Nautical fiction

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Nautical fiction, frequently also naval fiction, sea fiction, naval adventure fiction or maritime fiction, is a genre of literature with a setting on or near the sea, that focuses on the human relationship to the sea and sea voyages and highlights nautical culture in these environments. The settings of nautical fiction vary greatly, including merchant ships, liners, naval ships, fishing vessels, life boats, etc., along with sea ports and fishing villages. When describing nautical fiction, scholars most frequently refer to novels, novellas, and short stories, sometimes under the name of sea novels or sea stories. These works often are subject to dramatic adaptions in the theatre, film and television that highlight many of the same generic expectations.

The development of nautical fiction overlaps with the development of the English language novel and while the tradition is mainly British and American, there are also several significant Scandinavian works.[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. There were 18th century and earlier precursors that have nautical settings, but few are as richly developed as subsequent works in this genre. 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 straddle the divide between popular and literary fiction, like Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series (1970–2004).

Because of the historical dominance of nautical culture by men, they are usually the central characters, except for works that feature ships carrying women passengers. For this reason, nautical fiction is often marketed for men. Nautical fiction often includes distinctive themes, such as a focus on masculinity and heroism, investigations of social hierarchies, and the psychological struggles of the individual in the hostile environment of the sea. Stylistically, readers of the genre expect an emphasis on adventure, accurate representation of maritime culture, and use nautical language. Works of nautical fiction often include elements overlapping with other genres, including historical fiction, adventure fiction, war fiction, children's literature, travel narratives (such as the Robinsonade), the social problem novel and psychological fiction.


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] Typical sea stories follow the narrative format of " a sailor embarks upon a voyage; during the course of the voyage he is tested - by the sea, by his colleagues or by those that he encounters upon another shore; the experience either makes him or breaks him."[3]

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.[4] 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.[5]

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. In so doing, we highlight what most critics describe as the more conventional definition for the genre.


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.[6] 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][5] 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.[7] 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" when 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 how Jane Austen's novels don't represent the genre, because, though the sea plays a prominent part in their plots, it keeps actual sea-culture at a "peripheral presence"; similarly, Iglesias describes 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, thus not really fulfilling generic expectations.[5] From the development of the genre's motifs and characteristics in works like Cooper's and Marryat's, a number of notable European novelists, such as Eugène Sue, Edouard Corbière, Frederick Chamier and William Glasgock, innovated and explored the genre subsequently.[7]

James Fenimore Cooper wrote, what is often described as the first sea novel,[note 1] The Pilot (1824), in response to Walter Scot's The Pirate. (1821) [8][9] Cooper was frustrated with the inaccuracy of the nautical culture represented in that work.[8][9] Though critical of The Pirate, Cooper borrowed many of the stylistic and thematic elements of the historical fiction genre developed by Walter Scott, such as a desire "to map the boundaries and identity of the nation."[7] In both The Pilot and the subsequent The Red Rover (1827) Cooper explores the development of an American national identity, and in his later Afloat and Ashore (1844) he again examines the subject of national identity. as well as offering a critique of American politics.[8] Cooper's novels created an interest in sea novels in the United States, and led both Edgar Allan Poe in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838) as well as mass-market novelists like Lieutenant Murray Ballou to write novels in the genre.[7][8] The prominence of the genre also influenced non-fiction and John Peck describe's Richard Henry Dana's Two Years Before the Mast (1840) as utilizing a similar style and addressing the same thematic issues of national and masculine identity.[8]

