Panel 2: Toxic Masculinity in Literature and Song
Dr. Kelly MacPhail: “‘The horror of the race’: W.C. Williams’ ‘The Yachts’ and the 1934 America’s Cup”
Abstract: This paper takes as its starting point William Carlos Williams’ oft anthologized 1935 modernist poem “The Yachts.” What at first glance appears to be a simple poem about a sailboat race in fact reveals manifold intersections of virulently toxic masculinity stemming primarily from testosterone infused competition, markers of economic class, nationalistic pride, and even the early military industrial complex’s preparations for war. The text itself is roughly divided into two parts. The first section evocatively narrates a race between large, powerful yachts while the second takes a dark turn as waves lapping at the side of the yachts become “Arms with hands grasping seek to clutch at the prows. Bodies thrown recklessly in the way are cut aside. / It is a sea of faces about them in agony, in despair / until the horror of the race dawns staggering the mind” (lines 25-29). Given Williams’ condemnation here of the extravagant, leisurely past time of superrich men competing and sailing blithely past the terrible sufferings of the poor masses, the text is indeed a jeremiad against both the cruel indifference of rich men and also the capitalist economic system that allows such massive gaps between rich and poor to exist and widen. However, the race’s significance goes further, as Williams is referring particularly to the 1934 America’s Cup race, which he witnessed firsthand in Newport, Rhode Island, between the New York Yacht Club as represented by Harold S. Vanderbilt and his J-class sloop Rainbow against the Royal Yacht Squadron challenger represented by Sir Thomas Sopwith, who built his modified J-class sloop Endeavour especially for the purpose. Competition was fierce and went beyond good-natured ribbing because personal and national pride was at stake, and both teams spared no expense to win, a feat open only to men of the highest economic class. Vanderbilt used his inherited fortune to build the best boat from the best shipyard with the best materials, even including a special new steel alloy christened “duralumin.” Likewise, Sopwith was a rich industrialist well known for the aeroplanes he built, most notably the iconic World War I Sopwith Camel and World War II’s Hawker fighters. Sopwith applied his aeronautics expertise to Endeavour, making changes to hull, sails, and mast based on the aerodynamics of plane wings. While the yacht itself would not appear to be a weapon of war, such technological experiments were communicated to wartime armaments. Obviously, both men would not only foot the bill but also go man-to-man by skippering their yachts in the races, though Sopwith found himself at a disadvantage when his professional crew went on strike in response to his strong-arm tactics and refusal to pay them a competitive wage. Ironically, both boats turned out to be disposable despite their enormous price tags. Rainbow was scrapped after Vanderbilt ordered a brand new boat for the 1937 America’s Cup. Endeavour, described at the time as “the perfect yacht,” languished in a scrapyard until being restored in 1984. These big J-class racing yachts were a high point in technological advancement, speed, beauty, and luxury, but their very existence at a moment in the Great Depression when some 15 million Americans were unemployed and nearly half the country’s banks had failed made them a telling symbol of the blithe indifference of rich men and their undiluted, competitive, and toxic masculinity.
Bio: Dr. Kelly MacPhail is an Assistant Professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth, where he teaches Philosophy and English. His interdisciplinary research focuses on Transatlantic literary modernism, environmental criticism, and belief studies, and he has published on subjects as diverse as animal domestication, Puritan sermons, film noir, and the Western. In this presentation, Kelly combines his research interests in modernist poetry with his experiences as a competitive sailor on Lake Superior.
Dr. Jessica Floyd: “Shaping a Hyper-Masculine Sailing Identity: Sex, Violence, and Otherness in Examples of “Blow the Man Down” Located in the James Madison Carpenter Collection”
Audio presentation – Please click below
Abstract: “Blow the Man Down” is one of the most prolific sea chanteys in circulation and examples of the song are located in almost every published and archival chantey repository known to researchers. In fact, Frederick Pease Harlow, in his collection of chanteys and sailors’ songs mentions that “It [“Blow the Man Down”] has been sung so often that the words are legion” (1962). Sea chanteys were the work songs that the sailor employed when he was at work. Created and commenced by the chantey-man, a man on ship who was prized for his voice as well as his wit, chanteys often represent the collective salt water world of sailors and provide space to vent frustrations, access and assuage longing, and mitigate idiosyncrasies of the sailing life that often rendered Jack Tar (slang for sailor) a man far outside the expectations of the land-bound world. The sailor, afloat in his watery workspace, lived a liminal existence in which he was tied to both land and sea and, because of this, was a man often pulled in both directions at the same time. I argue that the consequence of this pull was that the sailing man was left with trying to conceive of a masculinity that allowed him to function within both of those spaces while maintaining masculine power and agency. What is showcased, at least in some examples of “Blow the Man Down,” is that the sailor’s masculine performance was often interrupted by external forces and the man was rendered, in these fictitious spaces, a subordinated character that falls outside of masculine expectations. This paper investigates the way in which struggles of masculine construction arise in spaces like the sailor’s sea chantey and ventures the argument that the narrative examples located in the James Madison Carpenter Collection showcase the frustration of sailors when their masculine performance clashes with the lived reality of their subordinated existence. Through a close analysis of examples of “Blow the Man Down” located in the Carpenter Collection, it is clear that sailing men articulated the knowledge that a masculine man must be strong, authoritative, and self-possessed; however, the sailing characters often encounter situations in which their performance of masculinity is thwarted and they are subordinated to crafty women, violent and capricious captains and mates, and to the close confines of the ship itself. The sailor’s life was one where he was often at the mercy of each of these (women, captains and mates, and the carceral quality of his wooden workspace) and he catalogues the failings of his masculine performances in places where he would share them with fellow sailing men who inevitably experienced the same frustrations. Ultimately, this paper makes the argument that objects like sea chanteys provide the opportunity for scholars to investigate myriad aspects of the maritime world, one of which is the complex construction of masculinity present on the high seas. Chiefly, the liminal quality of sailing men’s lives had a direct impact on the construction and maintenance of masculine identity.
