Nautical fiction

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Nautical fiction, frequently also called naval fiction, sea fiction or sea stories, is a genre of literature with a setting on or near the sea, and focused on the human relationship to the sea and sea travel. Nautical fiction can describe works in a number of narrative formats, such as those in the performing and visual arts like theatre, opera, cinema, television, comics, and graphic novels. However, most frequently, scholars and readers talking about the genre refer to the novel and short story formats, sometimes describing the works as sea novels or nautical novels. Works of nautical fiction often include elements important to and frequently overlapping with other genres, including historical fiction, war fiction, travel narratives, the social novel and psychological fiction.

The development of nautical fiction overlaps with the development of the English language novel and the tradition is mainly British and American.[1] Though the treatment of themes and settings related to the sea and maritime culture is common throughout the history of western literature, nautical fiction, as a distinct genre and style of fiction was first pioneered by James Fenimore Cooper (The Pilot, 1824) and Frederick Marryat (Frank Mildmay, 1829 and Mr Midshipman Easy 1836) at the beginning of the 19th century. Since, the genre has evolved to include notable literary works like Herman Melville's Moby Dick (1851), Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim (1899-1900), popular fiction like C.S. Forester's Hornblower series (1937–67), and works by authors that can be described as straddling the divide between popular and literary fiction, such as Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series (1970– 2004).

Nautical fiction frequently includes distinctive themes, such as a focus of historical and contemporary definitions of masculinity and heroism, investigations of social hierarchies, and introspection on the psychological struggles of the individual. Stylistically, the novels frequently emphasize accurate representation of maritime culture, adventure, and a use of nautical terminology.


What constitutes nautical fiction or sea fiction, and their constituent naval, nautical or sea novels, depends largely on the focus of the commentator. Conventionally sea fiction encompasses novels in the vein of Marryat, Conrad, Mellville, Forester and O'Brian: novels which are principally set on the sea, and immerse the characters in nautical culture.[2] However, some scholars chose to expand the definition of what constitutes nautical fiction. However, these are inconsistent definitions: some like Bernhard Klein, choose to expand that definition into a thematic perspective, he defines his collection "Fictions of the Sea" around a broader question of the "Britain and the Sea" in literature, which comes to include 16th and 17th maritime instructional literature, and fictional depictions of the nautical which offer lasting cultural resonance, for example Milton's Paradise Lost and Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner".[2] Choosing not to fall into this wide of a definition, but also opting to include more fiction than just that which is explicitly about the sea, John Peck opts for a broader maritime fiction, which includes works like Jane Austen's Mansfield Park (1814) and George Elliot's Daniel Deronda (1876), that depict cultural situations dependent on the maritime economy and culture, without explicitly exploring the naval experience.[3] However, as critic Luis Iglasius notes, when defending the genesis of the sea novel genre by James Fenimore Cooper, expanding this definition includes work "tend[ing] to view the sea from the perspective of the shore" focusing on the effect of a nautical culture on the larger culture or society ashore or focusing on individuals not familiar with nautical life.[4]

For the sake of this article, and to limit its scope this article opts not to include the broader definitions of sea or maritime literature, which frequently accompanies more thematic discussions of nautical topics in culture. Instead, the focus is on the more limited sea/nautical novel and the fiction that grows out of that set of generic expectations.


Further information: Sea_in_culture § In_literature

Sea narratives have a long history of development, arising from cultures with genres of adventure and travel narratives that profiled the sea and its cultural important, for example Homer's Odyssey or early European travel narratives.[5] As Bernhard Klein notes in defining "sea fiction" for his scholarly collection on sea fiction: European cultures during the 18th century rapidly gained an appreciation of the "sea" through varying thematic lenses: first with the Enlightenment practical and pragmatic economic opportunities brought by the sea as represented by nautical dramas; and, by the end of the 18th century, Romantics, in works like Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798), develop the idea of the ocean as "realm of unspoiled nature and a refuge from the perceived threats of civilization".[2]

Early Sea Novels[edit]

