The Novel and the Sea

2010
Author(s)
Publisher
Princeton Press

For a century, the history of the novel has been written in terms of nations and territories: the English novel, the French novel, the American novel. But what if novels were viewed in terms of the seas that unite these different lands? Examining works across two centuries, The Novel and the Sea recounts the novel’s rise, told from the perspective of the ship’s deck and the allure of the oceans in the modern cultural imagination. Margaret Cohen moors the novel to overseas exploration and work at sea, framing its emergence as a transatlantic history, steeped in the adventures and risks of the maritime frontier.

Cohen explores how Robinson Crusoe competed with the best-selling nautical literature of the time by dramatizing remarkable conditions, from the wonders of unknown lands to storms, shipwrecks, and pirates. She considers James Fenimore Cooper’s refashioning of the adventure novel in postcolonial America, and a change in literary poetics toward new frontiers and to the maritime labor and technology of the nineteenth century. Cohen shows how Jules Verne reworked adventures at sea into science fiction; how Melville, Hugo, and Conrad navigated the foggy waters of language and thought; and how detective and spy fiction built on sea fiction’s problem-solving devices. She also discusses the transformation of the ocean from a theater of skilled work to an environment of pristine nature and the sublime.

A significant literary history, The Novel and the Sea challenges readers to rethink their land-locked assumptions about the novel.

About the Author

Margaret Cohen’s most recent book, The Underwater Eye: How the Movie Camera Opened the Depths and Unleashed New Realms of Fantasy, will appear in April 2022 with Princeton University Press. Her The Novel and the Sea (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010) was awarded the Louis R. Gottschalk Prize from the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies and the George and Barbara Perkins Prize from the International Society for the Study of the Narrative. She is also the author of Profane Illumination: Walter Benjamin and the Paris of Surrealist Revolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993) and The Sentimental Education of the Novel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), which received the Modern Language Association's Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione prize in French and Francophone literature. 

In addition, Margaret Cohen co-edited two collections of scholarship on the European novel: The Literary Channel: The Inter-National Invention of the Novel with Carolyn Dever (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), and Spectacles of Realism: Body, Gender, Genre with Christopher Prendergast (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995). She edited and translated Sophie Cottin's best-selling novel of 1799, Claire d'Albe (New York: Modern Language Association, 2003), and has edited a new critical edition of Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary that appeared with W.W. Norton in 2004. In 2019, her co-edited The Aesthetics of the Undersea appeared (Routledge). She is general editor of A Cultural History of the Seas (London: Bloomsbury, 2021), and she is volume editor of A Cultural History of the Seas in the Age of Empire, the fifth volume of this six volume set spanning from antiquity to the present.