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AMS Press, Inc.
25 Van Zant Street, Unit 1B3
Norwalk, CT 06855-1702

Writing the Seaman’s Tale in Law and Literature:
Dana, Melville, and Justice Story

By Kathryn Mudgett

LC 2012017500
ISBN-10: 0-404-64481-3
ISBN-13: 978-0-404-64481-9

AMS Studies in the Nineteenth Century, No. 51

“This book is an eye-opener about the way America viewed its seamen as replaceable tools of the trade. I found myself moved, saddened and outraged by its multi-layered narratives. Mudgett’s book has the power to make us feel. The ambiguity of fiction, the excitement of legal argument, and the helplessness of a flogged seaman—this book is about all of these.”

—Stephen Curley, Regents Professor of English at Texas A&M

Valued as a skilled worker who moved the wealth of the nation in commercial vessels or protected its ships and waters in military ones, the nineteenth-century American seaman was also utterly dehumanized: forced by law to relinquish control of his body when at sea and to give his captain the power to subdue him with a lash.

Yet the seaman, unlike the slave, could resort to the courts for redress. There he might speak and be heard. And there he has left a record of his struggle for dignity as an American.

Kathryn Mudgett analyzes that record through the decisions of judges such as Joseph Story, and the legal and literary writings of advocates such as Richard Henry Dana, Jr., as well as the richly imaginative works of professional writers such as Herman Melville.

Story’s narrative strategy was reductive, taking accounts of the individual seaman seeking justice and locating them within accepted societal norms and behavior already established by statute or precedent. Dana, as a lawyer and a literary writer and a former merchant seaman, was an intermediary between the authoritative discourse of the law and the literary narrative of fact. As another mariner-turned-writer, Melville also used literary narrative to tell the seaman’s tale, but the more expansive form of the novel gave him the opportunity to yoke together such disparate rhetorical genres as journalism, philosophy, and even the legal discourse of the advocate’s brief.

Mudgett’s work offers fascinating insights into a nation confronting, in both its literature and its records of law, the fundamental political question of that time—and perhaps of our time as well: Can the United States create a just and moral society, one fully reflective of the Constitution’s great aims?

About the Author
Kathryn Mudgett, who holds both a Ph.D. and a J.D., is Associate Professor of Humanities at Massachusetts Maritime Academy, where she edits The Nautilus: A Maritime Journal of Literature, History, and Culture.


List of Illustrations

1. Introduction: A Stream of Living Blood

Part I: The Seaman’s Tale in Law
2. Our Craft Is a Lie
3. The Rough Inmates of a Ship at Sea: The Law’s Story of Seamen
4. Deeds of Dark and Barbarous Cruelty: The Case of Nichols and Couch

Part II: The Seaman’s Tale in Literature
5. A Voice from the Forecastle: Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast
6. “Quite a Genteel Figure, at Least for a Forecastle”: Melville’s Redburn
7. The History of an Obsolete Barbarism: White-Jacket and the Articles of War
8. Practicing a Lawful Rigor: Billy Budd and Captain Vere

Conclusion: An Outrage on the Rights of the People

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Mudgett, Kathryn.
Writing the seaman's tale in law and literature : Dana, Melville, and Justice Story / Kathryn Mudgett.
     p. cm. — (AMS studies in the nineteenth century, ISSN 0196-657X ; no. 51)
     Includes bibliographical references and index.
     ISBN 978-0-404-64481-9 (cloth : alk. paper)
      1. American literature — 19th century — History and criticism.
     2. Sailors in literature.
     3. Law and literature.
     4. Maritime law.
     5. Dana, Richard Henry, 1815–1882.
     6. Melville, Herman, 1819–1891.
     7. Story, Joseph, 1779–1845.
     I. Title.
PS217.S33M83 2013
810.9'3558 — dc23                                                       2012017500