washington Allston

The first and perhaps most important opposition is how we emotionally view the sea:  romance versus reality.  The sea is, of course, one of the most dangerous working environments on Earth, but the American imagination is especially fascinated with the idea of ‘adventure.’  Even now the American West remains our most potent symbolic ground, from the trials of Lewis and Clark to the deprivations of the Donner Party, from mountain men to cowboys and gunslingers.  The man at sea is the penultimate embodiment of man versus nature and also of a time when that risk was more primal than it is today.  Thus, to many if not most modern Americans, the sea is the wreck of the Titanic, the brave, doomed fishermen in The Perfect Storm, and the fantasy world of Pirates of the Caribbean.  (I am not without sin, and not repentant.)  For a more select few, the sea is blue water sailing, the thrill and escape of cruising to Baja or the South Pacific, as if the GPS-equipped yacht was an homage to Cook’s Endeavor.  It would be too convenient to say that ‘real’ maritime professionals are all pragmatism and are immune to the romanticization of their own trade.  Certainly “reality” entertainment such as The Deadliest Catch proves that captains and crews are aware of their own romantic position and are willing to market danger.  More importantly, this duality in the perception of the sea can be seen to change over time, both a product of and a force in the historical process.  Americans love a hero, and “that the mariner, like the frontiersman, faced death beyond the view of ordinary citizens added to his historic stature in the American imagination (Labaree and Fowler, et al 1998: 11).”  It is impossible to view American maritime history without acknowledging the romanticism that has, in various ways at various times, colored our image of the sea and those that work on it, even as those seamen toil at real risk to themselves on that sea.

A second duality in perception is between the maritime and the water itself, between the maritime and the marine.  On one hand, history will naturally be primarily about human power.  Tales will be dominated by the ‘history makers,’ those influential enough to become famous names.  Broader–and perhaps revisionist–histories will strive to introduce men and women who might otherwise be voiceless in the record:  common seamen, slaves, wives ashore.  On the other hand, maritime history is as likely to list legendary ships as legendary captains.  In The Way of the Ship, Roland, Bolster, and Keyssar state that technology is an important thread in the study of America’s relation with the sea:  “Ships are, after all, complex technological artifacts, the largest movable structures built by humans (2008: 4).” The evolution from sail to steam and inventions such as the clipper ship or containerization are important to the maritime story, as are key vessels like Mayflower, USS Constitution, and even Exxon Valdez.  Yet it is far too easy, and perhaps far too common, to ignore the seas, lakes, and rivers on which these boats float.  Currents, tides, weather, wind:  The mariners all know, but how do these play into the unfolding of specific historical events and thus into broader narratives?  There is then the question of ecology, biosystems in and around the water.  Ecology is an obvious factor when we consider fisheries, whether 19th century whalers or 21st century crabbers.  It is, perhaps, even more critical today when the sea as a means of human sustenance is being pushed to the natural limit and beyond.



There are less obvious ways in which the maritime and the marine work upon each other.  In his article “Blue Immigrants: The Marine Biology of Maritime History,” marine scientist James T. Carlton describes how at the same time that marine organisms work, often destructively, on ships, those ships also carry organisms to new environments far from their origins, often again to devastating effect.  Shipworms, long bivalve mollusks, burrow into wooden ships from the outside in, leaving “great caverns…deep into the hull or keel of a vessel (Carlton 1992: 32).”  These “caverns” can then become homes for crevice-dwelling fish, crabs, and shrimp which travel wherever that ship may go.  Inside the ship, ballast stones may contain any variety of life that, when dumped at the ship’s destination, become inhabitants of a new land. After hundreds of years of ships coming and going, introduced species become indistinguishable from ‘native’ life.  An example is the European periwinkle, which within two hundred years “quickly became one of the most dominant intertidal organisms of North America from Newfoundland to New York (1992: 34).”  Modern, fast, steel-hulled vessels are immune to shipworm and often have antifouling paints poisonous to the kind of life that once colonized wooden ships.  Modern ballast, however, may be more of a biological carrier than the stones of old.  Today’s huge container ships are ballasted by thousands to millions of gallons of seawater.  Writes Carlton, “Some cargo vessels have been found to have over 50 species of planktonic animals after only an 11-day voyage (1992: 35).”  In the 1980s, the release of ballast water in the Great Lakes led to the rapid and devastating invasion of the European zebra mussel, hundreds of millions of which are now clinging to pilings and buoys and clogging water pipes and intakes.  Carlton’s study, from a broader perspective, shows how ship and sea can interact in dramatic if little-known ways.  In maritime history, man, his technology, and nature are more than opposing forces; together they create changes to industry and ecosystem alike, human and natural history.