Frederick Marryat's career as a novelist stretched from 1829 until his death in 1848, with many set at sea, including Mr Midshipman Easy.[10] Marryat's sea 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.[10] 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 consideration of the state of maritime service during the early part of the 19th century.[10] Peck describes Marryat's novels as consistent in their core thematic focuses on masculinity and the contemporary naval culture, and in doing so, he suggests, they provide a complex reflection on "a complex historical moment in which author, in his clumsy way, engages with rapid change in Britain."[11] Marryat's novels encouraged the writing of other novels from veterans of the Napoleonic wars during the 1830s, like M.H. Baker, Captain Chamier, Captain Glascock, Edward Howard, and William J. Neale, as they both reflect on and defend the public image of the navy.[11] Novels by these authors highlight a more conservative, and supportive view of the navy, unlike texts from those interested in reforming the navy, like Nautical Economy; or forecastle recollections of events during the last war , which were critical of naval disciplinary practices, during a period when public debates ensued around various social and political reform movements.[11] Peck argues that Marryat's novels, though in part supportive, highlight a "disturbing dimension" of the navy.[11]

Late 19th century importance[edit]

As the model of the sea novel solidified into a distinct genre, major works of literature were created in both Europe and the United States, including Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, Victor Hugo's Toilers of the Sea and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim and his various other works.[7] 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.[12] 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."[12] The genre also inspired a number of popular mass-market authors, like American Ned Buntline, Britain Charles Kingsley and Frenchman Jules Verne.[7]

Mellville's fiction frequently involves the sea, with his first five novels following the naval adventures of seamen, often a pair of male friends (Typee (1846), Omoo (1847), Mardi (1849), Redburn (1849) and White-Jacket (1850) ).[12] However,"Moby-Dick' is his most important work, frequently described as the the Great American Novel, it was also named "the greatest book of the sea ever written." by D.H. Lawrence[13] In this work, the hunting of a whale, under Captain Ahab, immerses the narrator Ishmael in a spiritual journey comparable to that of Marlow in Conrad's later Heart of Darkness[12]

In Britain, the importance of naval power in Britain's control of its large world-wide empire led to a variety of novels with nautical themes.[14] Some of these touch on the sea in passing, as in Sylvia's Lovers (1863) by Elizabeth Gaskell, where the nautical is a foil to the social life ashore.[14] However, a number of British novelists focus on the sea increasingly in the 19th century, particular where the subject is the upper classes. Sea voyages become a place for strong social commentary, as in novels like: Trollope's John Caldigate (1877), in which Trollope depicts a character travelling to Australia to make his fortune; Wilkie Collins's Armadale (1866), which follows gentlemen yachting; William Clark Russell's novels, especially the first two John Holdsworth, Chief Mate (1875) and The Wreck of the Grosvenor (1877), both of which highlight the social anxieties of Victorian Britain.[14]

At the same time that literary works embraced the sea narrative, some of the most popular adventure fiction in British also embraced nautical settings, creating fiction in the line of Marryat.[15] John Peck defines this subgenre in light of its impact on boys' books: fiction with young male characters going through—often morally whitewashed—experiences of adventure, the tangles of romance, and "domestic commitment".[15] Charles Kingsley is the most definitive writers of this genre, writing over 100 boy's books, "many with a maritime theme".[15] Other examples include R. M. Ballantyne's The Coral Island (1858), G.A. Henty's Under Drake's Flag (1882), Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island and Rudyard Kipling's Captains Courageous, all of which reached a wider audience than children and expanded upon the potential of naval adventure fiction.[15]

In the 20th century[edit]

Twentieth century novelists expand on the earlier traditions. Jack London's The Sea Wolf (1904), for example, is influenced by Kipling's Captains Courageous (1897).[15] Similarly, the modernist Conrad drew inspiration from a range of earlier nautical works like Victor Hugo's Toilers of the Sea (1866), and Leopold McClintock's book about his 1857–59 expeditions in search of Sir John Franklin's lost ships, as well as James Fenimore Cooper and Frederick Marryat.[16] In 1874 Conrad left Poland to begin a career in the merchant-marine, which included four years on French ships and 15 on British vessels, where he climbed to the rank of captain's. Most of Conrad's works draw directly from this seafaring career. For example, his most famous novel, Heart of Darkness (1899), is based on his three-year employment with a Belgian trading company, including as captain of a steamer on the Congo River. His other nautical 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).[3]

