Sea Changes

Hester Blum

When I began working on maritime literature (in 1998, starting a dissertation on early U.S. sailor narratives), I thought of my subject as “nature writing.” At the time, the category of maritime literature registered as antiquarian if it registered at all. Other than Herman Melville’s writing, few texts within the field were lively objects of study for Americanists—even those who knew that James Fenimore Cooper wrote a dozen sea novels or had read Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years before the Mast did not have a sense of nautical literature as topically fresh, whether in scholarship or in the classroom. I remember attending a conversation among maritime historians at Mystic Seaport Museum around this time at which naval specialists lamented that their field was old fashioned, probably because, as one professor speculated, “we have no theory.” (This was of course a very late-1990s academic thing to say.) What about the then-emerging field of Atlantic Studies, I asked? “That’s not maritime history” was the reply.

The Spillhaus Projection, courtesy of

Maritime literature and history lapped at the margins of the transatlantic, Black Atlantic, hemispheric, and Pacific turns within American literary studies throughout the 2000s. In 2010, the emerging field was named “oceanic studies” by Patricia Yeager in a PMLA special focus issue. Oceanic studies imagines forms of relation that do not observe the strictures presumed by territorial spaces; it understands human and nonhuman activity as contingent, solvent, and motile. This term was sure to catch on, I thought, in its interdisciplinarity and its planetary vision. Yet the decade since has only proliferated descriptors of maritime studies, which have variously been known as the new thalassology, blue humanities, hydro-criticism, archipelagic studies, or, more broadly, the environmental humanities or anthropocene studies.

The disciplinary and field descriptors for maritime studies have likewise expanded and multiplied in the two decades since I began teaching and writing about sea literature. These shifting field denotations have shaped how and what I teach as oceanic literature. Some examples: I no longer find it justifiable to organize maritime courses around national literatures. Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake has made it impossible to think of human modernity and the sea without attending to the still-present, ever oceanic-circulating atomized bodies of enslaved and jettisoned Africans during the Middle Passage. Reading Martin Delany’s Blake or Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple as an oceanic text is more intellectually profitable than another classroom encounter with renegade piracy. Polynesian practices of celestial and swell navigation should be in conversation with William Bligh’s open-boat voyage. Moby-Dick is as much a story about resource extraction, the capitalocene, and environmental extinction as it is about collectivity, labor, writing, causality, taxonomy, or the divine. And the ocean’s nonplanar depths remind scholars that humanistic approaches to the sea necessarily remain a form of surface reading.

The editors of The Panorama invited a reflection on how I bring the sea into the classroom—they did not ask me to dilate on academic field and subfield distinctions, or to generate, however belatedly, the theory of maritime history my naval colleague had desired twenty years ago. An oceanic critical imagination may increasingly subsume the traditional containers that have organized literary historical academic study and higher educational pedagogy. Yet the sea must be encompassed at times within the containers of the semester, the syllabus, or the classroom. These academic turns all grapple with the historical exigencies inherent in the category of the human.

Human effects are evident in marine environments today in accelerating new ways, whether in the form of microplastics in sea ice, or Pacific biota moving into polar waters as the Arctic warms. The sea that I bring to my classrooms now is a sea shaped by human processes, ones whose effects are geometrically deeper than human‒nautical surface encounters. It is a sea increasingly more inhuman than nonhuman—and rendered as such by human actions. Oceanic orientations may have special explanatory power in an age of ecological and institutional crisis.

13 May 2019

About the Author

Hester Blum is Associate Professor of English at Penn State University.

Recent Contributions to the JER
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