Another dialectal opposition reaches deep into how we perceive our connection with the sea:  The ocean is at once a world apart and a world between.  The first idea gives the sea a particularity, a separateness. This perspective is partially described (and critiqued) in America and the Sea.  “First revealed to European eyes by sea, explored and settled by sea, and for much of its five-hundred-year history sustained by sea as well, North America is the most maritime of the world’s great continents.  And yet few historians have understood that fact, in part because they have taken a narrow view of the sea as a world apart from land, a place of little consequence to people other than mariners, whose way of life kept them apart from the mainstream experience of farm, factory, and family (Labaree and Fowler, et al 1998: 4).”  Beyond the bias of historians, there is the plain fact that to the land-bound majority the sea is a foreign place akin to outer space. Sailors are a breed apart, unique in appearance, language, experience, and attitude.  Danger and the romanticization of it come into play here, but so does a fear of the unknown and a sort of xenophobia.  At the same time, however, the sea is what the same authors describe as a “highway.”  The sea is a path, a conduit, a means from place to place much like a road or a railway, but without any lanes or rails to limit it.  Water is a way for people and things to be moved.  In truth, more than any other means, travel by sea is both transportation and separation.  Anyone who has stood on the shore and looked to sea knows that that view, like gazing at a starry sky on a clear night, is to look into infinity and void.  To go onto that expanse is to yield yourself to it, to trust that the vessel and its crew will survive the boundless and deliver you both back to a more solid reality and to a new place.  Land’s end–bay, beach, and port–becomes a frontier of geography and experience.  The ship becomes a microcosm, a tiny, distorted reimagining of life on land, in transit across a seemingly endless plane of nothingness.  To go to sea, even to get from Point A to Point B, is to leave normality behind but to return to it, on the other end of the journey, different than you were before.