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.[10] 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.[17] 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.[18] 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.[10][17] As 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.[8]

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.[10] 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.[10] 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.[19]

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."[5] Only one of his novels, The Two Admirals, describes order of battle. Yet, the investigation of masculinity is central to the novels;[18] 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."[18] 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.[5]

Women and the sea[edit]

Until recently the crews of sea going vessels were entirely male, and women generally only have a role in maritime fiction on passenger ships and where the action is on land. There are exception, however, as for example Joseph Conrad's Chance (1913), where in the final section Captain Anthony takes his younger bride to sea with him and the captain's "obsessive passion" disturbs "the normal working relations of the ship".[20] James Hanley's Captain Bottell closely parallels Conrad's work, though here Captain Bottell's obsession is with a government official's wife. This causes him to descend into madness, leaving the crew struggling "heroically to keep the ship afloat" during a storm. Critic John Fordham sees Hanley's novel as "a conscious anti-romantic attack" on Chance.[21] Hanley's novel takes place mainly at sea, unlike Conrad's. The Sea Road by Margaret Elphinstone is a rarity, a sea novel by a woman and her protagonist is also a woman. The Sea Road tells the story of the Viking discovery of North America, around 1000 A.D., from a woman's point of view.

Early in the 19 century Captain Marryat's Frank Mildhay (1829) explores an important part of sailor's life ashore, their sexual encounters. John Peck, in Maritime Fiction comments that Frank's "encounters with prostitutes and a relationship with an actress resulting in a child are not what might be expected", that is he is not "the kind of honest lad', the kind of midshipmen portrayed by Jane Austen or "who well be at the centre of Marryat's Mr Midshipman Easy ".[22] Peck further suggests that in "Marryat's navy there is" both "contempt for" and "fear of women".[23]

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.[5]

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?) )
  • Konstantin Mikhailovich Staniukovich, 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 [24] and Blue Book [25] 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. ^ a b Peck, "Joseph Conrad", 165-185.
  4. ^ Peck, "Introduction" 1-9.
  5. ^ 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. 
  6. ^ Robert Foulke, The Sea Voyage Narrative (New York: Routledge, 2002).
  7. ^ 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. 
  8. ^ a b c d e f Peck, "American Sea Fiction", in Maritime Fiction, 98-106.
  9. ^ a b 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). 
  10. ^ 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
  11. ^ a b c d John Peck "Captain Marryat's Navy" in Maritime Fiction 50-69.
  12. ^ a b c d Peck, "Herman Mellville" in Maritime Fiction, 107-126.
  13. ^ Lawrence, D.H. (1923). Studies in Classic American Literature. London: Penguin Books. ISBN 9780140183771. 
  14. ^ a b c Peck, "Mid-Victorian Maritime Fiction", 127-148.
  15. ^ a b c d e Peck, "Adventures at Sea" 149–164.
  16. ^ Najder, Z. (2007) Joseph Conrad: A Life. Camden House, pp. 41–42
  17. ^ a b Groot, Jerome de (2009-09-23). The Historical Novel. Routledge. ISBN 9780203868966. 
  18. ^ 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
  19. ^ 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. 
  20. ^ 'James Hanley: Modernism and the Working Class (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2002), p. 47.
  21. ^ John Fordham, James Hanley: Modernism and the Working Class, p. 47-8.
  22. ^ John Peck, pp. 53-59.
  23. ^ John Peck, p. 57.
  24. ^ Jones, Robert Kenneth. The Lure of Adventure. Starmont House,1989 ISBN 1-55742-143-9 (p.40)
  25. ^ Horace Vondys, Best Sea Stories from Bluebook, , introduced by Donald Kennicott. New York: The McBride Company, 1954.
  26. ^ "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. 

  • Cooksey, Philip Neil (1977). "A thematic study of James Fenimore Cooper's nautical fiction". Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge. 
  • 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. 
  • 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: