Working Group on the Novel: Emilia Le Seven, PhD student in American Studies at Paris VII-Paris Diderot Article
Respondent: Margaret Cohen, Professor of English, Stanford
This article explores the motif of sounding in Antebellum maritime literature, and more specifically in the work of James Fenimore Cooper and Richard Henry Dana. I posit that before it became a psychological metaphor, sounding was first and foremost a nautical practice which was tackled as such in maritime literature and I propose to recuperate the sense of touch in the motif of sounding in Antebellum texts. It is, indeed, a technical motif which brings into play sailors who feel, surfaces that are felt, and lead lines that make the sailors feel -- and feel their way along the coast. I contend that sounding is a form of contact and encounter with the landscape, but also a source of knowledge and possibly a new form of relationality. The first part explores the motif of sounding in Cooper's The Pilot (1823) and argues that this technical motif eventually discriminates between the consummate sailors and the less skilled ones by testing their reaction to the landscape. The second part is about Cooper's The Crater (1847) and examines how sounding might be read as a motif that expresses a search for foundations, which the novel eventually denies. And the last part closes on Richard Henry Dana's Two Years Before the Mast (1840) in which sounding is explored as a motif of relationality between the sailors. Dana shifts the focus in the motif: whereas Cooper was interested in the lead at the end of the line and the contact with the seabed, Dana is interested in the rope which is manned, coiled and uncoiled by the sailors and which acts as a sort of umbilical cord a few pages before the end of the book. Dana's text thus emphasizes the emotional aspect of the touch of sounding.