Maritime History

Maritime History

Maritime History

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Maritime History

!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Strict//EN" ""> Maritime History: April 2011

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Beyond the Dead White Whales: Literature of the Sea and Maritime History

International Journal of Maritime History, XXII, No. 1 (June 2010), 205-228.[1]

In the course of researching a maritime history of the world, I became aware of a vastly greater body of maritime literature than the armchair sailor – or armchair historian – usually encounters. I wondered whether this lack of awareness was due to my own want of initiative in recognizing or seeking out foreign works, or whether the corpus of maritime literature upon which historians, teachers and compilers of anthologies draw was too narrowly circumscribed. In an effort to find an answer, I compared the syllabi of more than two dozen courses that focussed on the literature of the sea. As the findings suggest, it is apparent that in the United States and elsewhere what passes for “maritime literature” is almost exclusively the work of English and American authors of the past two centuries. Nor is this bias limited to the classroom. Of the more than 200 selections from the three best-known anthologies of maritime literature of the past two decades – The Oxford Book of the Sea, The Oxford Book of Sea Stories, and The Faber Book of Tales of the Sea – only three were of non-English origin.[2]

Considered in a positive light, there is something of a consensus about what constitutes the canon of Anglo-American maritime literature, or at least who the canonical authors are. By and large, the works and writers most commonly assigned are chosen chiefly for their literary merit; they also grace the syllabi of literature courses with a focus which has nothing to do with the sea. From the perspective of the maritime historian, though, the findings are


perplexing, for at a time when maritime historical research is opening new vistas into places far removed in place and time from the epicenters of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Anglo-American maritime enterprise, this same canon seems little changed from the days when maritime history was regarded as a field of only antiquarian interest.

I have taken the lists of works at face value and made no attempt to assess the ways in which individual classes are taught or the unique strategies of interpretation employed by the professors who design them. Broadly speaking, these syllabi represent three distinct approaches to the study of maritime writing. English literature classes in which maritime writing is the unifying theme – on a par with Elizabethan drama or modernist poetry, for instance – incorporate works on the basis of what they can teach us about the formal elements of literary style. Some courses constitute one element of a multidisciplinary program in maritime studies that may also include classes in topics as varied as seamanship, history and oceanography, and may even be taught

aboard ship. The most common approach to studying maritime literature, however, appears to be in more generic introductory surveys, and it is these that are in the greatest need of re-consideration if students are to gain a true sense of the richness of human enterprise afloat.

Table 1: Most Assigned Authors


Times Assigned

Herman Melville (1819-1891)


Joseph Conrad (1857-1924)


Homer (8th-century BCE)


Jack London (1876-1912)


Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)


Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)


Nicholas Monsarrat (1910-1979)


Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)


Stephen Crane (1871-1900)


Malcolm Lowry (1909-1957)


Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1949)


William Shakespeare (1564-16160


Derek Walcott (1930- )


Note: Includes works not specified; several courses assigned more than one work by the same author. Sources: See text and note 3.

Fiction, poetry and drama about the sea are nearly as old as writing itself and constitute part of the metaphorical and narrative armature of myriad


communities, societies and nations worldwide. That they have much to show us about the human condition is indisputable, yet as with any literature they are best understood and teach us most about their subject and their authors’ perspectives when read in both literary and historical contexts. But a review of the syllabi and descriptions of two dozen courses reveals a surprising sameness and interchangeability of approach in the study of maritime literature in the US, a fact all the more remarkable given the diversity of educational institutions involved, ranging from private liberal arts colleges and state universities to state and federal maritime and naval academies. Although only two courses from outside the US were included, their syllabi were indistinguishable from the American ones. While courses without an explicitly historical orientation cannot be faulted for lacking an historical or global approach, courses that purport to examine maritime literature in general but rely on a corpus limited by language, nationality, date or thematic focus give a false view of the myriad ways in which humankind has used, experienced and expressed the sea.

A search of online syllabi and course descriptions and a request via H-Maritime generated twenty-five syllabi and course descriptions, twenty-three from the US and one each from Poland and Japan.[3] This might not satisfy a more rigorous statistician, but there is no evidence that these are unrepresentative of the mainstream view of writing about seafaring or that the findings are not a legitimate point of departure for a discussion about the state of maritime literature studies. Altogether these include 116 named works by seventy-six authors from seven countries (two syllabi include unspecified readings from the Bible). Some name specific works, while others provide only the names of authors. Of the latter, the most popular (see table 1) are Herman Melville and Joseph Conrad, cited twenty-eight and twenty-two times, respectively, followed by Homer and Jack London (nine), Ernest Hemingway (eight), Rudyard


Kipling (seven) and Nicholas Monsarrat (five). All but four write in English; there are two Greeks (one ancient, the other modern) and one each from France and Japan. The Anglophone authors are overwhelmingly American (forty) or British (twenty-nine), with one each from Canada, Haiti and St. Lucia. The most popular works (table 2) are Homer’s Odyssey (assigned nine times), Melville’s Moby-Dick (eight) and Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer” (five).

Table 2: Most Assigned Texts



Times assigned

The Odyssey (8th-century BCE)



Moby-Dick (1851)

Herman Melville


“The Secret Sharer” (1910)

Joseph Conrad


Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798)

Samuel Taylor Coleridge


Heart of Darkness (1902)

Joseph Conrad


“The Open Boat” (1898)

Stephen Crane


The Old Man and the Sea (1951)

Ernest Hemingway


The Sea Wolf (1904)

Jack London


Benito Cereno (1856)

Herman Melville


The Cruel Sea (1953)

Nicholas Monsarrat


Sources: See table 1.

The Romantics’ Sea

Course titles do little to enlighten a prospective student as to what the course will cover or how. Most go under the open-ended rubric of “Literature of the Sea” or “Maritime Literature,” to which one course appended “and Culture.” An historical vision is explicit in a few, particularly those incorporating “discovery,” although it is never entirely clear whether the exploration involved is of the author’s world or the author’s self. The clearest enunciation of a commitment to reading maritime literature in an historical context is a course at the University of California, San Diego, entitled “Navigating the Americas: US Maritime Literature and Manifest Destiny, 1820-1855.” Although many courses include non-fiction works of an environmental bent, only the College of the Atlantic’s “Ecology and Literature of the Sea” explicitly ties the syllabus to the environment.

