“On the Water: Stories from Maritime America” at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. wants Americans to believe that maritime activity is as important as ever. But it isn’t. How many Americans know a man or woman who has been to sea? How many American feet have touched the planks of a ship? How many could imagine what it is to stand stretched over a rooftop widow’s walk gazing longingly at the ocean as they wait for their daily meal, or the next installment in a story they’ve been reading, or a loved one gone to war?
- “On the Water: Stories from Maritime America” Ongoing. National Museum of American History, Washington D.C.
America was once defined by its relationship to waterways. When you think about the Great American This or That, you are usually led back to water, drifting down the Mississippi with Huck Finn or digging up the Erie Canal. The opening passages of what some consider to be the American novel, Moby-Dick, begins with an ordinary man’s reverie about the wonders of the watery way of life as he heads off to join a whaling expedition, just because he feels like it:
Why is almost every robust healthy boy with a robust healthy soul in him, at some time or other crazy to go to sea?…. Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life….
At Niagara we consummated our loves and further south, at the Great Falls in Paterson, New Jersey, Hamilton invented American manufacturing and the country’s economic independence was forged.
“On the Water” takes you through an abridged version of America’s maritime history. Its focus is mostly commercial: the nation’s rivers that transported lumber, coal, and grain through a busy network from the South to the Great Lakes; its giant clippers that shipped in the country’s most important foreign import — immigrant labor — as well as its slave ships and sloops traveling from the West Indies that once were threatened as much by pirate attacks as bad weather. There’s a solemn shout-out to the forgotten merchant seaman who lost their lives in World War II, and a fairly substantial mention of American leisure ships (“Cruising is the fastest growing market in merchant shipping around the world.”) It also makes mention of Native Americans who once fished for food and trade on the Salmon Coast along the Pacific, and have all now but gone — the people and fish both.
As you leave the winding exhibit, newspaper articles are tacked up on a wall, clippings about American maritime activity: “Oil Spill Shuts the Nation’s Oldest Oyster-Shucking Company” (New York Times, June 10, 2010); “Questions Linger As Shrimp Season Opens In Gulf” (New York Times, August 17, 2010); “Oil Tanker Operator Predicts Heavy Seas” (Financial Times, August 28, 2010); “Chesapeake Blue Crabs Are Back In Black” (Washington Post, April 15, 2010); “Containing Risk from Container Shortages” (Financial Times, June 18, 2010). It’s not that the content of these articles has less significance — surely we are all affected in some way by the disappearance of fish from our seas as well as the disappearance of American fisheries. And one could easily imagine how important information about blue crabs and heavy seas would have been to our 19th-century forbearers. It’s just that, for a 21st-century audience, these stories lack immediacy. The daily relationship Americans have to their waterways has totally, and maybe irrevocably, changed.
In the 1980s, when I was a teenager, I had a gig as a water conservation propagandist. A friend told me of this traveling theater troupe he had joined that was performing a musical play about the history of water in Nevada (my home state) to be toured at local elementary schools. He asked if I would like to join. Like the children we were eventually to perform for, I wasn’t too interested in the historical part but the song-and-dance numbers were lively and I joined up on the spot.
What does water mean to a child of the American West? At one time everything. We children of the desert never knew the America of whales and ports and shanties, except in pictures painted from the other side of the nation. For all we knew, Melville was some kind of European. But we learned about the men who lost their lives building Hoover Dam, and how you could get you feet shot off for trying to steal water from a neighbor. The Humboldt River in Northern Nevada — the fourth largest river in the U.S. — never even touches the ocean, but without it the Pacific was just a mirage, and California as we know it may never have come to pass.
So the theater troupe would travel from school to school, performing this educational play. After the jigging and hoedowns of each show were complete, the director would come out from the wings and greet his young audience. How many of you have swimming pools, he would ask. How many of you have lawns? Not getting that these were trick questions, most children would raise their hands in the affirmative, at which point they were treated to a speech about water conservation and how the future of life in Nevada depended upon these kids going home at once to convince their parents that they must relinquish these luxuries, these false idols, and replace them with noble rocks and dirt. As you can guess, the ploy never worked. For these children of the American desert, water simply appeared. It was connected to nothing—not the Colorado River that was the source of 90 percent of the region’s water. Certainly not the sea. Their relationship to water was rooted precisely in these pools and fountains and sprinkler systems so essential to their spiritual survival. Even I didn’t quite get what the big deal about conservation was, as I myself never felt connected to a water source larger than my own kitchen sink.
Where the sea is concerned, the American masses may well all be children of the desert.
“On the Water” seeks to remind us how deeply our daily lives are still informed by maritime activity, of the grand international web of ocean commerce that brings cars and televisions and fuel and food to our doorsteps. But as far as most Americans are concerned, these products could have dropped from the sky or grown magically on store shelves. As we turned from sailors to consumers, we desired the means by which we get our goods to be as simple and innocuous as possible, and thus, as divorced as possible from the water. Even those scant five percent of Americans who have been on a cruise ship — vast sideways hotels cruising noiselessly and still — could hardly tell you about the roar of the waves or the smell of the surf, and food poisoning from buffet tables is more likely than sea sickness.
Mostly, “On the Water” reminds us that the contemporary American relationship to water is an abstraction. That the waterways we hardly notice these days, that gave America its very soul, are a memory. We no longer see our reflection in the rivers and oceans as did Americans in Melville’s day. We are landlubbers and occasional passengers, and more and more, it seems that the sea finds its reflection in us. • 17 November 2010