Afternoon Coffee Break: Liberty on the Waterfront by Paul A. Gilje

Today's blog post comes from Penn Press's Direct Mail and Advertising Manager, Tracy Kellmer, and continues a recently launched series, the Afternoon Coffee Break. In each of these periodic posts, Tracy shares her reflections and observations about a different Penn Press book that she has read recently.

Just about every weekday afternoon you’ll find me at a coffee shop drinking a latte and reading a Penn Press book. There are many good reasons for wanting to work at a scholarly press, but my favorite one is that I get to read the books. I am not a scholar, and this is not a review.

13964This week's book:

Liberty on the Waterfront by Paul A. Gilje

Why I picked it:

I picked this book off the shelf because I just generally love ships, especially tall ones; because I look enviously from the outside on closed communities of men comprised by soldiers, athletes, and sailors; and because a ship, as Captain Jack Sparrow says, is “freedom,” and I was curious to see how the rhetoric of freedom on land compared to the reality experienced by those who made their living on the water.

What I discovered:

That the unskilled or semi-skilled, able-bodied men working ships on the eve of the revolution reminded me of the unskilled or semi-skilled, able-bodied men I knew growing up and in my early adulthood who worked in factories, distribution centers, or trades such as construction, roofing, or bricklaying.

When work is contingent and physically demanding, and money uncertain, you have to take work when and where you get it. And while you’re at work, you’re never your own man, and your body is under the command of another. Free will is an illusion as long as you are in service to the ship or the foreman. The route to dignity passes directly through personal autonomy, and whether for Jack Tar (the universal moniker for sailor) or the laborer, liberty can be understood as “freedom to”: freedom to spend hard-earned money as I want; freedom to do to my body as I want (drink, sex, and tattoos being the obvious examples); freedom to be when and where I am or where I want to be for as long, or short, as I want.

The revolutionary ideals were more like “freedom-froms”: freedom from tyranny, freedom from taxation, freedom from regulation, and so on. I’m not sure these abstractions would have had the same effect on sailors and dockworkers who had to contend with the on-the-ground realities that affected their lives and livelihoods over which they had no, or very little, control: the tyranny of the ship’s captain, the fees paid to landlords to secure a tar’s stuff or his next gig, or the rigid stratification of positions on a ship that determined each tar’s share of the profits. Liberty would have meant something much closer to home.

Favorite bit:

The examples of images carved into scrimshaw. What sailors did have was time and materials, particularly those on whaling vessels, to create lovely images carved into wood or whalebone, and these pieces of art were so particular to an individual sailor’s experience that I found them quite moving.

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