Ellis Island in 1905

This is more than reminiscent of the anthropological concept of liminality, first elucidated by Arnold van Gennep in The Rites of Passage (1909) and given full shape by Victor Turner in The Ritual Process (1977, orig. 1969).  “Rites de passage” are defined by van Gennep as “rites which accompany any change of place, state, social position and age (cited in Turner 1977: 94).”  These rites are usually exemplified in Western terms by events such as college graduation, marriage, or the bar mitzvah, but the same or a similar process can be found in many personal and cultural turning points.  The rites, according to van Gennep, have three phases:  “separation, margin, and aggregation,” or what can also be called “preliminal, liminal, and postliminal.”  In the central, liminal period, “the characteristics of the ritual subject (the ‘passenger’) [sic] are ambiguous; he passes through a cultural realm that has few or none of the attributes of the past or coming state (Turner 1977: 94).”  Liminal personae–“threshold people”–are in a state of ambiguity and flux, the in-between.  Those together in liminality form a brief but intense bond in their mutual status outside of the norm, what Turner calls “communitas,” a “moment in and out of time” in which social barriers and hierarchies are leveled and a temporary, egalitarian micro-culture is created.  The rite itself is a dialectical process “that involves successive experience of high and low, communitas and structure, homogeneity and differentiation, equality and inequality (Turner 1977: 97).”  In maritime terms, the literal and figurative “passenger” leaves land and prior normalcy, experiences the sea and liminality, and then returns to land with a new normalcy.  The voyage is the transformative place between.  The “crossing” of immigrants is a strong example:  They start with a nationality such as Czech, Norwegian, or Irishman, pass through a time at sea in which national definition is subverted by an isolation in which all are ‘equal,’ and reach the United States as ethnic minorities, hyphenated Americans.  There are more clearly defined rituals, such as the naval “crossing the line” ceremony.  Dana’s Two Years Before The Mast can be read as a journal of liminality.  And then there is modern, constructed liminality:  tourism.  Writes Eva Illouz in Consuming the Romantic Utopia (1997: 142-143), “Institutionalized as vacation, travel takes on the ritual character of cyclical events in which people detach themselves from their daily urban lives and gain access another order of reality.  Romantic travel enacts the three stages that characterize liminality:  separation, marginalization, and reaggregation.”  The cruise, whether with hundreds of others aboard a seaworthy resort or with your closest friends and family aboard a tiny sloop, represents postmodern, commercialized, free-floating liminality.  The sea, from pilgrim to emigre to vacationer, is a space outside of space.  The ship gets you somewhere via nowhere, and when you step back onto the quay you are not who you once were.

Modern reconstruction of the slave ship Amistad.

Modern reconstruction of the slave ship Amistad.

Before I completely disappear into the brainspace of the theoretical, I will turn to some dialectical sets that more concretely drive the process of maritime history.  Central to the approach of America and the Sea is the duality of the sea as a barrier and a highway.  The authors state that not only do these contrasting themes “underlie all of maritime history” but also, specifically, the North Atlantic, separating and connecting America and Europe, drives American history in general from Columbus onwards (Labaree and Fowler, et al 1998: 3-4).  Starting with the Revolution, the Atlantic was a “moat” that created an independent American identity and then a sense of “particularism,” the ideas of an “Old World” and a “New World.”  At the same time, trade, “triangular” and otherwise, made the North Atlantic perhaps the most important “highway” of early American commerce, and, as slavery was a key component, the road of African-American immigration.  Later, the Atlantic became the “bridge” by which countless European immigrants reached their new home.  The connotations of the “Old World,” and thus the cultural meaning of the ocean separating the Old from the New, then became contested.  For some, and perhaps especially for recent immigrants, the “Old World” was an idealized homeland and a source of nostalgia, but for others it was an obsolete past, a place to be left behind, a lifeway and worldview put in opposition to new identities and ‘progress.’  In the early twentieth century, the Atlantic again became a barrier at least initially keeping America and its military out of world war, a “buffer against European entanglements” especially for the U.S. Navy that maintained what might be called a ‘moat mentality’ of focusing on coastal defense over international engagement right up until World War II (1998: 7).  Another, related opposition must be posited between the Atlantic and the Pacific.  If the former alternated between barrier and highway, the latter has long been regarded by Americans as “a bridge to opportunity (1998: 5).”  Westward expansion–the quest for the Northwest Passage, the Louisiana Purchase, Lewis and Clark’s expedition–was driven by a desire to reach the fabled riches of Asia.  After the Pacific had been reached, the “China Trade” has been key to the American economy from the nineteenth century to the present. Yet, even after the West had been won, far-off Asia maintained its romanticism, Orientalism, Asia as the next, exotic destination beyond the horizon.  The United States is, perhaps, an “island nation (1998: 4).”  If so, then the sea is the mediator between America and the rest of the world.

