Thursday, May 20, 2021

Mary K. Bercaw Edwards's "Sailor Talk"

Mary K. Bercaw Edwards is Associate Professor of English and Director of Maritime Studies, University of Connecticut.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Sailor Talk: Labor, Utterance, and Meaning in the Works of Melville, Conrad, and London, and reported the following:
Page 99 explores the divisions aboard a man-of-war, the largest of the American fighting sailing ships, in Herman Melville’s White-Jacket (1850). For Melville, the topmen are the true sailors. Billy Budd in Melville’s posthumously published Billy Budd, Sailor (1924) is also a topman: a true sailor, who “does not scrub animal excrement from the deck, as the waisters, who are little more than landsmen, must.” Melville writes:
Each of these divisions, and of the many other designations within a man-of-war, talk of different things. With its many voices, the Neversink [the ship in White-Jacket] has become a heteroglossia. As Mikhail Bakhtin, the Russian linguist who introduced the term, explains—and the following quotation from White-Jacket illustrates—”Authorial speech, the speeches of narrators, inserted genres, the speech of characters are merely those fundamental compositional unities with whose help heteroglossia can enter the novel; each of them permits a multiplicity of social voices and a wide variety of their links and interrelationships.”
The page 99 test works much better than expected. Sailor Talk is about the oral shipboard world in which seafarers were immersed. Sailors were global travelers who had to be multilingually adept in order to function effectively aboard technically and linguistically complex sailing vessels, within racially and ethnically diverse crews, and in interactions ashore with indigenous people, missionaries, and traders—all of whom had their own spoken languages. Even within a single ship, as page 99 illustrates, there were multiple forms of sailor talk. Page 99 also concerns Herman Melville, one of the three major sea-writers whose work I investigate; the other two are Joseph Conrad and Jack London.

I was raised in a world rich with sailor talk. My father was a masterful storyteller who had sailed twice around the world as First Mate on a square-rigged vessel. He dreamt of someday doing the same with his own family. My parents saved throughout their married lives, then sold everything, and the five of us set off on a circumnavigation aboard a 38-foot sailboat when I was sixteen, my sister fifteen, and my brother ten. My years at sea—I now have 58,000 miles at sea, all under sail—and my many years working aloft on the square-rigged ships at Mystic Seaport Museum have given me a visceral understanding of seafaring that was also experienced by Melville, Conrad, and London. The knowledge of the sea and seafaring that these sailor-authors gained kinesthetically, and often unconsciously, is reflected in their writing, but in a shorthand rooted in their familiarity with the spoken world of sailors. Sailor Talk looks at how Melville, Conrad, and London transformed that spoken language into their texts.
Learn more about Sailor Talk at the Liverpool University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue