Paul Gilje is the George Lynn Cross Research Professor of History at the University of Oklahoma. This interview is based on his new book, To Swear Like a Sailor: Maritime Culture in America, 1750-1850 (Cambridge University Press, 2016).
JF: What led you to write To Swear Like a Sailor?
PG: When I finished Liberty on the Waterfront (2004) there were a series of issues that I wanted to explore further connected to my research on American maritime culture. I set out to write To Swear Like a Sailor as a series of essays on a wide variety of topics like swearing, language, logbooks, story telling, songs, reading, images and material culture.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of To Swear Like a Sailor?
PG: Although I began the book as a series of discrete essays related to maritime culture, as I wrote the book the individual chapter began to speak to the same issue: that there was a close overlap between mainstream and maritime culture. In other words, America in the early republic was a maritime culture in ways that scholars have not sufficiently appreciated.
JF: Why do we need to read To Swear Like a Sailor?
PG: Do you want to know how to swear like a sailor? Then read the book. Of course, the book is about more than swearing. It explains why sailors swore using words we might not find that exceptional. The book also traces how and where the generic name of “Jack Tar” emerged. You can read some really bawdy sailor songs. More importantly, the book follows the development of sailor lyrics from the seventeenth to the mid nineteenth century. In the chapter on logbooks you will see how these journals began as a straight forward record of a ship’s daily progress, became a means for sailors to remember the past, and contributed to the development of great literature like James Fenimore Cooper’s sea tales and the works of Herman Melville. There is more, but ultimately the reader will come to see the importance of all things maritime to America before the Civil War.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
PG: I think back to the third grade and how I skipped down a Brooklyn street–not always a safe proposition even in the 1950s–singing “Swamp Fox, Swamp Fox, Tail in his hat, no one knows where the Swamp Fox is at.” I learned this song watching a Disney story about Francis Marion during the American Revolution. Watch it sometime. It is a hoot. The Swamp Fox was played by Leslie Nielson in his youth, delivering lines seriously in a style that later became camp and made him a fortune. In short, I always loved history, even Disney history (no comment here). But as a working class Brooklyn kid I never thought I could get a PhD. Then in college I took a leave of absence (I had a good draft number) and went to Europe to travel for a semester. There I decided that even if it was unlikely, I should roll the dice and try to become a historian. I returned to Brooklyn College, did well enough to get into Brown. I survived graduate school, where I learned what it meant to become a historian. Thirty-six years later I am still loving and learning history (but seldom skip down the street).
JF: What is your next project?
PG: I am beginning to work on a book called Eighteen Hundred. It will be an exploration of the interaction between politics and society in which I will narrate the election of 1800 as a background to a series of personal stories about the experience of people who lived through that year. Right now I have sixteen such stories outlined ranging from the richest of the rich to the poorest of the poor, and from Gabriel (leaders of a slave rebellion) to Handsome Lake.
JF; Sounds really interesting. Thanks, Paul.