The Naval Battle Between the United States and the Macedonian on 30 October 1812, by Thomas Birch

The Naval Battle Between the United States and the Macedonian on 30 October 1812, by Thomas Birch

There is a complex duality between the merchant and the Navy, the commercial and the military.  It is far more than war and peace.  From one perspective, one is subservient to the other.  Roland, Bolster and Keyssar (2008: 4) state, “As the naval theorist Alfred Thayer Mahan made clear, the sole purpose of a navy is to protect shipping.”  Mahan, one of the preeminent names in the study of American and world maritime history, more specifically says, “The necessity of a navy, in the restricted sense of the word, springs, therefore, from the existence of a peaceful shipping, and disappears with it, except in the case of a nation which has aggressive tendencies, and keeps up a navy merely as a branch of the military establishment (Mahan 1918: 26).”  Mahan, however, was a military man and was a famous proponent of the primacy of sea power:  Command of the sea is the key to both military victory during war and national security during peacetime.  His key principle that the best defense is an aggressive offense was timely at the turn of the twentieth century as there was a new imperialism and military brinksmanship that led to both World Wars.  Directly under Mahan’s influence, the United States put Manifest Destiny to sea, rapidly building ships until the U.S. had the third largest navy in the world by 1900 and had Hawaii in an effort to gain and maintain supremacy in the Pacific.  In effect, the navy is at once subservient and self serving:  Its charge maybe merchant trade, but it will move and expand to maintain its own superiority against its opponents.  Furthermore, merchant ships and crews are often pressed into military service during times of actual war, becoming transports of both troops and supplies. Even the term ‘naval’ may not actually imply a military fleet.  Write Roland, Bolster and Keyssar, “Naval architecture is a unified field of ship design and construction encompassing both both naval and commercial vessels (2008: 4).”  Technological innovation is shared, not isolated.  The study of American maritime history can thus not consider merchant and navy as discrete identities but as overlapping sets of men, ships, and ideas.  They may not always get along–the press gang, of course–but one cannot exist without the other.

Nineteenth century ad for the clipper Hornet

Nineteenth century ad for the clipper Hornet

The course of American maritime history is commonly portrayed as a having a before and after:  a rise, a peak, and a fall.  The turning point was almost simultaneous to the Civil War.  At that point the age of sail was at its technological and commercial peak, symbolized by the emblematic fast clippers.  American whaling covered the entire Pacific.  Vessels flying the American flag were bringing goods and money from all over the world, and this enterprise was perhaps the core of the American economy.  Shortly after the Civil War, as the tale is usually told, everything not only changed but declined.  Wood and sail gave way to iron and steel, steam and then diesel.  As the petroleum industry grew, whaling dwindled into eventual extinction.  By the turn of the twentieth century, 90 percent of American commerce was carried by ships with foreign flags, a measure that is used to show the collapse of the American merchant marine.  Increasingly, historians are questioning this narrative. Roland, Bolster and Keyssar make this the explicit thesis of The Way of the Ship, arguing that, rather than dying, the American maritime industry evolved.  Blue water trade became multinational:  The new symbol of American commerce at sea is the big, fast, efficient intermodal container ship that may be under almost any flag and with a crew from almost anywhere. At the same time, local trade along coast, river, and lake became central to American maritime economy, a point I will return to.  If the model of American maritime history essentially being split in two is seen as an oversimplification, then, in terms of the theoretical approach I am exploring here, oppositions must be viewed not as starkly binary, black and white.  With the dialectical approach, contrasts are never permanent:  The essence of the idea of the negation of the negation is that the original opposing ideas are eliminated in the process of creating the new, synthetic idea.  For example, even if the stereotypical phrase ‘the end of the Age of Sail’ is granted factuality, more fruitful and interesting historical analysis is made by studying how and why tall ships gave way to steamers, what forces contributed to the change and how the change itself falls into the longer narrative of the relationship between America and the sea.  The small amount of literature I have read thus far already proves that I am far from alone in viewing American maritime history as a story that is constantly unfolding–a life, not an epitaph.

