Dr. Mark Kelley received his PhD from the University of California, San Diego and will be an Assistant Professor of English at Florida International University beginning this fall. He has held fellowships with the Peabody Essex Museum, Mystic Seaport Museum, the John Carter Brown Library, the University of Virginia, and the Library Company of Philadelphia. His ongoing book projects, Sentimental Seamen: Feeling Bodies in An American Age of Sail and Pirates of Sympathy: Oceanic Inheritances in Antebellum Domestic Culture concern transoceanic sentiments on ship and on shore. His updates on these and other projects may be found here. He can also be contacted through email or twitter.
Your initial response to my monograph’s title—Sentimental Seamen: Feeling Bodies in an American Age of Sail— signals the probability of our future collaboration. Do I note a wry smile or chuckle? Our prospects look good. Is that a furrowed brow or scoff? Outlook is unclear. Not surprisingly, then, my collaborations have focused less on disciplinary affiliation and more on scholarly disposition. Namely, I work best with those who treat emotional history, gender identity, and literary form as fluid yet central facets of maritime study. Clearly, a high tolerance for puns doesn’t hurt either.
Befitting the series focus on “disciplines,” I will begin by retracing my route to this project prior to discussing it in detail. My path to interdisciplinary maritime studies began with what, for some, is an exceedingly dry topic: antebellum American domestic fiction and sentimental form. It is an arena whose oceanic implications may appear limited to sailors’ homesick separations from their families. To truly understand my maritime work, however, one must first understand sentimental form’s power in an antebellum era that was concurrent with the American age of sail.
My foundational graduate training with Amy Blair (my MA advisor) and Nicole Tonkovich, and Sara Johnson (my dissertation co-chairs) was in sentimental literary form’s connection to historical, materialist debates. As theorized by Adam Smith, sympathetic “fellow feeling” was defined by persons’ ability to imagine, then extend forms of socio-material unity despite their embodied separation. Through this unity, individuals may work to prevent adverse feelings and to foster beneficial ones. Popular and political writers used a shared language of “fellow feeling” to debate the viability of capitalism, the morality of violence, and the meaning of race. Most notably, Harriet Beecher Stowe called for readers’ moral connection to the enslaved by naming their shared capacity to be pained by familial separation. This sentimental form and ideology, in Stowe and elsewhere, also sustained racial hierarchies and state power by placing white citizen-subjects at its moral center. Ultimately, then, studies of sympathy by Shirley Samuels, Saidya Hartman, Laura Wexler, Kyla Schuller, Lori Merish, and others confirm that American cultures of sympathy concern appeals to homesick tears as well as constitutions of biopolitical power.
As I began this training in American literary studies, a rising tide was lifting all boats. Namely, literary scholars such as Hester Blum, Margaret Cohen, and Michelle Burnham had begun to track oceanic space’s material terms and imaginative extensions. If historical persons’ oceanic experiences or entanglements structured their imaginative worlds, they contend, scholarly visions must be equally expansive. New analytic tools must be fashioned to discuss oceanic materiality’s cultural implications and narrative products. In making this claim, these figures advance a discipline of “transoceanic studies” that shares investments with Atlantic History, Pacific Studies, and other oceanic fields. Mark Hanna, maritime historian and my outside committee member, reminded me that Paul Gilroy, Jeffrey Bolster, Marcus Rediker, Nancy Shoemaker, and other historians had robust theories of shipboard and oceanic life that literary scholars must not overlook when analyzing the watery globe.
In joining these fields, I found my guiding research philosophy: oceanic sympathies must be sounded using oceanic tools. This idea shaped my research questions. Did sympathy’s material or cultural power end at the land’s edge? How did an antebellum landed culture of sympathy understand its oceanic entanglements and investments? If sailors were undoubtedly separated from a culture of sympathy on shore, did they establish a (real or imagined) culture of sympathy on ship? What was a deep-sea sailor’s ideal emotional orientation from a socio-economic perspective? Did literary cultures develop on ship and on shore around this idealized orientation? If so, what was the role of seemingly “unsentimental” texts such as logbooks, account books, articles of agreement in this culture? What was the role of more public texts such as novel and memoirs?
Admittedly, the primary book project that has resulted—Sentimental Seamen: Feeling Bodies in an American Age of Sail— is less seminal (but hopefully no less important) than its punning title suggests. The “sentimental seamen” in question are oceanic analogs to the subjects of Mary Chapman and Glenn Hendler’s formative collection, Sentimental Men. This collection confirms that early American men had socially-lauded claims to sympathy that scholars have often unduly dismissed. Sentimental SEAmen, I argue, are an imagined class of deep-sea sailors in the late eighteenth and nineteenth-centuries who have an ideal relationship to fellow feeling. Namely, the variety, complexity, and repetition of shipboard labors make a certain kind of affective acuity a necessary and lauded form of economic productivity. I often joke (with varying success) that such sailors didn’t need to have sex with one another to be “sentimental seamen,” but it wouldn’t hurt (unless it does).