The development of a distinct sea novel genre, which focuses on representing nautical culture immersively, did not gain traction as a distinct genre during the early part of the 19th century, alongside the development of the novel. The two most prominent early sea fiction writers were James Fenimore Cooper and Captain Frederick Marryat, both of whose whose maritime adventure fiction began to define generic expectations about such fiction.[2][4] Critic Margaret Cohen describes Cooper's The Pilot as the first sea novel and Marryat's adaptation of that style, as continuing to "pioneer" the genre.[6] Critic Luis Iglesias describes novels and fiction that involved the sea before these two authors "tend[ing] to view the sea from the perspective of the shore" focusing on the effect of a nautical culture on the larger culture or society ashore or individuals not familiar with nautical life; by example Iglesias points to Jane Austen's novels where the sea plays a prominent part in their plots, but keeps them as a "peripheral presence", or earlier English novels like Robinson Crusoe (1719), Moll Flanders (1722), or Roderick Random (1748), which populate the naval world with characters unfamiliar with the sea, in order to better understand land-bound society.[4] From the development of the genre's motifs and chareristics, a number of notable European novelists, such as Eugène Sue, Edouard Corbière, Frederick Chamier and William Glasgock, innovated and explored the genre subsequently.[6]

James Fenimore Cooper wrote what is often described as the first sea novel,[note 1] The Pilot, in response to Walter Scot's The Pirate, frustrated with the inaccuracy of the nautical culture represented in that work.[7][8] Though a response to Scott's work, Cooper borrowed many of the stylistic elements and thematic interests from the conventions developed by Walter Scott in his historical novels, such as a desire "to map the boundaries and identity of the nation."[6] Both The Pilot and the subsequent The Red Rover allow Cooper to both explore the development of an American national identity, and his later Afloat and Ashore (1844) becomes a space for Cooper to critique the more mature American politics and national identity.[7] Cooper's novels led to a number of prominent sea novels to be published in the United States, from both major writers Edgar Allan Poe in his The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym as well as popular novelists like Lieutenant Murray Ballou.[6][7] The prominence of the growing genre in national discourse, also influenced non-fiction: critic John Peck describe's Richard Henry Dana's Two Years Before the Mast utilizes a similar style and addresses the same thematic issues of national and masculine identity.[7]

Frederick Marryat's career as a novelist stretched from 1829 to 1849 with his most popular novels included those set at sea, such as Mr Midshipman Easy.[9] These novels reflected his own experience in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic wars, in part under the command of Thomas Cochrane, who would also later inspire Patrick O'Brian's character Jack Aubrey.[9] Thematically Marryat focuses on ideas of heroism, proper action of officers, and reforms within the culture of the navy. In part, Marryat's literary works were part of a larger cultural reflection of the state of maritime service during the early part of the 19th century.[9] Critic John Peck describes Marryat's novels as consistent in their core thematic focuses on masculinity and the contemporary naval culture, but in so doing they provide a complex reflection on "a complex historical moment in which author, in his clumsy way, engages with rapid change in Britain."[10] Marryat's novels are published during an uptick of such novels during the 1830s from veterans of the Napoleonic wars, such as M.H. Baker, Captain Chamier, Captain Glascock, Edward Howard, and William J. Neale.[10] These novels highlight a more conservative, supportive version of the navy unlike reformist texts, like Nautical Economy; or forecastle recollections of events during the last war , which were critiquing nautical practices of discipline, while public debates ensued around other social reform movements.[10] Peck argues that Marryat's novels often unsettle the rosier vision of the navy, always highlighting some "disturbing dimension" of the navy.[10]

Late 19th century importance[edit]

As the model of the sea novel solidified as a distinct genre, the literary depth of the novels created some of the most enduring examples of period literature in both Europe and the United States: Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, Victor Hugo's Toilers of the Sea and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, as well as many of his other works.[6] Critic John Peck describes Herman Mellville and Joseph Conrad as the "two great English-language writers of sea stories": better novelists than their predecessors in Cooper and Marryat and thriving in the "adventure novel" genre.[11] Moreover, unlike the earlier novels, where the nautical setting was a thriving economic environment, full of opportunities and affirmation of national identity in that economic opportunity, novels by these authors write "at a point where a maritime based economic order is disintegrating."[11] The literary importance genre also inspired a number of popular literary works, that would have lasting popular legacies by authors like American Ned Buntline, the British Charles Kingsley and the French Jules Verne.[6]