Bio: Dr. Jessica Floyd is Coordinator and Assistant Professor of English at the Community College of Baltimore County. Her research deals with the narratives of chanteys (sailing work songs of the sea) and how they evoke expressions of gender, sexuality, identity, and history.
Dr. Joshua M. Smith: “Those human seraphim, the sailors”: Beatnik Merchant Seamen, 1942-1965
Abstract: The image of the twentieth century merchant mariner is not firmly set in the American public’s mind, but if I had to nominate a picture, it would be a black and white photo of Allen Ginsberg on the fantail of the SS John Blair, leaning on the stern flagpole, smoking a joint and taking in the view as the ship entered New York harbor in October, 1947. Ginsberg was of course the very embodiment of non-conformity, a libertine poet whose poem “Howl” changed American poetry even as it gave an anthem to the many Americans deeply dissatisfied with a society that demanded conformity and a government highly suspicious of alternative viewpoints, politics, religions, sexualities, and writers in general. Ginsberg was suspect because he differed from the American mainstream in virtually every conceivable way. Not only was he raised Jewish, with leftist politics, he was gay, an intellectual, and a writer, and also a merchant mariner, a profession that was little respected by the public. Ginsberg proofread his seminal “Howl” while working on board the SS Sergeant Jack J. Pendleton in 1956, a Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS) ship that run between the West Coast and Cold War radar stations in the Alaskan arctic.In that poem, Ginsberg refers to seamen as “those human Seraphim, the Sailors,” meaning they were angels, at least to him, but only a naïf would believe he was talking about ocean breezes when he wrote: “who blew and were blown by those human/ seraphim, the sailors, caresses of Atlantic and Caribbean love.”
Ginsberg was but one of the so-called “Beatniks” who intermittently worked on American cargo vessels during the Second World War and after (the preferred term is Beats). The Beats were a collection of artists, writers, and free thinkers in general who challenged prevailing ideas about virtually everything. They defied the cultural norms of the day by propounding an antimaterialistic lifestyle, shocking conventional society with their sexual freedom, substance abuse, and of course their poetry and prose, and sometimes drew the ire of the law for their supposedly obscene publications. But the Beatniks were continually scrabbling to make ends meet, and work on ships not only offered escape from the prevailing prejudices of shoreside society, it also offered decent money, the opportunity to travel, and potentially experiences to write about. Indeed, Ginsberg was following a path pursued by his friend Jack Kerouac, author of another seminal Beatnik work, On the Road. Both Ginsberg and Kerouac had a West Coast friend who also influenced contemporary American poetry, Gary Snyder. Because they were men of letters and were unusually bold or honest in their writing about the earthier elements of the experiences and desires of young men, they offer insights into the seafaring life. This approach has been used successfully by historians looking at nineteenth century seafarers. In particular, Myra C. Glenn noted in her work that studying mariners whose lives were “marginal, even deviant,” could explain how mainstream society defined “acceptable codes of masculinity, and how it regarded and treated men who violated these codes.” Taken together, the maritime careers of these three Beats, who were certainly regarded as marginals and deviants, reveal patterns about American seafaring workers’ relationship to American society in the mid-twentieth century.
Bio: Joshua M. Smith grew up on Cape Cod and coastal Maine. He holds degrees from the University of St. Andrews, East Carolina University, and the University of Maine. He is author of “Borderland Smuggling: Patriots, Loyalists, and Illicit Trade in the Northeast, 1783-1820,” which won the John Lyman Award in American Maritime History in 2007, and edited “Voyages: Documents in American Maritime History, 1492-Present,” a two-volume sourcebook in maritime history created in conjunction with the National Maritime Historical Society. He has also written a small monograph with a Canadian perspective entitled “Battle for the Bay: The Naval War of 1812,” published by the Gregg Centre for the Study of War and Society. He is currently writing a monograph on Maine and the War of 1812 entitled “Yankee Doodle Upset.” Smith lives with his family on Long Island, and is a professor of Humanities at the United States Merchant Marine Academy, as well as Director of the American Merchant Marine Museum, both in Kings Point, New York.