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Maritime Sensibility: Sentimentalism, Racial Capitalism, and a Critique of the American Maritime Genre

Hitchman, Matthew Kastrup. Maritime Sensibility: Sentimentalism, Racial Capitalism, and a Critique of the American Maritime Genre. 2020. University of Washington, PhD dissertation.

This dissertation looks to the early American literary marketplace and argues that the American maritime genre, assumed to have begun with James Fenimore Cooper’s novel The Pilot in 1824, was not an uncontested genre prior to Cooper’s popularization of maritime nationalism. Instead, this dissertation remaps the genealogy of the genre of American maritime literature by beginning with the circulation of Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative and port town periodicals marketed to women in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century. Doing so has implications for reassessing the development of sentimentalism in popular forms throughout the nineteenth century. Chapter one looks at the American reception of Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative and considers his text as both undermining the trope of maritime nationalism and interrogating the uses of sentimentalism within systems of racial capitalism. Chapter two continues the consideration of sentimentalism within racial capitalism by offering a survey of women’s periodicals circulated within port towns during the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century. In these periodicals, the sentimental trope of “presentiment” is mobilized to forge connections between the material experiences of hyper-exploited laborers, particularly unwaged feminized laborers. I argue that this trope emerges from the same discourse of financial speculation within the Atlantic trade system that Equiano engages in his narrative—these engagements are what I term “maritime sensibility,” a potentially insurgent countercurrent to the dominant discourse of financial speculation. In chapters three and four I track the half-life of maritime sensibility throughout the late-nineteenth century. In chapter three, I consider Melville’s Billy Budd and argue that Captain Vere’s decision to execute Billy must be understood in the context of racial capitalism and Vere’s history within the Caribbean. I also consider Billy as a figure who, emerging from the women’s periodicals discussed in chapter two, confounds the distinction between forms of masculinized and feminized labor within the Atlantic system. Finally, in chapter four, I look to two examples of literary realism and naturalism, Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! and Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition, and trace residual elements of maritime sensibility. I argue that maritime sensibility serves an imaginative resource in these two novels to interrogate and intervene in the historical reconfiguration of racial capitalism in the post-Reconstruction U.S.

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