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Oceans at Home: Maritime and Domestic Fictions in Nineteenth-Century American Women’s Writing – Dr. Melissa Gniadek

By Dr. Melissa Gniadek

During the summer before my final year of university I was subletting an apartment from one of my cousins near Boston, Massachusetts, doing odd jobs to pay the bills, and trying to get started on the senior thesis required by my academic program. I was excited to spend a significant amount of time developing a longer piece of writing, but was mired in that stage where I had a few topics and ideas in mind, yet I wasn’t gaining any traction with any of them. One evening, in an attempt to change things up (or to procrastinate), I picked a book up off my cousin’s shelf, admittedly drawn primarily to the colors on the spine. It was The Bone People, Keri Hulme’s Booker Prize-winning 1984 novel that introduced New Zealand literature to many who had previously ignored it. I read it, and then wanted to know more about Aotearoa and its literature. I’d been devoted to American literature, history, and culture for years by then, and I started wondering how scholars thought about New Zealand and American literature and history together, especially nineteenth-century literature and history.

Three years later, I found myself in a room in the Arts building at the University of Auckland, giving my first postgraduate conference paper to a supportive group of listeners at that year’s ANZASA conference. Many, many years and many twists and turns later my book, Oceans at Home: Domestic and Maritime Fictions in Nineteenth-Century American Women’s Writing, is one product of some of the questions I began asking back then. In the book, I explore how the maritime world and distant places like New Zealand show up in female-authored U.S.-based texts usually more associated with domestic realms and concerns. I examine how white, middle-class women who did not themselves go to sea as captains’ wives, missionaries, or adventurers drew on the writing of others and on ideas about oceanic circulations to confront concerns closer to home in U.S. continental space, including gender restrictions and the racial prejudice central to settler colonialism. I pay special attention to the Pacific in the book for some of the same reasons that my attention turned in that direction years ago. Though much has changed in the last two decades (indeed, there is wonderful recent work on the transpacific from many angles, including work on eighteenth and nineteenth-century U.S. engagement with the Pacific), American literary studies in general remains oriented toward the Atlantic, often neglecting rich, important, and troubling histories of exchange around and across the Pacific. Engaging with these histories, with related literary production, and with contemporary thinking and writing about America emerging from Australasia and the Pacific remains, for me, one of the most exciting and generative avenues for the study of American literature and history in transnational and global contexts.

My decision to focus on women’s writing in the book grew out of a sense that women have often been excluded from conversations about transpacific networks, as both popular and scholarly accounts center on the traditionally male realms of maritime ventures or militarization. For example, in the period that my book takes up—the late eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth century—conversations about the Pacific in American literature often focus on the texts and records produced by state-sponsored expeditions or on the writings of authors such as James Fenimore Cooper or Herman Melville. There are exceptions, of course—exceptions that often involve the exceptional: accounts left by women who accompanied their husbands on voyages or stories like that of Juana Maria, the Indigenous woman who lived on an island off the coast of California in the first half of the nineteenth century. But my goal in this book was to explore some quieter, smaller, more quotidian engagements with the oceanic world in women’s writing of this period in order to expand an archive while also contributing to conversations about the archipelagic Americas. Archipelagic American studies, as Brian Russell Roberts and Michelle Ann Stephens put it, “emerges as a mode of American studies dedicated to tracing the interrelations of America (as a contingent and elastic space constellated by oceanic waterways, two continents, and uncounted islands both within the hemisphere and beyond via the sinews of empire) and the broader planetary archipelago.”[1] By exploring some of the ways that oceans and islands show up “at home” in domestic spaces, I wanted to contribute to conversations about how the continental U.S. as “home” was constructed, and how its essential instability emerged through a shifting relationship with oceanic and island spaces in the nineteenth century (as now).

To that end, Oceans at Home reads children’s fiction, a diary, a fictional travelogue, and novels and stories not usually associated with the sea, the maritime world, or the Pacific. It focuses on works by Lydia Maria Child, Caroline Kirkland, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Elizabeth Stoddard, Harriet Prescott Spofford, and an unpublished diarist. For example, in the pages of The Juvenile Miscellany, edited by Lydia Maria Child, an imagined dialogue between a “New Zealand chief” and “Philip of Pokanocket” (Metacom) stages a didactic conversation between a Māori leader and a New England intertribal leader that gives voice to a global history of settler colonialism across time. Elsewhere, Child incorporates the body of a young girl tattooed in New Zealand into a fictional story that was circulated in both the urban centers and rural areas of New England, putting histories of captivity and gender at the center of global settler colonial conflicts in ways that require us to reconsider the pedagogical function of children’s literature in U.S. domestic spaces. Throughout Oceans at Home such stories, along with a poem occasioned by the mutiny on the Bounty, narratives structured by the lengthy temporalities and uncertainties of whaling voyages, and fiction featuring coastal settings, combine to reveal new forms of U.S. engagement with the Pacific that recast the perceived stability of continental and domestic spaces.

It is my hope that this approach to gender and the oceanic will intersect with the exploration of other archives, for example the experiences and work of Indigenous women and women of color like Betsey Stockton, a Black woman who was an early missionary in the Hawaiian islands, or Queen Lili‘uokalani, whose papers were recently digitized and made available through the Hawai‘i state archives. Increasing access to this kind of archive will, I think, enable important work on all kinds of diverse networks involving women and the Pacific.

Honestly, when I started to think about what American literature and history and the literature and history of Aotearoa New Zealand might have to say to each other while sitting on a couch in my cousin’s living room one summer long ago, I never could have imagined that related questions would sustain me for so long, or that I’d write a book focused on a particular subset of women’s writing. At that point my education had been largely focused on the canonical male writers of the nineteenth century. Looking back, I marvel at the way the book, like any project, developed through the serendipity of unexpected research finds, the generosity of others with their knowledge and feedback, and the joys of new reading and exploration. All of this seems marvelous in new ways twenty months or so into a global pandemic that has changed how we research and how we connect with others, at least for now. As borders have closed, as we have had to physically isolate for our own safety and the safety of others, I find myself even more grateful for the connections between communities of scholars that exist in an archipelago of American studies, and excited for the future.

Melissa Gniadek is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University of Toronto. Oceans at Home is available now at UMass Press https://www.umasspress.com/9781625345721/oceans-at-home/


[1] Brian Russell Roberts and Michelle Ann Stephens, “Archipelagic American Studies: Decontinentalizing the Study of American Culture,” in Archipelagic American Studies, ed. Brian Russell Roberts and Michelle Ann Stephens (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017), 10. See also Roberts, Borderwaters: Amid the Archipelagic States of America (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2021).