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Paul A. Gilje, Liberty on the Waterfront: American Maritime Culture in the Age of Revolution.

Paul A. Gilje, Liberty on the Waterfront: American Maritime Culture in the Age of Revolution (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press 2004)

PAUL GILJE APPROACHES maritime labour from a different tack than historians concerned with the work regimens and class relations of the sea, or those who view mariners collectively as a plebeian leviathan that worried merchant capital. Instead adopting the concept of liberty as his compass, he charts a course for the heart of the American maritime world. Rather than engaging the idea as an abstract notion as espoused by the American elite, the book "examines the meaning of 'liberty' to those who lived and worked in ports and aboard ships." (xii) Sailors, Gilje affirms, embraced liberty in a number of forms, ranging from patriotic love of country to the desire to escape land-bound responsibilities, but most commonly involving license to carouse on shore. In this book, liberty, not maritime workers, proves hydra-headed.

Gilje first examines the liberty sailors practiced ashore. Rampant drinking, profanity, ostentatious display, and frequent violence flowed along the waterfront, stoked by the sailors' ready cash, having been fronted wages before sailing or paid off after a voyage. Such conduct both challenged hierarchical pre-Revolutionary society and later the bourgeois culture of the early republic. But Gilje warns against attributing any coherent consciousness to sailors' actions, viewing them as driven more by the desire for instant gratification in a life that proved "often cruel and nasty." (14)

Broadening his gaze, the author analyzes the impact of the sailor's pursuit of liberty on gender relations. The seafarer identity rested upon presumed masculine traits of mobility, skill, and sexual prowess, all bundled with freedom of action. The homosocial world aboard ship reinforced sailors' separation from the female, who was objectified as a sexual being or sentimentalized as domestic icon. In more misogynistic archetypes, such as the thieving whore, cheating sweetheart, or grasping wife, the female prompted seamen to take flight aboard ship or to worry away their voyage. These gender constructions obscured the focal role women played in waterfront culture. As deeply enmeshed in the maritime economy as their often absent men, women came to play essential roles in the support of the industry, but in ways that exposed them economically and sexually, as well as to moral condemnation. The masculine ideal of the libertarian sailor also clashed with the reality of seafaring, which Gilje characterizes as a peculiar combination of unhindered freedom and structural constraint that he likens to slavery given the overbearing authority of captains and officers onboard ship. Yet, the shared nature of work and living conditions in the forecastle brought sailors together and at times in opposition to the quarterdeck. Resistance ran the gamut from cursing their lot in life, through avoidance of work, jumping ship, on up to mutiny. It is in this context of workplace conflict that the tar's actions most directly challenges authority in the interest of liberty, but it is a context that is left curiously underdeveloped by the author.

Love of liberty and dislike of authority seemingly prepared sailors for the Age of Revolution. But Gilje argues they displayed ambivalence to the Revolution (as they did with the later French and Haitian revolutions and the British naval mutinies of 1797). Sailors deserted to the enemy when it proved in their interest, and escaped as prisoners of war only to return to their jails after indulging themselves in local taverns. Rather than an abstract revolutionary ideal of liberty, they aspired to "immediate liberty," (129) in which their person was unrestrained and their desires unencumbered. The meaning of liberty for sailors and the American nation converged more exactly in the growing conflict with Britain leading up to the War of 1812. The issues of impressment and restriction of trade, affecting the personal freedom of sailors, became matters of national sovereignty for the young republic. The sailor emerged as a powerful patriotic symbol of American independence, both acting out its right to free commerce and, ultimately, sacrificing life and limb to protect the nation, a sacrifice captured most graphically in the shooting of rioting American prisoners by British guards at Dartmoor Prison in the wake of the war.

After the war sailors received increasing attention from evangelical reformers who saw the waterfront as a sink of iniquity and its denizens as morally at risk. By bringing the word of god and providing alternative community centres to the boardinghouses, including sailors' homes and savings banks, middle-class reformers sought to remake sailors in their own image, but only with limited success. Meanwhile, mariners found a home in developing bourgeois literature. Reviewing the classic texts of seafaring life by Dana, Cooper and Melville, Gilje argues "that common seamen came to represent "the democratic man." (234) Paralleling such "high" culture were various strands of "low" culture, which tended to dwell on the central role sailors had played in the formation and preservation of 'the republic. In the real world, seamen had greater difficulty securing all the democratic rights that, as popular culture presumed, they had been so central in laying down, with their attempts at labour organization proving evanescent, a condition he partly attributes to the "varied meaning of liberty on the waterfront." (258)

This last observation points to what will be for readers of this journal a central weakness to the book. There is really little discussion of the work processes and class relations of the maritime industry, and a stunted treatment of labour organization among its workers. Clearly, sailors as workers did not number among Gilje's main concerns; in fact, he goes out of his way to deny that seamen were either members of a proletariat or revolutionaries, clearly meant as swipes at various other historians of the seafaring class. The author's concerns seem more liberal in kind: how those at the fringes of society acted out notions of liberty pragmatically in a bid to secure their individual freedom. Too often, however, the author reduces the liberty practiced by seamen to rowdiness and drunkenness. Without a counterbalancing view of their collective importance as a class of working people, they can be too easily dismissed, as they were all too often in their own time, as the dregs of society.

The fragmented and contradictory nature of liberty envisioned by Glije suggests the complexity of maritime culture, but it also points to dangers inherent in the approach. Utilizing an abstract concept open to multiple meanings as the central paradigm tends to atomize the historical subject, lust as liberty is contextual, so are Gilje's sailors. However vivid they appear individually as a result of the often-compelling source material, they remain elusive as a whole. Sailors may not have constituted a "proletariat ready to assert class consciousness,"(xiii) a straw effigy he swings from the yardarm in his preface, but they exceeded the zero sum of their yearnings for freedom of body and spirit. More

a kaleidoscope than a spyglass in its focusing of the subject, Gilje's book will prove interesting to casual observers of maritime culture, but less compelling to those more interested in the political economy of the sailing industry or plebeian politics.


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Author:Way, Peter
Publication:Labour/Le Travail
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2008
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