Not all courses are accompanied by a description, but in those that are the focus is, as the Maritime Studies Program of Williams College and Mystic Seaport (Mystic-Williams) puts it, on works in which “the sea or other marine environments are crucial to the story” or “the sea functions as the physical, philosophical and psychological setting” of the narrative.[4] Choosing works that


concentrate upon “aestheticized representations [of] the varied relationships of humans to the sea” is a limiting approach, for the mariner’s world is not exclusively a maritime one.[5] Before the opening of the Atlantic and the Cape Horn route between Europe and the Indian Ocean in the late fifteenth century, the seaman’s work was seasonal, virtually all shipboard passages were of short duration and sailors spent far more time ashore than at sea. Across much of the world, this remains true today. Yet these courses have one thing in common: an emphasis on Anglo-American writing since the eighteenth century and deepsea voyages of long duration. This can be accounted for in a number of ways, the most obvious being that the majority of the courses reviewed here are taught in American colleges and universities.

If their approach depended on the location of the classroom, American instructors could dispense with English writers altogether. One might argue that the continuities of the Anglo-American experience are such that any segregation would be artificial, though it is impossible to account for why so few authors from Anglophone countries like Ireland, Canada, Australia, India or anywhere in Africa or Oceania found their way onto these syllabi. Some may agree with Jonathan Raban’s explanation for why The Oxford Book of the Sea (unfortunately out of print) includes only writings in English:

The French sea, the German sea, the Japanese sea are importantly different places – and the meanings of the sea in English alone are so rich and various that it would unnecessarily complicate matters to introduce, say, Baudelaire, or Rilke, to the anthology.[6]

Yet with a collective Homeric nod, they would also have to concur with Raban’s description a few pages later of a clear-cut distinction between British and American writing about the ocean:

The sea was the beginning of English journeys; it was the end of American ones…But the American brings to it a quite different geographical perspective, as he brings to it a quite different national history…The classic British opposition between wild sea and tame land, between nature and culture, has simply not applied to the American experience.[7]


This is a compelling assessment of how in general American and British approaches to the sea differ, but is this difference any less than that between, say, the British and the Dutch? Luckily for his readers, Raban ignores the logic of his earlier observation and lets British and American authors bunk side by side. Nonetheless, the universal approach of the book’s title – like that of these literature courses – is undermined by the omission of writings in languages other than English. “All sea is sea” runs a Greek sepulchral epigram of the first century BCE, a sentiment worth heeding.[8]

Literature is a product of its time, and this generalization fits Anglo- American sea writing since 1700 no less than any other genre. While there are obvious differences between the voyages of exploration of the eighteenth century, the world-girdling trading passages under sail of the nineteenth and the numbing tedium aboard steam and motorships in the twentieth, the ships engaged in such work can be viewed as self-contained worlds demographically and socially distinct from the rest of humankind. In non-fiction works, it is possible to feel the subtle stress of time even in journal titles like George Anson’s deliberately drawn out A Voyage Round the World in the Years MDCCXL, I, II, III, IV or Ivan Krusenstern’s Voyage Round the World, in the Years 1803, 1804, 1805 and 1806. Between the timeless sweep of the sea and the interminable length of the voyage, the ship becomes the perfect setting for the artist’s inquiry into the human spirit in the manner of a Melville, Conrad or the under-represented Eugene O’Neill. In this vessel-centric and sailorcentric universe, the author’s focus becomes the experience of life aboard a ship or boat cut off from the terrestrial world. Seeking to depict the individual in relation either to himself (rarely herself) or to a group of people who are almost invariably strangers more-or-less involuntarily committed to each others’ company for an indeterminate period in a restricted space beset by all the physical hardships a jealous God can throw at them, these writers tend to ignore the rationale for and broader implications or consequences of the voyages they describe. They depict the effects of globalization and industrialization and the accompanying strains of social anonymity endured by sailors confined to vessels on all but endless voyages punctuated by increasingly brief stays in ports far from home or by long-suffering wage earners working in gruelling short-sea trades or as fishermen. How shipping relates to society at large goes all but unnoticed.

The Romantic Idea

It is difficult to account for the remarkable consistency with which the same authors and works recur in these courses, but it is clear that the modern litera-


ture of the sea course has its roots in an identification of maritime literature with the Romantic movement. This may well be traced to the publication of W.H. Auden’s The Enchafèd Flood, or The Romantic Iconography of the Sea. This work, which began as a series of three lectures at the University of Virginia in 1950, is an “attempt to understand the nature of Romanticism through an examination of its treatment of a single theme, the sea.”[9] As a work of criticism, The Enchafèd Flood does not focus on maritime literature per se but rather examines the Romantic movement through the prism of artistic representations of the sea and seafaring in all its guises, which is a very different mission.

Auden begins by identifying the two environments that God distinguished for mankind, the dry land and the sea. This duality is not peculiar to the Romantic tradition, and Auden traces it to Genesis and finds it in a number of other contexts, but it is a literary conceit which does not accurately reflect the scope of people’s activities on the sea. Auden juxtaposes what he perceives as the reluctant sailor of the classical and subsequent traditions with

The distinctive new notes of the Romantic attitude…1) To leave the land and the city is the desire of every man of sensibility and honor. 2) The sea is the real situation and the voyage is the true condition of man…The sea is where the decisive events, the moments of eternal choice, of temptation, fall, and redemption occur. The shore life is always trivial.[10]

He detects a transition from the classical to the Romantic in the work of Shakespeare, from the “more purely negative” depictions of the sea up to Othello in 1604 to his final plays culminating with The Tempest of 1611. In the latter, the sea remains a place of peril still entered upon reluctantly, but now the dangers endured have a cleansing power previously unknown. Auden ascribes no particular cause to this sea change, but one might trace the attitudinal shift to the new opportunities for peaceful trade that followed the Treaty of London (1604) which ended two decades of war with Spain and followed hard on the founding of the East India Company. Whatever the case, situating this change in the first decade of the seventeenth century is an obviously Anglocentric perspective, and in making the leap from Shakespeare, for whom “the putting to sea, the wandering is never voluntarily entered upon as a pleasure,” to the Romantics,


he ignored some key transitional events and authors, to say nothing of other literary traditions.[11]

By the early seventeenth century the Iberian powers had been accustomed to long-distance voyaging for more than a century, and Luís Vaz de Camões opens The Lusiads (1572) by demanding that Odysseus, among others, stand aside because “I sing of the famous Portuguese/To whom both Mars and Neptune bowed.”[12] Vasco da Gama’s voyage is not a sacrifice but a destiny for the “triumphant” Portuguese. Nor does Camões share Auden’s binary view of the sea, “that state of barbaric vagueness and disorder out of which civilization has emerged,” and the land, the place of “the City or the Garden… where people want and ought to be.”[13] In Camões’s view, both elements are suspect:

On the sea, such storms and perils
That death, many times, seemed imminent;
On the land, such battle and intrigue
Such dire, inevitable hardships!
Where may frail humanity shelter
Briefly, in some secure port,
Where the bright heavens cease to vent their rage
On such insects on so small a stage?

