chapter  4
17 Pages

Keeping up with the Morrells: sailors and the construction of American identity in antebellum sea narratives


In the opening paragraphs of The Western Monthly Magazine, and Literary Journal ’s review of Benjamin Morrell’s 1832 A Narrative of Four Voyages , the author declares, “The sea is covered with ships,” which has enabled a benevolent “age of commercial enterprise,” in which “the productions of all [nations] are enjoyed by each. Each is the happier, because each is the wealthier, and the wiser for the exchange.” 1 Championing happiness, wealth, and wisdom as capitalism’s gifts, the author contends that maritime trade has created a new world:

Observe the events which have marked the last half century, as an era in the development of human progress. May we not trace the physical, moral, and intellectual advantages of the present generation, for the most part, to the spirit of commercial enterprise? 2

The chipper abstractions of the reviewer here are in some ways belied by the book under review. Captain Morrell’s narrative shares the reviewer’s overt enthusiastic assessment of maritime trade, but it is also thick with details about the violence, danger, and complexity that characterized a sea covered in ships during the United States’ early nineteenth-century expansion of its global economic and imperial influence, details that simultaneously enable and puncture the progressive and bloodless fantasy of the review.