Mellville's fiction is anchored in the sea: his first five novels follow naval adventures of seaman, often in a friendship pair—Typee (1846), Omoo (1847), Mardi (1849), Redburn (1849) and White-Jacket (1850).[11] However, by and far the novel with the greatest reputation is "Moby-Dick': it is frequently described as the epitome of the Great American Novel and was described by D.H. Lawrence as "the greatest book of the sea ever written."[12] The novel's voyage immerses the narrating Ishmael into the voyage of Captain Ahab and his crew, a journey that forces Ishmael into an exploration of identity and unexplainable complexity, like Conrad's later Heart of Darkness's immersion of Marlow into Kurtz's Congo.[11]

In the 20th century[edit]

The modernist, Polish-born, English novelist Joseph Conrad (1857 – 1924) is one of the early twentieth century's greatest writers about the world of seamen. Conrad drew inspiration from a range of nautical works: more contemporary works like Victor Hugo's Toilers of the Sea, and Leopold McClintock's book about his 1857–59 expeditions in the Fox, in search of Sir John Franklin's lost ships Erebus and Terror as well as the foundations for the genre American James Fenimore Cooper and the English Captain Frederick Marryat.[13] In 1874 Conrad left Poland to start a merchant-marine career. After nearly four years on French ships, he joined the British merchant marine, where he would spend fifteen years climbing to captain's rank. Most of Conrad's stories and novels, and many of their characters, were drawn from his seafaring career and persons whom he had met or heard about. Conrad's three-year appointment with a Belgian trading company included service as captain of a steamer on the Congo River, an episode that would inspire his novella, Heart of Darkness (1899). His other naval fiction includes An Outcast of the Islands (1896) The Nigger of the 'Narcissus' (1897), Lord Jim (1900), Typhoon (1902), Chance (1913), The Rescue (1920), The Rover (1923).

Two other prominent British sea novelists are C.S. Forester (1899 —1966) and Patrick O'Brian (1914 – 2000), whose works define the conventional boundaries of contemporary naval fiction.[9] A number of other authors draw on Forester's and O'Brian's models of representing individual officers or sailors as they progress through their careers in the British navy, including Alexander Kent and Dudley Pope.[14] Another important British novelist who wrote about life at sea was William Golding (1911 – 1993). He served in the Royal Navy during World War II and his novel Pincher Martin (1956) records the delusions experienced by a drowning sailor in his last moments. Golding's trilogy To the Ends of the Earth is about sea voyages to Australia in the early nineteenth century.

Common themes[edit]

Masculinity and heroism[edit]

Those nautical novels dealing with life on naval and merchant ships set in the past deal with a purely male world, with the rare exception, and a core themes found in these novels is male heroism.[15] This creates a generic expectation, and Jerome de Groot identifies naval historical fiction like Forester's and O'Brian's as epitomizing works marketed to men.[9][14] As critic John Peck notes, the genre of nautical fiction frequently relies on a more "traditional models of masculinity", where masculinity is a part of a more conservative social order.[7]

However, as the genre has developed, models of masculinity and the nature of male heroism in sea novels vary greatly: the Marryat's heroes focus on gentleman-liness modeled off ideal captains like Thomas Cochrane and Horatio Nelson; Forester's Hornblower is a model hero, presenting bravery, but inadequate at life ashore and beyond the navy and with limited emotional complexity; while O'Brian's Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin model complex masculinities built around their friendship, a tension between naval life and shore life, and complex passions and character flaws.[9] As Susan Bassnett argues, these models of manliness frequently reflect the contemporary contexts in which authors writing: Marryat in direct political response to the reforms of the Navy and the Napoleonic Wars; Forrestor negotiating post-WWII Britain; and O'Brian embracing the social and scholarly complexities of the later part of the 20th century.[9] Like O'Brian's novels, masculinity of other late 20th century authors often becomes a complex plurality, often full of questions about its construction. For example, William Golding's To the Ends of the Earth trilogy, explores the complexities of what constitutes a stable and acceptable male role as the civilian main character is thrust into the militaristic world of the navy and is forced to negotiate his own ideas of manhood.[16]