To achieve their fame, the Portuguese had to adopt an amphibious posture, and Camões ends his poem with the prediction that geography will be no barrier to them, who “too ambitious to be content/With the afflictions of solid land/Have launched out on the restless oceans.”[15]

The more successful people are at sea, or in any other environment, the more generous and benevolent their outlook. As it was with the Portuguese in the sixteenth century so, too, it became for the English in the seventeenth. In Annus Mirabilis: The Year of Wonders, 1666, his historical poem of the Second Anglo-Dutch War, John Dryden views ships and the sea as susceptible to human authority. He describes Dutch Admiral Jacob Obdam as a man who “presumed to give the law” to the sea, but when he dies and the Dutch retire


from the battle of Lowestoft, “all was Britain the wide ocean saw.”[16] The English fleet the following year was described as “so vast…/That underneath it the press’d waters fail,/And with its weight it shoulders off the tides.” When the navy advanced, “It seem’d as there the British Neptune stood,/With all his hosts of waters at command./Beneath them to submit the officious flood;/And with his trident shoved them off the sand.” Just as the gods of the sea have become domesticated British deities eager to do the king’s bidding, English ships are now feared monsters of the deep, “huge leviathans [that] give no chase, but swallow in the fry.” For Dryden, England’s future depends on its men’s willingness to abandon the terra firma of their island home to seek their fortunes at sea where the enemy is not the elements but The Netherlands, France or Spain: “Yet like an English general will I die,/And all the ocean make my spacious grave:/Women and cowards on the land may lie;/The sea’s a tomb that’s proper for the brave.”[17] More profound than the distinction between the solitary sailor reluctant to go to sea and the Romantics’ eagerness to do so is the distinction between the sea as theatre where a man can prove himself and as a place for collective enterprise, whether naval or commercial.

The Romantics’ focus on the individual helps explain why, apart from unidentified selections from the Bible, the sole work from antiquity assigned in any course is Homer’s Odyssey. Against the backdrop of modern maritime literature, the defining elements of Odysseus’ journey are its duration and his sense of alienation. Auden asserts that an underlying feature of Odysseus’ travail is the fact that in the classical imagination

[a] voyage…is a necessary evil, a crossing of that which separates or estranges. Neither Odysseus nor Jason goes to sea for the sake of the voyage; the former is trying to get home and, if it were not for the enmity of Poseidon,…it would soon be over, which is what Odysseus most desires.[18]

Odysseus certainly seeks a homecoming, as Homer announces in the opening lines of The Odyssey, but there is no suggestion that crossing the sea is only a “necessary evil.” As the catalogue of nearly 1200 ships in The Iliad made abundantly clear, seafaring was a way of life in Homeric Greece, but even for the most hardened sailors the season lasted less than a quarter of the year.[19]


When Auden distinguishes the land – “the world where the changing seasons create a round of different duties and feelings” – from the ocean – “the world where the change of seasons makes no difference to what the crew must do and where there is no visible life other than theirs” – he is describing a mode of seafaring that has existed only since the late fifteenth century and which became widespread only in the eighteenth. It is not one that can stand for all time and all places.[20] Consider the particulars of Odysseus’ case. According to Hesiod, Homer’s contemporary, the sailing season began with the summer solstice and lasted fifty days, or perhaps twice that if one were willing to push one’s luck. Given that he spent seven years with Calypso and one with Circe, in the decade between leaving Troy and returning to Ithaca Odysseus may well have logged little more than three to six months at sea, a fact that Homer’s listeners knew and modern readers of The Odyssey as maritime literature should keep in mind.[21]

The Ship of State

That the ancient Mediterranean mariner was as fearful of the sea as Auden supposed is not supported by other literary or historical evidence. True, one can point to authors like Horace and Ovid who feared or loathed the sea for one reason or another, but shipping was too integral to the survival of states large and small for people to live in fear of it. As Pompey the Great claimed, “[t]o sail is necessary, to live is not.”[22] Thousands of years before his time, the Egyptians were familiar enough with sea and river travel – though not the extreme isolation of a years-long circumnavigation or whaling voyage – to appreciate the metaphorical possibilities of ships.

One of the oldest and most vivid is that of the ship of state, an image that surfaces first in “The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant” composed during the Eleventh Dynasty (about 2130 to 2060 BCE). In this tale an unscrupulous landowner accuses the peasant Khunanup of trespassing and takes two of his mules. Khunanup appeals to the pharaoh’s advisor, High Steward Rensi, as he is about to board his barge on the Nile. In the first of a series of appeals, Khu-


nanup compares the justice of his cause with the running of a well-sailed ship: “If you go down to the Lake of Truth,” he tells Rensi, “you shall sail on it with a fair breeze; the bunt of your sail shall not strip away, your ship shall not lag, no mishap shall befall your mast; your yards shall not break, you shall not founder nor run aground, the current shall not carry you off, you shall not taste the evils of the river.” Rensi reports this incident to the pharaoh, who enjoys the peasant’s rhetoric so much that he orders his minister to ensure his family’s well-being while stringing Khunanup along for the sheer pleasure of hearing his arguments. Khunanup rises to the challenge and becomes increasingly demonstrative. “The king is indoors and the steering oar is in your hand, yet trouble is caused in your vicinity,” he observes. Expanding on the idea of Rensi’s function in the ship of state, he says “[y]ou are the steering oar of the entire land, and the land sails in accordance with your command.” On another occasion the exasperated peasant likens Rensi to “a ship in which there is no captain, a confederacy which has no leader.” In the end, the eloquent Khunanup wins his case and is rewarded with his accuser’s house and possessions. Moreover, his protests are transcribed for presentation to the pharaoh, “whom they pleased more than anything which was in this entire land.”[23] This identification of the ship with the state recurs five centuries later in a biographical inscription of a New Kingdom official that likens Queen Hatshepsut to the mooring lines securing the ship of state: “The bow-rope of the South, the mooring-stake of the Southerners; the excellent stern rope of the Northland is she.”[24]

