Thursday, February 12, 2009

America’s Ocean Wilderness: A Cultural History of Twentieth-Century Exploration

By Gary Kroll. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, April 2008. Cloth: ISBN 978-0-7006-1567-4, $34.95. 249 pages.

Review by Charles Mitchell, Elmira College

In America’s Ocean Wilderness, Gary Kroll adapts the tools and tropes that have come to define the study of the American West and its terrestrial wildernesses—the mythology of the frontier, the social construction of nature and landscape, the competing and yet inextricably entwined forces of science and commercialism, the relentless pressures of colonialism and capitalist exploitation, the gendered spaces of violence and domesticity—and applies them to the ocean. Blending environmental history, popular culture, and biographical profiles, he has produced an informative and engaging history of the ocean’s evolving place in America’s cultural consciousness, from the waning days of whaling through the undersea world of Jacques Cousteau and the Hawaiian vacation episodes of The Brady Bunch. Along the way, attentive readers will be rewarded with helpful suggestions of primary sources for classroom use and a treasure trove of term paper topics. Kroll’s argument is straightforward. Over the course of the twentieth century, the ocean was transformed in the American imagination from a mare incognita into a frontier wilderness, a space that would provide opportunities for manly self-renewal and resource extraction, a proving ground for feats of engineering and military technology, a stage on which to play out the ameliorating influences of domesticity, and, ultimately, a fragile ecosystem in need of care and healing. He organizes his discussion around a series of personal portraits, studies of seven key figures in the exploration and popularization of the ocean whose overlapping and interconnected careers map out the development in American thinking about and responses to the ocean. The first two chapters focus on Roy Chapman Andrews and Robert Cushman Murphy, contemporaries and sometime colleagues at the American Museum of Natural History who, Kroll suggests, embody the yin and yang of early-twentieth-century attitudes toward the ocean. Andrews stands in for the modern, technocratic business elite who saw the ocean as a resource to be managed for commodity extraction and recreational opportunites; Murphy represents the skeptical anti-modernist who sought to imbue the ocean with a nineteenth-century romantic sublime to preserve it from the ravages of commercialism. The story Kroll tells of these two naturalist-explorers serves as a reference point for the rest of the book. Andrews studied whales from the deck of whaling vessels in the Pacific, using his access to the ships and crew to expand his knowledge of their behavior and acquire specimens for the museum. As such, his ability to “do science” depended on the material support of those who might have different motivations than he, a theme that Kroll returns to throughout the book: the integrity of science (and the scientist) confronting the pragmatic demands of funding. In Andrews’s case, this was most evident in his need to tiptoe around his concerns about the over-harvesting of whales for fear of alienating the very industry on which his research depended. Thus, calls for a kind of scientific management of ocean resources emerge as a means of reconciling the short- and long-term interests of the industry in much the same way that Theodore Roosevelt urged the conservation of land-bound flora and fauna. Kroll extends the Roosevelt analogy by observing that Andrews’s portraits of vigorous whalers testing themselves against the sea played a significant role in transforming the ocean into a sportsman’s playground, offering ocean fauna as worthy substitutes for big-game hunters looking for the next new trophy. If Andrews pointed ahead to a world of scientific specialization devoted to pursuing knowledge as a means of control, Murphy’s preferred mode was nostalgia, an uneasy blend of the pastoral and the sublime, as he apprehended an ocean already appropriated by America’s “dangerous frontier myth of inexhaustible resources” (40). Murphy looked back to a history of natural science thoroughly imbued with the humanities, a tendency, Kroll suggests, that made him more alert to the intertwining of human and natural history. Through his studies of oceanic birds and the relationships between island-based cultures and natural resources—especially in the guano islands of South America—Murphy articulated a view of the ocean as what we would today call an ecosystem, a heterogeneous space characterized by a wide variety of micro-climates within which human society was inescapably enmeshed. The rest of Kroll’s book follows the tension between these two stances through the work of those whose oceanographic studies shaped the image of the ocean in America’s cultural imagination: William Beebe, whose philosophical musings on the ocean sublime, undertaken from his perch in a deep-sea diving submersible, did for the ocean what Emerson, Thoreau, and Muir did for the wilderness; Rachel Carson, who brought an “oceancentric” perspective to the study of the sea; Eugenie Clark, the “lady with a spear” who struggled, successfully, to redefine ocean-study as appropriate for her gender; Thor Heyerdahl, whose Kon Tiki unleashed a fever for all things Polynesian in American popular culture, from Tiki bars to Trader Vic’s to surfing; and, finally, Jacques Cousteau, whose perspective on the undersea world Kroll presents as shifting uneasily between Andrews’s vision of technocratic control and Murphy’s anti-modern anxiety about an exploited frontier. The strength and appeal of Kroll’s study derives from his central analogy: in the twentieth century, Americans thought about and related to the ocean in ways similar to how they thought about and related to the dry-land wilderness in the nineteenth century. This generates many thoughtful and provocative observations and should earn his book a place within the broader study of nature and culture. At the same time, Kroll occasionally lets his tropes run away from him. The neat dichotomy he proposes between Andrews and Murphy, though a useful rhetorical device, oversimplifies their actual views. Similarly, Kroll is too eager to draw direct aquatic parallels to the greatest hits of American Wilderness Studies, especially Leo Marx’s Machine in the Garden. And, especially in the case of Murphy, his portraits occasionally veer toward hagiography. But these are mostly nuisances, inevitable quirks in a first book that do not distract from the interesting and important story the author has to tell.

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