Though much of the tradition focuses on a militaristic storytelling, some of the prototypes of the genre focus on a commercial naval heritage but continue to highlight the role of masculinity and heroism with that tradition. For example, Iglesias describes Coopers novels and the subsequent novels in the American tradition growing out of "a distinctive attitude borne of commercial enterprise, confronting and ultimately superseding its Atlantic rival."[4] Only one of his novels, The Two Admirals, describes order of battle. Yet, the investigation of masculinity is central to the novels;[15] Critic Steven Hathorn describes "Cooper deliberately invests his nautical world with a masculine character, to such a degree that the appearance of women aboard ships presents an array of problems […] the novels explore how some of the biggest challenges to manhood come from within – from the very nature of masculinity itself."[15] James Fenimore Cooper's The Pilot questions the role of nautical symbols of heroes of the revolutionary period, such as John Paul Jones, and their unsavory naval practices while privateering.[4]

Nautical detail and language[edit]

One of the distinctions often placed on the difference between the characteristics often expected of nautical fiction and other fiction that uses the sea as a setting or backdrop is an investment in nautical detail. Luis Iglesias describes James Fenimore Cooper's use in The Pilot of nautical language and "faithful [...] descriptions of nautical maneuvers and the vernacular expression of seafaring men" as reinforcing his work's authority for the reader, and as giving more credence to characters, which distinguishes it from earlier fiction set on or around the sea.[4]

Notable works[edit]


Notable exponents of the sea novels include the following authors listed with their most notable examples from their oeuvre: [note 2]


Notable novellas include:

Short stories[edit]

  • Konstantin Mikhailovich Staniukovich (1843-1903): Maximka; sea stories (Translated from the Russian by Bernard Isaacs (Moscow, 1969?) )
  • ––, Running to the shrouds: Nineteenth-Century sea stories, translated from the Russian by Neil Parsons. (London ; Boston: Forest Books, 1986).



In the twentieth century, sea stories were popular subjects for the pulp magazines. Adventure [17] and Blue Book [18] often ran sea stories by writers such as J. Allan Dunn and H. Bedford-Jones as part of their selection of fiction. Other works that included sea stories:

  • Argosy, an American pulp magazine from 1882 through 1978.
  • Boys Own Paper, a British story paper aimed at young and teenage boys, published from 1879 to 1967.
  • The Hotspur, a British boys' paper published by D. C. Thomson & Co. From 1933 to 1959,

More specialized periodicals include:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ See limitations placed on the genre in the section #Definition above.
  2. ^ This list includes some of the most notable authors covered by Wikipedia. For a more expansive list of notable authors and works, see the Wikipedia Category: Category:Nautical historical novelists. Others not included in Wikipedia can be found at Historical Naval Fiction (though this list focuses only on "Age of Sale" fiction) or John Kohnen's Nautical Fiction list. More specific thematic lists, include Cruel Seas : World War 2 Merchant Marine-Related Nautical Fiction from the 1930s to Present,