Writers usually resort to the image of the ship of state when it seems about to founder, as in the “Tale of the Eloquent Peasant” and again two thousand years later in a celebrated ode by Horace:

Oh ship! The flood will drag you back to sea again.
Watch out! Make for port!
Don’t you see your oars are gone,
how the fierce wind howls through the shattered mast and spars,
that with her lines parted,
your shell is no match for the cruel sea?

The identification of this ship with the Roman state is of ancient vintage. According to Quintilian, Horace “names the ship for the state, the waves and


tempests for the civil wars, and the port for peace and concord.” In English, the best-known allusion to the ship of state is perhaps Walt Whitman’s haunting “O Captain! My Captain!” (1865), written on the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln after the American Civil War: “when our fearful trip is done;/The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won;/The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,/While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring.” The analogy has come to encompass the church, notably in Sebastian Brant’s fifteenth-century German satire, The Ship of Fools, and in the twentieth century the planet itself.[25]

The image of the state as a ship is readily grasped because both can be considered as self-contained entities subject to a strict hierarchy with an absolute leader. The verb “to govern” derives from the Greek word meaning “to steer” by way of the Latin gubernare, meaning both “to steer” and “to govern.” As Aeneas’ fleet approaches the coast of Italy at the end of the Trojans’ odyssey from Ilium to their promised land, Aeneas’ gubernator, Palinurus, falls overboard and drowns near Cape Palinurus. This can be read as symbolizing the end of the helmsman’s work steering the exiles’ ships across the sea, and the start of Aeneas’ role not merely as admiral of the fleet but also as helmsman of the ship of state.[26]

Familiar though the image of the storm-tossed ship of state is, the dangers and difficulties of seafaring should not blind us to the literary depiction of ships and the sea as places of refuge and protection. Sargon of Akkad (r. 2334-2279 BCE) was born in the highlands of the upper Euphrates of humble origins but with a miraculous infancy not unlike that ascribed to Moses a millennium later: “My mother, the entum, conceived me, in secret she bore me;/She placed me in a basket of rushes, she sealed ‘my door’ [the lid] with bitumen;/She cast me into the river which did not rise over me;/The river bore me up and carried me to Aqqi, the water-drawer.”[27] Likewise, when God saved Noah and his family from the flood, he did not sequester them on a dry mountaintop but had them build an ark for the salvation of mankind and the


animals of the earth. Brant’s Ship of Fools notwithstanding, the positive religious symbolism of the ship remained strong in Europe. Indeed, the ultimate place of sanctuary is the church, the centre of which is the nave – so-called because of its resemblance to an upside-down ship’s hull – a word first used in this sense in English in 1637, just as England’s overseas expansion was getting under way.


If writers generally reserve the metaphor of the ship of state for times when ruin seems inevitable, it is because the shipwreck story is a compelling one, even (or especially) for people who have never had a ship lost from under them. The oldest extant shipwreck narrative is an Egyptian story contemporary with “The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant.” It is embellished with layers of fantasy that when peeled away reveals a narrative that can be soberly compared with other written, pictorial and archaeological records. The narrator of “The Shipwrecked Sailor” is the sole survivor of a crew of 120 from a ship bound to Punt via the Red Sea. (Such voyages by Egyptian ships date from at least 2500 BCE, about four centuries before this story.) Cast away on an apparently uninhabited island, the narrator is befriended by a serpent, and in gratitude the sailor offers to have brought to him “barges…laden with all the products of Egypt.” The serpent laughs and says: “You do not have much myrrh/I am, sir, the Prince of Punt/Myrrh belongs to me.” After assuring the sailor that he will be rescued and see his home and family again, the serpent presents him with a cargo of “myrrh, oil, ladanum, spice,/Cinnamon, aromatics, eye-paint, giraffe tails,/Large cakes of incense, ivory tusks,/Hounds, apes, baboons, and all fine products.” As the serpent predicts, the sailor is rescued and returns home with gifts for the pharaoh.[28]

Shipwreck is also the subject of some of the oldest examples of maritime writing from India. These came from The Jatakas, a collection of 550 stories about the Buddha’s past lives as a bodhisattva (enlightened being) first written down in the third century BCE, about 200 years after the death of Gautama Buddha. Two are especially noteworthy as being among the earliest sustained narratives about Indian seafaring. The “Samkha-Jataka” tells the story of Samkha, a wealthy man of Molini (Benares, or Varanasi), renowned for his generosity in endowing alms houses, to which he contributed daily. “One day he said to himself: ‘When I have exhausted all the money that I have at my house, I will no more be able to give anything; therefore, before it is exhausted, let me go in a boat to the Land of Gold [Suvarnabhumi, mainland Southeast Asia] and bring wealth.’” En route to the port, he gives his umbrella


and shoes to a needy pratyekabuddha (another type of enlightened being) and continued to the port to board his ship. After a week at sea, the ship began to leak, but while “the multitude trembling for the fear of death, invoked each his own god and created a great noise,” Samkha prepares himself and his servant for the loss of the ship.[29] After seven days, the two are saved by the goddess of the sea, Manimekalai, who provides a ship filled with seven kinds of precious stones in which the bodhisattva and his servant return to Molini with the goddess herself as pilot.

