Introduction: “The hungry ocean”
Putting literary studies in contact with the maritime environment means plunging into the largest and most alien spaces on our blue planet. Literary writers and thinkers have been enthralled by human proximity to the ocean from Homer’s “wine-dark sea” through Walcott’s “The Sea Is History,” but literary critics have been less adventurous than poets in coming to grips with the great waters. This collection brings together essays about nineteenthcentury transatlantic Anglophone literary culture that treat the ocean as invitation, not barrier. These essays in maritime literary scholarship take the oceanographic term “world ocean” in both a poetic and a literal sense. Whether situated at the shore, the polar regions, underwater, or deep out at sea, these essays variously grapple with the ways in which new technologies, new knowledges, and new aesthetic forms co-emerge and co-evolve. Even inside the relatively constrained geographic, linguistic, and cultural borders of nineteenth-century Anglophone literature, responses to the ocean teem with mind-stretching diversity and mutability. Most of the scholars whose essays are gathered here turn to imaginative writers, some familiar and others less so, to make sense of the radical changeableness the sea represents. Participating in the larger turn toward an ocean-inflected “blue humanities” in literary and cultural criticism, this collection transforms singular acts of literary creation into broader ways of understanding cultural change and continuity in dialogue with the world ocean. 1
This collection thus presents ten state-of-the-field essays in nineteenthcentury Anglophone maritime literary criticism. With one exception, the essays first originated in a three-day conference held in 2011 at the John Carter Brown Library entitled, “The Hungry Ocean: Literature and the Maritime Environment,” during which literary scholars from multiple historical periods came together. The nineteenth-century scholars seemed to turn more overtly oceanic than the specialists in earlier and later periods in Anglophone literary studies did. Perhaps because for nineteenth-century scholars global trade, racial slavery, and maritime empire have long been essential to critical conversation, perhaps because of the influence of the well-established field of “Atlantic History,” or perhaps simply because of the overwhelming importance of sea travel and the transatlantic slave trade
teach broader maritime studies.