Wilkes, Charles

Charles-Wilkesby Jason Smith (2013)

WILKES, CHARLES (1798-1877). Charles Wilkes was an American naval officer, hydrographer, and writer. He commanded the United States Exploring Expedition, 1838 to 1842, wrote its five-volume Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition (1844), edited the expedition’s eighteen scientific volumes, and wrote the last of these, Hydrography (1861). He is also known for the Trent Affair (1861). While in command of the steam frigate San Jacinto, Wilkes ordered his men to board RMS Trent and seize Confederate commissioners James Mason and John Slidell as contraband of war, precipitating a diplomatic controversy with Great Britain over neutral maritime rights.

Wilkes was one of the foremost hydrographers of the antebellum United States Navy. He learned surveying method and practice from Ferdinand Hassler, first superintendent of the United States Coast Survey. During the 1830s, Wilkes participated in or led the Navy’s surveys of Georges Bank, Narragansett Bay, and the Savannah River. He also commanded the Navy’s Depot of Charts and Instruments from his telescope-roofed home on Capitol Hill. Though he was only a lieutenant at the time, his hydrographic work qualified him for command of the United States Exploring Expedition, the largest scientific undertaking of the day. Leading six vessels, some three hundred fifty men, and a scientific corps of six naturalists, Wilkes circumnavigated the globe between 1838 and 1842. The expedition definitively determined the existence of the Antarctic continent, mapped the Pacific Northwest, and produced one hundred eighty hydrographic charts primarily of the South Sea for America’s burgeoning merchant and whaling fleets. The expedition’s sixty thousand natural specimens became the basis for the Smithsonian Institution’s collection. In these, the expedition made a powerful American cartographic, scientific, and military claim to the Pacific Ocean.

Wilkes’ contribution to American sea literature lies primarily in the expedition’s five-volume Narrative, which influenced antebellum writers of American sea fiction, most notably James Fenimore Cooper and Herman Melville. Drawing on his own notes and the journals of his officers, Wilkes chronicled the history of the voyage as well its many cultural, hydrographic, and scientific findings. The narrative represented an extraordinarily broad and unprecedented inquiry into the Pacific world. First published by the federal government in 1844 and privately thereafter, the narrative met mixed reviews. The naval officer and scientist Charles Henry Davis called it “a work of oppressive dimensions.” But it nevertheless offered a glimpse into an exotic and largely unknown maritime world, which caught the attention of American writers from Cooper and Melville, to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. The latter’s friends had attempted unsuccessfully to secure a position for him as the expedition’s historian and writer of the narrative.

Cooper and Melville used the narrative as a source to more accurately describe settings and characters in their work. As the literary critic Thomas Philbrick has argued, Wilkes’s Narrative contributed to a shift in Cooper’s sea fiction away from romanticized settings to the more realistic portrayal of the sea in later works like Afloat and Ashore (1844), The Crater (1847), and The Sea Lions (1849). Literary critics have long acknowledged Cooper’s debt to Wilkes in these novels. In some cases, as W.B. Gates contended, Cooper lifted entire passages nearly word for word from Wilkes’s Narrative.

Scholars have also pointed to the narrative as a major source for Melville whose ties to the expedition were numerous. His cousin, Henry Gansevoort, had been an officer during part of the voyage. Melville owned a set of the narrative and quoted from Volume Five on currents and whales in Moby-Dick’s preliminary “Extracts” (1851). Historians and Melville scholars have pointed to the narrative as a source for Moby-Dick’s Queequeg and Fedallah. David Jaffé, in particular, has suggested that Wilkes’ heavy-handed command was the historical inspiration for Ahab. The literary critic Anne Baker argues more broadly that the expedition represented the kind of scientific authority that Melville so scathingly dismissed in the chapter “Cetology.” Baker shows that Melville likely drew on Wilkes’s Narrative in the chapters “The Bower in the Arsacides” and “The Chart” in order to advance this critique.

Ultimately, the narrative is both travelogue and scientific study. The expedition sailed at a crossroads of understanding about this natural world. Myth, fiction, and science converged and merged in the narrative’s pages. As Melville’s own works show, such understandings of the sea were often inseparable. Both the Exploring Expedition and Moby-Dick, for example, had origins in the work of Jeremiah N. Reynolds, an early promoter of American maritime exploration. In calling for an exploring expedition, Reynolds had been influenced by the Hollow Earth Theory of the amateur scientist John Cleves Symmes, Jr. whose ideas, it should be noted, also influenced Edgar Allan Poe’s sea fiction in this period. At the same time, Reynolds’ story “Mocha Dick; or the White Whale of the Pacific” (1839) inspired Melville. All these were bound together in efforts to grapple with the mysteries of an ocean world that was increasingly falling into the commercial, scientific, cultural, and military sights of the United States. The Exploring Expedition and Wilkes’s Narrative had a hand in all of these.

Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition (1844)

Google Books: Volume 1
Google Books: Volume 2
Google Books: Volume 3
Google Books: Volume 4
Google Books: Volume 5
Smithsonian Libraries: Volume 1
Smithsonian Libraries: Volume 2
Smithsonian Libraries: Volume 3
Smithsonian Libraries: Volume 4
Smithsonian Libraries: Volume 5


Further Studies:

On Wilkes and the history of the United States Exploring Expedition:

Nathaniel Philbrick, Sea of Glory: America’s Voyage of Discovery, the United States Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842 (2003)

William Stanton, The Great United States Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842 (1975)

Herman J. Viola and Carolyn Margolis, eds., Magnificent Voyagers: The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842 (1985)

On the expedition’s literary impact:

Thomas Philbrick, James Fenimore Cooper and the Development of American Sea Fiction (1961)

W.B. Gates, “Cooper’s The Sea Lions and Wilkes’ Narrative,” PMLA 65 (December 1950): 1069-75

Gates, “Cooper’s The Crater and Two Explorers,” American Literature 23 (May 1951): 243-45

David Jaffé, The Stormy Petrel and the White Whale (1976)

Anne Baker, “Mapping and Measuring with Ahab and Wilkes” in Heartless Immensity: Literature, Culture, and Geography in Antebellum America (2006).

keywords: white, male, cartography, Antarctica, source

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