In the “Mahajana-Jataka,” Prince Mahajanaka is the posthumous son of Aritthajanaka. When he learns that his uncle killed his father, Mahajanaka vows to reclaim his throne but decides first to raise funds by becoming a merchant, declaring to his mother that

“I will go to Suvarnabhumi and get great riches there, and will then seize the kingdom,” and having got together his stock-in-trade, he put it on board a ship with some merchants bound for Suvarnabhumi and bade his mother farewell, telling her that he was sailing for that country. “My son,” she said, “the sea has few chances of success, and many dangers – do not go – you have ample money for seizing the kingdom.” But he told his mother that he would go, and he bade her adieu and embarked on board…There were seven caravans with their beasts on board; in seven days the ship made 700 leagues, but having gone too violently in its course it could not hold out. Its planks gave way, the water rose higher and higher, the ship began to sink in the middle of the ocean while the crew wept, lamented and invoked their different gods.[30]

Mahajanaka’s ship sinks, but again Manimekalai rescued the bodhisattva who “had had his whole body burnt while remaining in sea water for seven days.” This time, rather than build a ship for Mahajanaka, Manimekalai carried him home in her arms, and in time he became king.

Common to both stories is the description of how the bodhisattva prepares to survive shipwreck, the details of which are almost identical and descriptions of which are absent in most other literature. In the “Mahajana- Jataka,” the prince


never wept nor lamented nor invoked any deities, but knowing that the vessel was doomed he rubbed some sugar and ghee [clarified butter], and, having eaten his belly full, he smeared his two clean garments with oil and put them tightly around him and stood leaning against the mast. When the vessel sank the mast stood upright. The crowd on board became food for the fishes and tortoises, and the water all around assumed the colour of blood.[31]

These preparations against hypothermia by smearing oneself and one’s clothes with oil are realistic, as are the gory details regarding the bodhisattva’s shipmates and the gruesome effects on Mahajanaka of dehydration and a week’s exposure to salt water.

The Book of the Wonders of India

The sorts of details revealed in The Jatakas, and the heroes’ rather casual decisions to cross the Bay of Bengal to trade in Southeast Asia in particular, reveals an intimate familiarity with seafaring from an Indian perspective. The majority of extant sources about the Indian Ocean in antiquity are by Western writers in Greek and Latin. An indigenous maritime literature, initially in Persian and Arabic, began only in the ninth century when Islam was well established around the Indian Ocean littoral. The best known of these works are the Sinbad stories from the Tales from a Thousand and One Nights. These are likely of Persian origin, with even older Indian and Homeric antecedents, but Sinbad – whose name is Persian – is portrayed as a resident of Baghdad in the time of Harun al-Rashid (r. 786-809), and the oldest manuscript, in Arabic, dates from the fifteenth century.

More firmly grounded in actual experience is The Book of the Wonders of India by Buzurg ibn Shahriyar, a Persian merchant who gathered 137 stories from friends and acquaintances hailing from the flourishing Persian Gulf ports of Suhar, Siraf and Basra. Buzurg names twenty-five of his informants, who collectively are responsible for half the stories, some of which relate fantastic or highly embellished events or miracles similar to those associated with Sinbad. Many reflect the ordinary interests of merchants everywhere, and the compilation is an invaluable mirror of Arab and Persian seafaring in the tenth century. (Twenty-six of the datable stories take place between 908 and 953; the oldest dates from the reign of Harun al-Rashid.) Although India and Sri Lanka are the places mentioned most often, the stories relate voyages to East Africa, Jeddah, Aden and China, the last of which is the setting for a dozen episodes.


Merchants lucky and luckless, navigators with a sixth sense for the weather and survivors of shipwreck comprise the cast of the more sober narratives. A brief tale told by an Omani merchant named Ismail, for instance, recounts how he sailed from the Malay Peninsula to Shihr on the coast of central Yemen. After beating off a fleet of pirates, he made the 3000-mile passage in forty-one days. His cargo was worth 600,000 dirhams, not including the value exempted by the Sultan of Oman “or the goods which escaped the customs and were not discovered” – which were, in a word, smuggled. Buzurg never adopts a moralistic tone, which imparts a chilling quality to some of the stories: of a shipwrecked girl raped by a sailor as she clings to flotsam while the narrator looks on, of Indian suicides who hire people to drown them and of slaves who in all but one instance are enumerated with complete indifference— a hundred in this ship, two hundred in that one.

The exception is in an account by Ismail who landed in central Mozambique where his crew began bartering with the locals – “a trade that was excellent for us, without any hindrances or customs duties” so common in the rest of the Indian Ocean world. When the trading was completed, the king boarded the ship to see off the merchants. “When I saw them there,” recalled Ismail, “I said to myself: In the market in Oman this young king would certainly fetch thirty dinars, and his seven companions sixty each.” So he seized the king and his retinue and put them together with the other 200 slaves already aboard and sailed for home. The unnamed king was sold at Oman. Converted to Islam, he escaped, and having visited Basra, Mecca, Baghdad and Cairo eventually resumed the throne. Years later, Ismail returned to trade only to be brought before the king, who told of his wanderings and conversion. “Like myself,” he tells the justifiably nervous Omani, his people

embraced the religion of Islam…And here I am, happy and satisfied with the grace God has given me and mine, of knowing the precepts of Islam, the true faith, prayers, fasting, the pilgrimage, and what is permitted and what is forbidden… And, if I have forgiven you, it is because you were the first cause of the purity of my religion.

Bidding farewell to Ismail, the king asks him to “let Muslims know that they may come here to us as to brothers, Muslims like themselves. As for accompanying you to your ship, I have reasons for not doing so.” The king’s refusal to avenge his kidnapping on Ismail testifies to his reverence for Islam, but as his penultimate remarks reveal, his people’s adoption of Islam had a practical


side, and they could promote their faith in the same way a business might post a sign saying “Arabic spoken here.”[32]

