Calling for a Blue Early America

Matthew Crow

The Blue Ridge from outside Charlottesville, VA, photo taken by the author.

In hollows of the liquid hills

  Where the long Blue Ridges run,

The flattery of no echo thrills,

   For echo the seas have none;

Nor aught that gives man back man’s strain—

The hope of his heart, the dream in his brain.[1]

Those lines are from the third section of Herman Melville’s “Pebbles,” the last entry of a volume of poetry, John Marr and Other Sailors, with Some Sea Pieces, published in 1888. The image of the Blue Ridge Mountains as rolling waves at sea, certainly convincing to anyone who has taken a view of the west from the smaller hills of Virginia’s Piedmont, calls up in verse an earlier history of the tension between agrarian and maritime dimensions of law, labor, and political economy in the United States. This was a tension that played out in conflicts over resources and territories and in the competing ideological forces of the early republic, and in the challenges of writing history in the present. Those conflicts and challenges give shape to my article in the Fall 2020 Journal of the Early Republic, “Jefferson’s Whale: Race, Climate, and Commerce in Early America,” an offshoot, of sorts, from my second book project, The Constitutions of Herman Melville: Law and the Making of Oceanic History.

These projects continue a voyage in the entangled histories of constitutionalism, political thought, and historiography. My interest, in reading and writing, has usually been reserved for close readings, deep dives one might say, and layered scholarly literatures. I like to think of that as challenging myself, but as Raymond Geuss writes, work in the history of political thought usually takes place from the safety of “epistemologically favoured circumstances.”[2] That is certainly true, but in reading beyond Atlantic and into Pacific, Indian, Arctic, Southern and other oceanic histories, and in the developing field of the blue humanities, I have seen my own work in the history of legal humanism, personhood, empire, and historical knowledge production refracted in a new light, and undergo something of a sea change. Such a Melvillean moment, I hope, can be a good thing.

Acushnet River and Buzzards Bay, with historical whaling boat rowing at dusk, New Bedford, MA, photo taken by the author.

Melville’s John Marr comes exactly a century after Thomas Jefferson’s “Observations” on the American whaling industry, delivered to the French officials and quoted in the opening extracts of Moby-Dick. Like so much of Jefferson’s writing, the “Observations” is itself a history, a conscious display of its author’s erudition and cultivated ability to put an archive to use. But recall Melville: “for echo the seas have none.” One of the many alluring questions posed by oceanic history is how to think about movement not only across the watery world but down in and through it. How does one follow the traces of history in what Melville called the tractless seas, and who or what is doing the making and tracing? As Melville understood, the territorial humanism that underpinned Jefferson’s life and politics (and Jackson’s for that matter), and probably more of our own than we might like to admit, wavers in the face of the world ocean and its tributaries, becomes seasick. Moby-Dick is, among other things, an allegory of legal and natural and historical knowing, and a weirdly if self-critically humanist one at that. One of the many daunting thoughts it leaves this historian with is that even the writing of oceanic history, or maybe any history, rests similarly on something like allegorical foundations.

The poet Derek Walcott’s oft-quoted poem, “The Sea Is History,” bears witness to the ruins of lives and collective memory and forces of race and slavery, of conquest, war, and revolution.[3] The idea here, I think, is that in these and so many other cases, there is something real in history that resists being subsumed within the domain of the monumental and archival, something that persists outside of the imperial legal and intellectual cultures that sought (and seek) to archive the world, and everyone in it. But how to get to that level of historical reality, of natural history, when an archive, even if imagined, is the medium? To put Melville’s allegory of the archive to work here is to chart one interdisciplinary course among many in working through these kinds of questions, some of them as old as written history itself. Oceanic historiography, broadly construed as such, would be a vast and deep field in which to work, and play.

Jefferson’s engagement with the watery world went far beyond his own trip to Europe or his enthusiasm for Lewis and Clark. It was at the center of his thinking about race and empire. Melville, and Jefferson, too, reverberate today because the very transmission of their writings and doings brings the past and the present into a moment of recognition, reminding historiography of its entanglements with the literary, the ethnographic, and the legal and political. If the world’s oceans and the cultures and literatures that have given them voice pose a daunting challenge to the writing of history, maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe vast early America needs a colleague, a deep early America, a blue early America, if only to gently break and slip between the projected certainties of its vastness. Maybe that’s one way for the disciplines to hail one another on the open sea of text and context and offer mutually needed aid—while still, when appropriate—sticking to their guns. And maybe that is one way for we humanists to get our legs underneath us. There is, after all, a storm on the horizon. Indeed it is already here.


[1] Herman Melville, Published Poems (Evanston, IL, 2009), 245.

[2] Raymond Geuss, Who Needs a World View? (Cambridge, MA, 2020), 68.

[3] Derek Walcott, “The Sea Is History,”; see Helen M. Rozwadowski, Vast Expanses: A History of the Oceans (London, 2018), 7‒12.

2 September 2020

About the Author

Matthew Crow is associate professor of history at Hobart and William Smith Colleges.

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