The subject of “labor” is integral to American maritime history, but it is as hard to define as it is full of internal dichotomies.  On one hand, labor refers simply to the men and their efforts that make the maritime function, but labor is also a political concern, a movement in the Marxist-Leninist view.  Roland, Bolster and Keyssar place “labor” as one of the five key threads in their analysis, but they state that “maritime labor in the United States has always been a house divided, seeking but never achieving the one big union that might find the proper balance between wages and working conditions (2008: 4).”  One of the divisions making the consideration of labor difficult is the dialectic between the individual and the collective.  Labaree, Fowler, et al make clear that the maritime industry works in a very different way than the ‘free enterprise’ that, however exaggerated, typifies land-based economy and “what many historians consider the mainstream ‘American experience’ (1998: 10).”  On land, at least, nearly everything maritime is collective:  Vessels are owned by partnerships, and wharves and warehouses are owned by companies, municipalities, or investors.  Yet, at sea, there is the perpetual conflict between the collectivity of the crew, epitomized by the bond of mess mates, and the God-like role of the captain.  Marcus Rediker’s Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea in a clear, in-depth, and, honestly, entertaining way analyzes the deadly, titular opposition of the sailor:  “On one side stood his captain, who was backed by the merchant and royal official, and who held near-dictatorial powers that served a capitalist system rapidly covering the globe; on the other side stood the relentlessly dangerous natural world (1987: 5).”  Rediker posits that Anglo-American sailors of the early 18th century were “among the first collective laborers,” the common tar the “proletarian of the period (1987: 78).”  Given that Rediker is explicit in his Marxist terminology, I would like to think that he’d agree that there’s a dialectical process between that Devil and the sea, creating new identities and dynamics in the maritime industry, then and now.

America's first lighthouse, Boston Light on Little Brewster Island, first lit in 1716 and portrayed here in 1723 with a typical sloop of the time.

America’s first lighthouse, Boston Light on Little Brewster Island, first lit in 1716 and portrayed here in 1723 with a typical sloop of the time.

Close to the topic of labor is the relationship between the maritime industry and the government, or what Roland, Bolster and Keyssar refer to respectively as “the economics of shipping” and “policy (2008: 3).”  These authors point specifically to the importance of the regulation of cabotage–trade and navigation within American waters–which has historically been limited to American ships.  On the blue-water side, Labaree and Fowler, et al, point out that custom duties not only drove the conflict between the colonies and Britain but also were among the first laws to be enacted by the new federal government in 1789 (1998: 10).  Lest the role of government be seen strictly as one of control, the importance of government subsidy must be pointed out, from fisheries to the merchant marine, in the latter case what Labaree and Fowler, et al, audaciously call “the maintenance of uncompetitive operations in the shipping business (1998: 10).” Furthermore, the very existence and safety of maritime livelihood is directly dependent on the government, from the creation and maintenance of infrastructure such as lighthouses and port facilities to the Coast Guard.  Yet, like the dialectic between the navy and the merchant, the relationship between the government and the maritime must not be seen as one-sided.  Policy must also answer to economic needs and times, and politics must–perhaps idealistically–answer to the needs of constituents . The labor movement is a key example, as legislative reform has to a certain extent made the sailor safer from the Devil.  Thus, the relationship between the government and the maritime is fluid, another force driving and driven by history.

The very early Mississippi steamboat Enterprise, in 1815.

The very early Mississippi steamboat Enterprise, in 1815.