Modern Maritime Literature

The diffusion of religion, language and other cultural markers is a natural if frequently unintended consequence of maritime trade. Whether such transfers should be viewed in a positive light depends entirely on individual perspective. Less debatable is the spread of disease: the plague carried by Italian slave traders from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean world in the fourteenth century or the Columbian exchange of virulent pathogens from Eurasia and Africa to the Americas and Oceania in the age of European expansion. Such exchanges could take place on a much smaller scale, as is the case in Akira Yoshimura’s Shipwrecks (1982), set in a remote, unnamed “village flirting with starvation” on the coast of Japan in the Edo period (1603-1868).[33] Here the people eke out a living from the sea, the women and children gathering shellfish and seaweed from the beach, the boys and men fishing for sardines, squid, saury (sanma) or octopus according to the season. The poverty is such that people sell themselves or their family members into indentured servitude for up to ten years. “But sometimes the rough seas would bring unexpected blessings, so much more bountiful than anything from the beach or the barren fields that no one would have to be sold into bondage for years.”[34] The blessings are the flotsam washed ashore from ships “wrecked on the reef that stretched out in front of the village…such things as food, utensils, luxury goods, and cloth, which would substantially improve the lives of the villagers.”[35] These shipwrecks result from the villagers’ deliberate decision to boil water for salt on the beach during the fall nights. After luring the ships to their doom with light from the fires, they would massacre the crew. In this case, when the villagers plunder the ship they find the crew already dead, although they do not realize the cause until disease has swept through the village. In normal circumstances, the death of the shipwrecked sailors would have been the result of human rather than natural agency; Yoshimura’s dead embody a sort of divine retribution for the villagers’ intentions. This twist exemplifies the dangers of regarding the land and the sea as opposite poles of a Romantic dualism, such as Auden imagines,


and offers a more nuanced if darker view of the interpenetration of land, sea and people.

The Romantic attitude towards the sea emerged from a set of unique historical circumstances not replicated in late twentieth-century Japan any more than they were in sixteenth-century Portugal or seventeenth-century Britain. The farther removed we are from an historical period, the easier it is to give it narrative shape, and tracing the interplay of national literary and political history becomes easier with hindsight. We can follow the rise and fall of the Portuguese empire because it has lost its essential vitality centuries ago and by the twentieth century was a marginal power. The case of Great Britain is more difficult because its empire and command of world trade expanded steadily from the time of Shakespeare until the mid-twentieth century. In the decades since, these have shrunk with breathtaking speed. The longing for the days when Britannia ruled the waves, which is well within living memory, has to be balanced against the reality of its diminutive navy and merchant marine. Historical memory has a habit of conflating past eras and tricking us into seeing continuities that are little more than a function of nostalgia. Jonathan Raban notes the powerful attraction of sailing ships for nineteenth- and twentiethcentury authors whose times were actually dominated by the steamship, and he deplores the fact that “a depressing quantity of prose writing about the sea in the late twentieth century has been content to recycle the language and iconography of its nineteenth-century predecessors.”[36] This is reason enough to cast a wider net for new sources of sea writing, but maritime literature also offers hints about how the memory of something as obvious and absolute as Britain’s maritime supremacy can vanish.

In José Sarney’s Master and the Sea (1963), the fisherman Antão Cristório has for a companion Aquimundo, the incarnation of a drowned pilot named Aires Fernandes, “in whom time has not passed.” As Aquimundo tells the bewildered Cristório at their first meeting:

I have gone through many lands, Sofala, Querimba, Ibo, Pemba, Mombasa, Melinde, Pate, Ormuz, Diu, Goa, Cochin, Malacca, Ceylon, Meliapore, Macao, Timor, and I reached Nagasaki with Francis Xavier, the priest who’s a saint today but who sailed with me on the ship the Amacau, the Ship of the Red Seal of August, which made the trip to Japan.

To this Cristório replies simply: “I don’t understand a word of this talk; I don’t know at all what you’re talking about. It’s the tangled-up language of a


specter.”[37] That a son of Portugal’s most successful colony, and a sailor to boot, should be ignorant of the achievements and extent of Portugal’s sixteenth- and seventeenth-century empire would have been unimaginable to Camões, but it is a natural consequence of the passage of time. People and nations do forget, and ignorance of the past is a condition into which we naturally relapse and against which historians constantly struggle. Yet just because Cristório knows nothing of his debt to Portugal’s maritime empire does not mean he is either without or outside of history, and Master and the Sea can be read for the light it sheds on the very different perceptions of the sea held by coastal fishermen of mid-twentieth-century Brazil and for insight into the nature of their communities.

Sarney’s tour de force of magic realism takes place amid the islands of Maranhão state on the Atlantic coast southeast of the Amazon. The novel recounts the love of Cristório for Quertide, who is kidnapped by demons; after three years of searching for her, he resolves to marry another woman and to continue his life as a fisherman. Cristório’s quest to find Quertide is at once as real and fantastic as Odysseus’ drive to return home, and Sarney’s magic has a mythic, other-worldly quality. But his realism is firmly rooted in the daily life of his subjects. Cristório is a man of his time and place, and though he had to battle demons, he also has to get on with his life. While the sea and land are distinct environments, they are strange or banal in equal measure, and although there is no lack of either drama or a sense of wonder, that sailors and fishermen should lead amphibious lives is taken for granted, and Sarney imposes no separation on the two media of human existence.

Yukio Mishima takes a comparable approach in The Sound of Waves (1956), set in postwar Japan. Like Master and the Sea, this is a love story whose hero, Shinji, is a fisherman. Although there is nothing magical in Mishima’s straightforward realism, boats and ships are as much a part of the fabric of Shinji’s life as they are of Cristório’s. The novel’s tension arises from the forbidden love between Shinji, the poor hero, and Hatsue, the daughter of the island’s most prosperous merchant. To win her father’s approval, Shinji has to prove himself by working aboard one of his merchant ships alongside a rival for Hatsue’s affections. Although the 185-ton freighter is larger than the fishing boat to which Shinji is accustomed, as are the physical challenges and the rewards for success, the trial is a shift in scale only. Shinji’s test takes the form of swimming a hawser to a buoy in a typhoon, a trial for which competence, character and experience of the sea are prerequisites. As he prepares to go overboard, “accustomed to rough weather in a small fishing-boat, the heaving deck on which his feet were firmly planted was nothing but a stretch of


earth that was frankly a bit out of sorts.”[38] Shinji is not a ne’er-do-well hero in the mould of Rudyard Kipling’s Harvey Cheyne, Jr., who in Captains Courageous undergoes a Romantic metamorphosis in the face of the sea’s unrelenting challenge. He saves his ship because that is what needs to be done. Shinji’s life as an island fisherman requires no transformation, and by the book’s end his attachment to his home and its way of life remains as they are in the beginning, when

[h]is fisherman’s conception of the sea was close to that of the farmer for his land. The sea was the place where he earned his living, a rippling field where, instead of waving heads of rice or wheat, the white and formless harvest of waves was forever swaying above the unrelieved blueness of a sensitive and yielding soil.[39]

Despite besting his rival and winning the approval of Hatsue’s father, Shinji’s personal ambition remains unalterably wedded to his place and occupation.

