Writing the seaman's tale in law and literature: Dana, Melville, and Justice Story
AMS Press (AMS Studies in the Nineteenth Century; 51), Brooklyn, NY, 2013, 275 pp.
Valued as a skilled worker who moved the wealth of the nation in commercial vessels or protected its ships and waters in military ones, the nineteenth-century American seaman was also utterly dehumanized: forced by law to relinquish control of his body when at sea and to give his captain the power to subdue him with a lash.
Yet the seaman, unlike the slave, could resort to the courts for redress. There he might speak and be heard. And there he has left a record of his struggle for dignity as an American.
Kathryn Mudgett analyzes that record through the decisions of judges such as Joseph Story, and the legal and literary writings of advocates such as Richard Henry Dana, Jr., as well as the richly imaginative works of professional writers such as Herman Melville.
Story’s narrative strategy was reductive, taking accounts of the individual seaman seeking justice and locating them within accepted societal norms and behavior already established by statute or precedent. Dana, as a lawyer and a literary writer and a former merchant seaman, was an intermediary between the authoritative discourse of the law and the literary narrative of fact. As another mariner-turned-writer, Melville also used literary narrative to tell the seaman’s tale, but the more expansive form of the novel gave him the opportunity to yoke together such disparate rhetorical genres as journalism, philosophy, and even the legal discourse of the advocate’s brief.
Mudgett’s work offers fascinating insights into a nation confronting, in both its literature and its records of law, the fundamental political question of that time—and perhaps of our time as well: Can the United States create a just and moral society, one fully reflective of the Constitution’s great aims?
List of Illustrations
1. Introduction: A Stream of Living Blood
Part I: The Seaman’s Tale in Law
2. Our Craft Is a Lie
3 The Rough Inmates of a Ship at Sea: The Law’s Story of Seamen
4. Deeds of Dark and Barbarous Cruelty: The Case of Nichols and Couch
Part II: The Seaman’s Tale in Literature
5. A Voice from the Forecastle: Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast
6. “Quite a Genteel Figure, at Least for a Forecastle”: Melville’s Redburn
7. The History of an Obsolete Barbarism: White-Jacket and the Articles of War
8. Practicing a Lawful Rigor: Billy Budd and Captain Vere
Conclusion: An Outrage on the Rights of the People
Kathryn Mudgett, who holds both a Ph.D. and a J.D., is Associate Professor of Humanities at Massachusetts Maritime Academy, where she edits The Nautilus: A Maritime Journal of Literature, History, and Culture.
Herman Melville (1819-1891)