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Don't rock the boat: Women and shipwreck narratives in early U.S. culture

Robin Lyn Miskolcze, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


My dissertation examines how women enabled shipwreck narratives to survive as a popular national narrative in the early nineteenth century. In my study of these popular narratives, I cross the disciplines of art, literature and history. In the seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, shipwreck narratives contributed to nation-building by providing stories which offered lessons of survival that convinced early Anglo-Americans that God had chosen Pilgrims and Puritans alike to bring religious, civic and commercial order to the New World. By the early nineteenth century, when rationalists challenged the ever-present role of Providence in their everyday lives, the shipwreck narrative as a national narrative was endangered. What kept the shipwreck narrative afloat as a national narrative in the nineteenth century was the increasing presence of Anglo-American women, who bridged the gap between the holy and the human. ^ Women appeared as ship figureheads, and were depicted in scrimshaw and popular fiction and emerged as a national symbol of individualism, pious virtue, and purity. Anglo-American women were imagined as going to sea with holy motives: to escape any compromise of their purity, to prove their loyalty to their husbands/lovers and nation, and to assure the nation that regardless of a loss or reduction in feminine delicacy in times of crisis, the American woman would remain a source of national pride. These attributes were transposed onto early nineteenth-century shipwreck narrative; as an observer ashore or a passenger aboard a doomed ship, antebellum female shipwreck survivors/victims helped to accommodate God's influence of one's destiny, as well as individual will, by envisioning women as the embodiment of both Providence and nation, godly virtue and individualism. Even Englishwomen, as my final chapter addresses, contributed to the perpetuation of the shipwreck narrative as a national narrative. Their tales of captivity on “barbarous” shores abroad were often published exclusively in the U.S., and added to Anglo-Americans' need to believe themselves (and white westerners like Englishwomen) in possession of a morality superior to dark-skinned Others. ^

Subject Area

American Studies|Literature, American

Recommended Citation

Miskolcze, Robin Lyn, "Don't rock the boat: Women and shipwreck narratives in early U.S. culture" (2000). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI9967392.