My title’s “feeling bodies,” then, not only refers to bodies that feel in oceanic space. It also signals my own attempt to feel with those bodies in my analysis. Here, I feel the pressure of disciplinary values or expectations. Clearly, an argument about all early U.S. sailors’ feelings would be both inaccurate and impossible. If the same may be said about sailors’ thoughts or laboring experiences, these facets have nonetheless been analyzed as structural. The scholarly marginalization of feeling persists—notwithstanding the diligent work of scholars in affect theory and the history of emotions— perhaps more so in maritime studies. Scholars have long made arguments (often implicitly and incompletely) about sailors’ emotional orientation. The opposing poles of homesickness and hardness define these claims, with the latter named as sailors’ ideal orientation. In response, I wish to consider how age of sail technologies and American cultural ideologies led to a complex register of feeling. The work required to sustain a sailing vessel—namely, coordinated and hierarchical movements in relative ecological isolation—was by nature one of monetized and regulated fellow feeling. Namely, sailors whose embodied skill and emotional orientation were directed towards productive labors must feel their connection to oceanic bodies. These bodies included their ship’s fellow crew, the ship’s textual materials, the sea’s ecological forces, and the ship’s technical materials. Ultimately, sentimental seamen embody the regulated and monetized feelings that shaped an American age of sail’s literary-historical development.
This positioning naturally leads to questions of discipline. One may ask, “Is he making a historical claim about shipboard life?” Or, “Is this a decidedly literary project?” My answer, in a word, has been “yes.” Namely, my claim is about a literary-historical ideal advanced by working sailors at sea as well as popular writers on land. Certainly, I am surrounded by historians when analyzing American shipping contracts, logbooks, journals, and various maritime artifacts. Yet, I remain a literary scholar because my analysis relies on a theory of narrative practice and form. Namely, I argue that alternating forms of unsentimental and sentimental writing not only elucidated shipboard practice, but also established a new canon of (un)sentimental literature.
Part of my task is to consider the affective dimension of seemingly dry records, a topic I have written about elsewhere. To write inside a log’s spatial lines, for example, was to bind a body of text to agreed-upon parameters. Daily entries proved one’s capacity for repetitive work. By extension, adherence to generic convention proved (sometimes falsely) that both the writer and the crew could “stay in line.” In rare cases, sailors wholly broke from the log form to name a feeling or event seemingly outside the document’s purview. In such cases, the illusion of the unfeeling log or the perfectly regulated seaman was shattered. More often, however, textual constraints led sailors and other shipboard subjects to test the limits of sanctioned forms or feelings. The narrative markings and elisions found in logbooks, though not to be indiscriminately filled in as expression of emotion, are useful sites for considering how sailors variably name their affective states depending on formal and social constraints.
Moreover, the inchoate and guarded markers of feeling often found in shipboard manuscripts reach their narrative height in early American published memoirs, biographies, and texts of varied fictionality. Popular figures like Richard Henry Dana Jr. marry the official log and the public memoir to support their emotional narratives’ claims to realism. Herman Melville, James Cooper, Frederick Douglass, and other canonical fiction-writers invoke “sentimental seamen” figures to deconstruct maritime culture and its values. Captain Ahab, for example, epitomizes captains whose power of sympathy— i.e. their ability to make his crew’s embodied thought and feeling an extension of their own– has become absolute. By extension, language of proper feeling shaped debates about captains’ ideal form of control over their crew (particularly in relation to corporal punishment). In this case and many others, a shared language developed to describe productive labor and, through its public dissemination, gave both sailors and the public the tools to judge sailors’ relative claim to an ideal.
This ongoing project will be part of a future, I hope, that includes more interaction between scholars in my primary fields of U.S. cultures of sympathy, oceanic studies, and maritime studies. More broadly, I hope my work demonstrates that introducing students of all backgrounds and interests to maritime work will continue to benefit our field. More complete maps of the maritime world rest on new histories of gendered maritime experience, as confirmed by scholars such as Lisa Norling, Margaret Creighton, Joanne Begiato, Jo Stanley, Valerie Burton, Matthew Knip, and Jessica Floyd, and everyone in attendance at the 2016 ‘Maritime Masculinities’ Conference at Oxford-Brookes. In this spirit, I welcome future collaboration with scholars in any field who are interested in questions of oceanic feeling, form, and fluidity. I look forward to hearing from you.