Hatsue’s attraction is not simply that her father is rich and she is beautiful, but that she is good-natured and, as it happens, a highly skilled abalone diver, a leading occupation of islander women. Her father had let her (and her three sisters) be adopted by “a family of diving women” on another island, and he reclaimed her only after his son dies. The seaside communities given over to harvesting the ocean know a strict division of labour between men and women:

Men go out fishing. They board their coasting ships and carry cargo to all sorts of ports. Women, not destined for that wide world, cook rice, draw water, gather seaweed, and when summer comes dive into the water, down to the sea’s deep bottom. Even for a mother who was a veteran among diving women this twilight world of the sea’s bottom was the world of women.[40]

The season is limited, and the hardships and dangers considerable: “There was the cold, the strangling feeling of running out of breath, the inexpressible agony when water forced its way under the water-goggles, the panic and sudden


fear of collapsing that invaded the entire body just when an abalone was almost at the fingertips.” As fishing is for boys, it is a livelihood to which girls are introduced at an early age, working their way up from diving for pebbles at the water’s edge to diving from boats, a littoral education in which the land is hardly distinguishable from the sea.

The Uses of Maritime Literature

As the study of maritime history has become more widespread so, too, has the offering of courses in maritime literature. While the scope of maritime historical studies has grown to encompass ever more regions of maritime endeavour, and to consider periods previously overlooked, the study of maritime literature, or the literature of the sea, remains hard aground on the shoals of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Anglophone experience. This is curious because the primary rationale for putting to sea is to establish connections, which the astonishingly parochial canon of maritime writings fails to do. It is unfortunate because this narrow approach ignores the literature’s potential for shedding light on corners of maritime history for which other written evidence is in short supply or altogether unavailable.

The homogeneity of these syllabi is not the result of intentional design, tradition or imitation, but at some point our approach to maritime literature became identified with the heyday of the Pax Britannica and its American shadow. In itself this is no bad thing, for this period produced some exceptional maritime writing. But these perspectives on and interpretations of the sea and seafaring (to say nothing of the human spirit) are not universal. Basing a maritime literature course – much less two dozen of them – on the writings of a handful of modern and contemporary Anglophone authors while ignoring the rest of the world runs counter to the strength and logic of maritime studies. Seafaring is one of humankind’s most naturally cross-cultural enterprises, and while other disciplines must fumble to find or invent multicultural connections, developing a course in maritime literature that avoids obvious linkages between different cultures over time would seem to require more rather than less effort.

From an historian’s perspective, because one of the primary obstacles to the study of world maritime history derives from an imbalance in the available source material – it is easier to study regions or periods for which written, archaeological or ethnographic evidence is more abundant – imaginative literature can prove an invaluable source of historical information. This is particularly true of older periods, when stories told in epics, verse or dramatic works may offer the only written accounts of maritime history. It is likewise the case for more recent periods because authors of fiction and poetry give voice to the voiceless and the overlooked in ways that historians do not. Fiction cannot necessarily substitute for primary sources, but while a picture may well be


worth a thousand words, the degree to which the use of boats and ships pervaded the everyday life of ancient Egypt is more obvious from Khunanup’s casual comparisons of Rensi to “the steering oar of the entire land” than it is from scores of ship models, pictures, bas reliefs and archaeological finds tucked away in museums. Nor should historians ignore the sheer delight of reading maritime literature and standing back from the drudgery of research to consider the people we study more as their contemporaries might have done.


Appendix 1

Suggested Foreign-Language Readings in English Translations

The following list includes the non-English-language works mentioned above as well as other works representative of other cultures or historical periods (and available in English translation) that might be considered for courses in maritime literature. It is not intended as a comprehensive list, and it is heavily weighted towards antiquity and the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The author welcomes additional suggestions. The four works assigned in one or more of the courses discussed above are indicated by an asterisk next to the author’s name.





Amado, Jorge

Home is the Sailor: The Whole Truth Concerning the Redoubtful Adventures of Captain Vasco Moscoso de Aragaõ , Master Mariner




“The Story of the Shipwrecked Sailor”

Egypt c. 2100 BCE


“The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant” Egypt

c. 2100 BCE




3rd century BCE




3rd century BCE


Epic of Gilgamesh


3rd millennium BCE


Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot


8th century

Apollonius of Rhodes



3rd century BCE

Baricco, Alessandro

Ocean Sea



Baudelaire, Charles

Fleurs du Mal (“The Albatross,” “The Man and the Sea,” “The Beautiful Ship”)



Bengtsson, Frans G.

The Long Ships: A Saga of the Viking Age



Boullosa, Carmen

They’re Cows, We’re Pigs



Brant, Sebastian

The Ship of Fools

Germany 1494

Buchheim, Lothar-Günther

Das Boot



Buzurg, Ibn Shahriyar

The Book of the Wonders of India Persia

10th century

Camões, Luis Vaz de

The Lusiads



Heine, Heinrich

“The Slave Ship”









The Odyssey


8th century BCE


Odes 1.3, 1.14


23-13 BCE

Hugo, Victor

Toilers of the Sea



Larsson, Björn

Long John Silver: The True and Eventful History of My Life of Liberty and Adventure as a Gentleman of Fortune and Enemy of Mankind



Lenz, Siegfried

The Lightship



Lermontov, Mikhail

“The Sail”




Dialogues of the Sea-Gods


2nd century


The Ship, or The Wishes


2nd century

Mishima, Yukio

The Sound of Waves



Mishima, Yukio

The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea



Montello, Josue

Coronation Quay



*Murakami, Haruki

“The Seventh Man”



Nadolny, Sten

The Discovery of Slowness



Neruda, Pablo

On the Blue Shore of Silence: Poems of the Sea



Novikov-Priboj, Aleksej Silytsj





Tristia 1.2


1st century

Rimbaud, Arthur

“The Drunken Boat”



Sarney, Jose

Master and the Sea



*Seferis, George



20th century


The Tales of the Thousands Nights and One Night


10th century

Stimson, J. Frank (ed.)