The closer we get to the present of maritime history, the closer the history of the sea becomes to tied to its perception.  This is due partly to the evolution of the American nation and its people:  the settling of nearly every corner and even off to Hawaii and Alaska, urbanization and suburbanization, and, really, the rise of mass media as the window through which most people view the world.  The sea, over time, became more of an idea than a reality.  Along the way, the dominant form of maritime commerce changed, a dialectic between ocean and inland.  Roland, Bolster, and Keyssar make this a central point in The Way of the Ship:  “Most Americans think of shipping as an oceanic enterprise, as indeed it was during the colonial period.  But for most of U.S. history, shipping on coastal and inland waters has exceeded oceanic shipping in both volume and value. America is a brown-water nation, with a blue-water consciousness (2008: 1).”  America’s rivers and lakes are as critical to American transportation as railroads and highways.  The Mississippi, once plied by the now romanticized paddle wheelers, is just as busy now with barges moving modern goods.  Only about a decade ago did oceanic shipping overtake the financial importance of inland shipping again, thanks largely to increase in both the size and scope of blue-water commerce, the era of the globalized megaship.  Yet all of this is as taken for granted by the public as the eighteen-wheelers on the freeways.  Only when something goes wrong–a wreck, a spill–does the modern maritime gain notice.  The maritime has become mundane; the only publicity is in ruin, while the past is romanticized.

In fact, for quite some time maritime history has been defined by a totally different dialectic:  business and leisure.  As planes, trains, and automobiles have dominated at least our minds as the way to get from one place to another, the sea has come to be a place a destination instead of a means.  This is no small part due to the rise of affluence, the labor-driven ideas of the weekend and the vacation, and the cultural importance of recreation.  The frontier between land and sea is now not the port but the beach: surfing, picnics, summer cottages.  At the same time, yachting has gone from the province of the rich to something anyone can do, from renting a Beetle cat to chartering a Caribbean sloop.  Large passenger vessels are no longer about reaching a destination.  Cruise ships are destinations in and of themselves, floating Vegas hotels with rooms, entertainment, and endless food and booze.  The modern maritime is The Love Boat, or rather the Disney Fantasy, 3,500 passengers on 14 decks.

Disney Fantasy...the modern maritime.

Disney Fantasy

Which brings me to the final dialectic:  the visible and the invisible.  For generations, the sea was a real thing, a workplace, a place of danger.  Young men of early America took to the North Atlantic fishing grounds as another sort of rite de passage, their entry into labor. Those huddle masses crowded vessels seeking new starts. Thousands rounded the Horn to reach the California gold fields, and, a century later, thousands defended America from German U-Boats and Japanese Zeros.  Every one of them risked their lives in the process.  Now, if the sea is not literally out of view in Middle America, it is figuratively out of the mind’s view except when it becomes an escape.  The middle-class consumer does not consider how his or her TV got from factory to living room.  Even if you live in a port town such as Long Beach, Boston, or my own Seattle, you drive past the gigantic container cranes without a thought, and the docks only enter your imagination when they are the scene of a crime in the latest episode of your favorite drama.  The sea only exists when you WANT it to:  the cruise you’ve been saving up for, the volleyball and sand castles on a nice day, the J/24 rocking at her moorage until you’re in the mood…and when that beautiful tall ship crosses the silver screen.  In the collective consciousness, romance has soundly beat reality.  Yet the real maritime goes on quietly like a ghost on the edge of your vision.  Perhaps, then, the job of the maritime scholar is not to document, preserve, and analyze, but to make sure that the ship and the water are not taken for granted.

I must hasten to point out, as this essay approaches a close, that the dialectical pairs here are meant to be neither conclusive nor comprehensive.  My first ‘Munson Paper’ is somewhere between a philosophical exercise and a first calculation of position and bearing after leaving the harbor.  Let’s summarize.  First, there are several dialectical sets about the perception of the sea.  Romance and reality create our emotional connection to the sea.  The interaction of the maritime and the marine drives the organic relationship between human and water.  The sea as a place, apart and between, can be seen as a liminal, transformational space.  Second, there are oppositions that drive maritime history.  The sea has been at different times a barrier and a highway, dividing and connecting the United States with the world.  The merchant and the navy are like a married couple, sometimes at odds, but dependent on each other.  History’s course itself can be seen as rise and fall but better as a constant evolution driven by the ever-changing play of commerce, labor, and government.  Finally, in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, history and perception have come into evermore complex relationships:  the brown-water and the blue-water, business and pleasure, visible and invisible.

