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Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P.O. Box 425, Keller, TX  76244-0425

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Books for Adults - Nonfiction

Cover Art: Jack Tar's Story
Jack Tarís Story: The Autobiographies and Memories of Sailors in Antebellum America
By Myra C. Glenn
Cambridge, 2010, ISBN 978-0-521-19368-9, US $85.00 / £50.00
Also available as an e-book


Seafaring accounts were popular reading fare for the American public in the years before the Civil War. Jack Tarís Story examines such tomes, many written by men who participated in the War of 1812, but encompassing life aboard whalers and merchantmen, privateers and naval ships. While the bookís primary focus involves narratives published between 1815 and 1860, Glenn does include a few that predate this period. The majority are from white Anglo-American citizens, in part because few black mariners wrote about their maritime experiences.
While she asks many questions as regards these narratives and their writers, the chief questions she poses are:  
  • Who were the retired antebellum mariners who published their memoirs and autobiographies?
  • How did these men remember and interpret their experiences at sea and in port?
  • What common themes, rhetorical strategies, and tropes did they articulate?
Each of the five chapters focuses on specific aspects of seamenís lives as depicted in these narratives. Through her well-researched examination, Glenn shows how masculinity and national pride were important elements of these stories.
In chapter one, she explores coming-of-age narratives, such as Richard Henry Danaís Two Years Before the Mast, Nathaniel Amesí A Marinerís Sketches, and Samuel Leechís A Voice from the Main Deck. These have three common themes: escape, freedom, and captivity. Some writers were ďgentlemen sailors,Ē while others came from working-class families familiar with poverty and limited education.
Chapters two and three examine how seamen remembered their experiences, such as naval encounters and captivity, during the American Revolution and the War of 1812, as well as lesser-known conflicts involving the United States in some way. The themes in these chapters concern manhood, tyranny, race, and patriotism, as can be seen in such titles as James MíLeanís Seventeen Yearsí History, Horace Laneís The Wandering Boy, and Joshua Pennyís The Life and Adventures of Joshua Penny.
Punishment exposťs, particularly flogging, are the focus of the fourth chapter. She examines how this punishment threatened sailorsí masculinity and reflected on the nation. William Meacham Murrellís Cruise of the Frigate Columbia around the World and Jacob Hazenís Five Years Before the Mast are two of the narratives referred to in this section.
The final chapter covers depictions of the changing waterfront culture, religious revivals, and evangelical reforms and how such changes impacted seamenís perceptions of themselves as manly men in such titles as Samuel F. Holbrookís Threescore Years.
Following Glennís conclusions, she includes an appendix citing the twenty-six autobiographies and memoirs focused on in the book. An index rounds out the title.
What sets this study apart from others is Glennís use of historical records to verify what the authors wrote about their experiences: crew lists, shipsí logs, records of impressments and prisoners of war, pension files, census reports, and documents from the Sailorsí Snug Harbor (a home for elderly and ill seamen in New York). Such fact-checking permits her to clearly demonstrate that these narratives are a mix of fact and fiction, while remaining vital windows into seamenís life during the later period of the Age of Sail. Although they contain interpretations and memories, these narratives reflect their writersí values and mentality during turbulent, peaceful, and changing times. Jack Tarís Story is a well-written, scholarly, and highly informative assessment of how seamen viewed the world in which they lived and worked based on their life experiences.
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Review Copyrighted ©2011 Cindy Vallar

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