Songs and Tales of the Sea Kings



Verne, Jules

An Antarctic Mystery



*Verne, Jules

Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea

France 1870


The Aeneid


1st century BCE

Yoshimura, Akira




Yoshimura, Akira

Storm Rider



[1] For their help in preparing this article I would like to thank Joshua M. Smith, US Merchant Marine Academy; Timothy Lynch, California Maritime Academy; Sarah Pedersen, Evergreen State College; Anne Witty, Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum, Bowdoin College; Richard King, Williams-Mystic Program; Colin D. Dewey, Cornell University; Maurizio Vito; C. Herbert Gilliland, US Naval Academy; Christopher Merrill, International Writing Program, University of Iowa; and Lewis R. Fischer.

[2] Jonathan Raban (ed.), The Oxford Book of the Sea (New York, 1992); Tony Tanner (ed.), The Oxford Book of Sea Stories (New York, 1994); and J.O. Coote (ed.), The Faber Book of Tales of the Sea (London, 1991), published in the United States as The Norton Book of the Sea, Vol. 2 (New York, 1994).

[3] The schools and courses included California Maritime Academy, “Literature of the Sea;” College of the Atlantic; Cornell University, “Sea Stories – Exploring Oceanic and Maritime Texts;” Evergreen State College, “Sea Stories/Seamanship;” Long Island University, Southampton College, “Literature of the Sea;” Metropolitan College, Boston University, “Classics of Maritime Literature in Historical Context;” Middlebury College, “Maritime Literature and Culture;” Rice University, Freshman Writing Seminar, “Literature of the Sea;” Rutgers University, “Maritime Culture” (offered as American Studies); Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology; US Naval Academy; US Merchant Marine Academy; University of California, San Diego: “Themes in English and American Literature; Navigating the Americas, US Maritime Literature and Manifest Destiny, 1820-1855;” University of Connecticut, “Maritime Literature;” University of Maine at Presque Isle; Uniwersytet Opolski, “Angielska Literatura Marynistyczna (English Literature of the Sea);” Williams College, “Herman Melville and Mark Twain” and “Voyages of Discovery;” and the Maritime Studies Program of Williams College at Mystic Seaport (Williams-Mystic), “Literature of the Sea.”

[4] Williams-Mystic, “Literature of the Sea.”

[5] California Maritime Academy, “Literature of the Sea.”

[6] Raban (ed.), Oxford Book of the Sea, xvii.

[7] Ibid., 20-24.

[8] 8Peter Jay (ed.), The Greek Anthology and Other Ancient Greek Epigrams: A

Selection in Modern Verse Translations (New York, 1973), 195.

[9] W.H. Auden, The Enchafèd Flood, or The Romantic Iconography of the Sea (New York, 1950), 3.

[10] Ibid., 13.

[11] Ibid., 12. The emphasis is in the original.

[12] Luís Vaz de Camões, The Lusíads (Lisbon, 1572), trans. Landeg White (New York, 1997), Canto 1.3.

[13] Auden, Enchafèd Flood, 7-8.

[14] Camões, Lusíads, Canto 1.106.

[15] Ibid., Canto 10.91.

[16] John Dryden, Annus Mirabilis: The Year of Wonders (London, 1666), §22.

[17] Ibid., §177, §184, §203 and §101.

[18] Auden, Enchafèd Flood, 9.

[19] Homer, The Iliad, trans. Robert Fagles (New York, 1990), 2:584-862.

[20] Auden, Enchafèd Flood, 71.

[21] “Fifty days after the solstice, when the season of wearisome heat is come to an end, is the right time for me to go sailing. Then you will not wreck your ship, nor will the sea destroy the sailors…Another time for men to go sailing is in spring when a man first sees leaves on the topmost shoot of a fig-tree as large as the foot-print that a crow makes.” Hesiod, Works and Days, lines 663-677, in The Homeric Hymns and Homerica, trans. Hugh G. Evelyn-White (London, 1914).

[22] Plutarch, Plutarch’s Lives, trans. Bernadotte Perrin (11 vols., Cambridge, 1914-1926), V, 247.

[23] “The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant,” in William Kelly Simpson (ed.), Literature of Ancient Egypt (New Haven, 2003), 31-49.

[24] James Henry Breasted (ed.), Ancient Records of Egypt: Historical Documents from the Earliest Times to the Persian Conquest (5 vols., Chicago, 1906-1907; 5th ed., New York, 2001), II, §341.

[25] Horace, Ode, 1.14. For the standard interpretation, see Steele Commager, The Odes of Horace: A Critical Study (Bloomington, 1962), 164. See also Sebastian Brant, Das Narranschiff (Basel, 1494). Writing of his purpose in gathering traditional sailing ships as a means of building international goodwill as a counterpoise to the nuclear arms race of the 1960s and 1970s, maritime historian Frank O. Braynard said that “we are all seamen on the ship Earth.” The quote is from his obituary, New York Times, 14 December 2007.

[26] Cyril Connolly, The Unquiet Grave (London, 1945), 103, hints at this possibility. Connolly’s epilogue, “Who was Palinurus?” demonstrates that The Aeneid can be read profitably for its nautical themes as well as for its symbolism.

[27] Amélie Kuhrt, The Ancient Near East (2 vols., New York, 1995), I, 48.

[28] “The Shipwrecked Sailor,” in William Kelly Simpson (ed.), Literature of Ancient Egypt (New Haven, 2003), 50-56.

[29] “Samkkha-Jataka,” in Edward B. Cowell (trans.), The Jataka; Or, Stories of the Buddha’s Former Births (6 vols. London, 1973), IV, 9-13.

[30] “Mahajana-Jataka,” in ibid., VI, 21-22.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Buzurg ibn Shahriyar of Ramhormuz, The Book of the Wonders of India: Mainland, Sea and Islands, trans. G.S.P. Freeman-Grenville (London, 1981), 31-36.

[33] Akira Yoshimura, Shipwrecks, trans. Mark Ealey (San Diego, 1982), 4.

[34] Ibid., 10.

[35] Ibid., 12.

[36] Raban (ed.), Oxford Book of the Sea, 33.

[37] José Sarney, Master and the Sea, trans. Gregory Rabassa (Minneapolis, 2005), 65.

[38] Yukio Mishima, The Sound of Waves, trans. Meredith Weatherby (New York, 1984), 162-163.

[39] Ibid., 19.

[40] Ibid., 18 and 68.