Romanticizing the bad guy:  Capturing the Pirate, Blackbeard, 1718, painted in 1920 by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris.

Romanticizing the bad guy: Capturing the Pirate, Blackbeard, 1718, painted in 1920 by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris.

Allow me to finish with a short example of how this methodology can be applied to a single topic, the one that brought me here in the first place:  pirates. The existence and shape of piracy can be seen through any number of dialectical sets, including but not limited to the ones I have described.  A pirate is a criminal of the sea, but how is criminality defined, and by whom?  John Paul Jones, for instance, is a hero and patriot to some but an invader and villain to others.  Pirate and privateer:  a dialectic that is utterly a matter of perspective, driven by other dialectics such as government and trade, commerce and navy. The pirate crew may be a product of the dialectic between the Devil and the deep blue sea, as Rediker has argued:  Signing pirate articles may be a balance between freedom and survival, an act of defiance, an escape from terrific discipline, and perhaps no choice at all.  Consider also the fact that piracy is often the orphan of war and peace.  Many pirates, including the most legendary of all, Edward “Blackbeard” Teach, were trained soldiers whose skills suddenly had no place.  What do career warriors do when international politics change, and ‘legitimate’ combat and plunder become illegal activity?  Jump three hundred years to the postmodern present.  On one hand, there are the very real pirates of Somalia, whose ransoming of ships in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean has posed a significant risk to international trade that has been responded to by multinational task forces that include the U.S. Navy.  The Somalis are “Robin Hoods” according to some, gangsters according to others.  On the other hand, Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp have spurred a massive romanticization of the pirates of old, drawing from but way beyond the scale of precedents like Stevenson’s Silver, Barrie’s Hook, or Flynn’s (or, rather, Sabatini’s) Blood.  There is thus a truly complex, even bizarre, dialectic between fantasy and reality in the portrayal of piracy today.  Which, by the way, is why I’m writing now.

This is the first voyage of Lou/”Blue Lou” into the waters of the academics of the maritime.  On a personal level, this essay has been a trial noon shot through the sextant, an attempt to figure out where I am, on my own, after just a little learning.  On a scholarly level, this essay has been a newly drafted chart.  I have proposed here a theoretical stance that I have not yet seen in print, an anthropological take on maritime history. And through this singular dialectic of the personal and the professional, I am…under way.


Carlton, James T. 1992. “Blue Immigrants: The Marine Biology of Maritime History.” The Log of Mystic Seaport (May, 1992): 31-36.

Gennep, Arnold van. 1909. The Rites of Passage. Translated by Monika V. Vizedom and Gabrielle L. Caffee. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Illouz, Eva. 1997. Consuming the Romantic Utopia: Love and the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Labaree, Benjamin W., William M. Fowler, Jr., et al. 1998. America and the Sea: A Maritime History. Mystic, Connecticut: Mystic Seaport Museum, Inc.

Mahan, Alfred Thayer. 1918. The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783. Twelfth Edition. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. Project Gutenberg eBook, 2004. Orig. publ. 1890 by Capt. A.T. Mahan.

Rediker, Marcus. 1987. Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates, and the Anglo-American Maritime World, 1700-1750. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Roland, Alex, W. Jeffrey Bolster, and Alexander Keyssar. 2008. The Way Of The Ship: America’s Maritime History Reenvisioned, 1600-2000. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Turner, Victor. 1977. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Cornell Paperbacks Edition. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press. Orig. publ. by Aldine Publishing Company.



  1. Very nice. I kept thinking of things that would hypothetically fit in this framework, only to have you develop those very thoughts a couple paragraphs later. I am not sure why you don’t have your Ph D — definitely not from lack of brains or diligence. Perhaps there’s a dichotomy there to explore: curiosity as means vs ends.

    • Well, old friend, now that I’ve hoisted new colors, let’s see who takes the bait.

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