  1. ^ Ray Taras, "A Conversation with Carsten Jensen", World Literature Today, May 2011: [1]
  2. ^ a b c d Klein, Bernhard, "Introduction:Britain in the Sea" in Klein, Fictions of the Sea. p 1-10.
  3. ^ Peck, "Introduction" 1-9.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Iglesias, Luis (2006). "The'keen-eyed critic of the ocean': James Fenimore Cooper's Invention of the Sea Novel". James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers (Cooperstown, NY: The Cooper Society): 1–7. Retrieved 2015-01-27. 
  5. ^ Robert Foulke, The Sea Voyage Narrative (New York: Routledge, 2002).
  6. ^ a b c d e f Cohen, Margaret (2003). "Traveling Genres". New Literary History 34 (3): 481–499. doi:10.1353/nlh.2003.0040. ISSN 1080-661X. Retrieved 2015-02-09. 
  7. ^ a b c d e Peck, "American Sea Fiction", in Maritime Fiction, 98-106.
  8. ^ Crane, James. "Love and Merit in the Maritime Historical Novel: Cooper and Scott". Sullen Fires Across the Atlantic: Essays in Transatlantic Romanticism. Praxis Series (Romantic Circles). 
  9. ^ a b c d e f g Susan Bassnett "Cabin'd Yet Unconfined: Heroic Masculinity in English Seafaring Novels" in Klein 'Fictions of the Sea
  10. ^ a b c d John Peck "Captain Marryat's Navy" in Maritime Fiction 50-69.
  11. ^ a b c d Peck, "Herman Mellville" in Maritime Fiction, 107-126.
  12. ^ Lawrence, D.H. (1923). Studies in Classic American Literature. London: Penguin Books. ISBN 9780140183771. 
  13. ^ Najder, Z. (2007) Joseph Conrad: A Life. Camden House, pp. 41–42
  14. ^ a b Groot, Jerome de (2009-09-23). The Historical Novel. Routledge. ISBN 9780203868966. 
  15. ^ a b c Harthorn, Steven. ""I Loved Him Like a Brother": Male Bonds in The Two Admirals". James Fenimore Cooper Society Website.  orig. presented at the 2000 Central New York Conference on Language and Literature, Cortland, N.Y
  16. ^ Stephenson, William (1998-01-01). "Sex, Drugs and the Economics of Masculinity in William Golding's Rite of Passage". In Rowland, Antony. Signs of Masculinity: Men in Literature, 1700 to the Present. Rodopi. ISBN 9042005939. 
  17. ^ Jones, Robert Kenneth. The Lure of Adventure. Starmont House,1989 ISBN 1-55742-143-9 (p.40)
  18. ^ Horace Vondys, Best Sea Stories from Bluebook, , introduced by Donald Kennicott. New York: The McBride Company, 1954.
  19. ^ "Lost at Sea: The Story of The Ocean," introduction to The Ocean: 100th Anniversary Collection (Off-Trail Publications, 2008).

Works cited[edit]

  • Klein, Bernhard, ed. (2002). Fictions of the Sea. Critical Perspectives on the Ocean in British Literature and Culture. Aldershot: Ashgate. ISBN 0754606201. 
  • Peck, John (2001). Maritime fiction: sailors and the sea in British and American novels, 1719-1917. New York: Palgrave. 

Other sources[edit]

Scholarly literature[edit]

  • Bayley, John (1994). "In Which We Serve". In AE Cunningham. Patrick O'Brian: Critical Essays and a Bibliography. New York: WW Norton. pp. 33–42. 
  • Krummes, Daniel (2004). Cruel Seas: Merchant Shipping-focused World War 2 Nautical Fiction, 1939 to 2004: an Annotated Bibliography of English Language Short Stories, Novels & Novellas. Institute of Transportation Studies, University of California. 
  • Cooksey, Philip Neil (1977). "A thematic study of James Fenimore Cooper's nautical fiction". Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge. 
  • Peck, H. Daniel (1976-10-01). "A Repossession of America: The Revolution in Cooper's Trilogy of Nautical Romances". Studies in Romanticism 15 (4): 589–605. doi:10.2307/25600051. ISSN 0039-3762. JSTOR 25600051. Retrieved 2015-01-27. 
  • Myron J. Smith, Jr., and Robert C. Weller, Sea fiction guide, with a foreword by Ernest M. Eller and craft notes by Edward L. Beach ... [et al.]. (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1976).
  • Margaret Cohen, The novel and the sea. (Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, c2010).
  • Simon Leys, La mer dans la littérature française. [Paris: Plon, c2003).
  • Ibtisam Zainoun, Le roman maritime, un langage universel: aspects mythologique, métaphysique et idéologique. (Paris: Harmattan, c2007).

Nautical fictions societies[edit]

Literature societies that focus on exploring nautical fiction: