America's Ocean Wilderness
A Cultural History of Twentieth-Century Exploration
Sales Date: April 15, 2008
262 Pages, 6.00 x 9.00 in
- Published: April 2008
- Published: July 2019
John Lyman Book Prize
From whaling museums to National Geographic television specials to "tiki bars," the high seas have enchanted modern Americans as an adventurous frontier. And as contemporary explorers have discovered a new wilderness in the world's oceans, their depictions of the depths have influenced how we view these largely uncharted realms.
America's Ocean Wilderness is a cultural history of America's exploration of the ocean and the first book to critically analyze the legacies of seven marine explorers. Assessing work that often straddles professional science and popular culture, Gary Kroll examines the different perspectives a handful of scientists and naturalists—Jacques Cousteau, Thor Heyerdahl, Roy Chapman Andrews, Robert Cushman Murphy, Eugenie Clark, Rachel Carson, and William Beebe—have offered on what the ocean means and how their views helped shape the way many Americans relate to the seas.
Kroll argues that to truly know the ocean we first need to understand our own western frontier, showing how easily our popular infatuation with the continental wilderness—in the spirit of manifest destiny and its problematic legacy of conquest—has been transferred to the watery world. Indeed, the twentieth-century American imagination was quick to imbue the ocean with frontier characteristics, whether as a trove of inexhaustible resources, an ecosystem in need of stewardship, or a place of recreation.
Exploring the phenomenon of Americans' fascination with wild and inaccessible places, Kroll shows how these seven explorers helped create and perpetuate the idea of an ocean wilderness by applying terrestrial logic to the seas. And he demonstrates that their own appeal and accomplishments were abetted by the willingness of Americans to understand other new frontiers in terms of the West.
As the ocean gradually became an extension of the nineteenth-century conception of wilderness—an attitude not without ecological consequences—many of the sea's environmental problems were linked to the way we think about it as a frontier space, Kroll argues. With poisoned waters, depleted fisheries, and dying coral reefs, the seas are endangered by the same kinds of forces that threatened and ravaged America's terrestrial wilderness. America's Ocean Wilderness offers a new perspective on this last earthly frontier, encouraging readers to realize that the way they view the ocean may well seal its fate.
"By joining these stories, Kroll has contributed a substantive argument about a link between science and popularization that created, and communicated, new conceptions of the ocean as a place profoundly relevant and also vulnerable to people."—International Journal of Maritime History
"This engaging, well-written, interpretive work seeks to extend the concept of the American West as a frontier to the ocean as a frontier. . . . A perceptive, analytical, and well-documented introduction to a fascinating topic."—Journal of American History
"Kroll is a historian of science who compares exploration of the ocean to the western wilderness frontier and probes similarities between the two. He examines seven well-known 20th-century ocean naturalists and explorers and discusses how their work influenced American views of the ocean. . . . Highly recommended."—Choice
"Blending environmental history, popular culture, and biographical profiles, [Kroll] has produced an informative and engaging history of the oceans 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. . . . 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. "—Southwest Journal of Cultures
“Kroll’s thesis—that the abuse and degradation of the world ocean is a direct consequence of the propensity of American explorers to promote the notions of an ocean wilderness and ocean frontier—is disturbing and thought-provoking. A compelling work.”—Cindy Lee Van Dover, author of Deep-Ocean Journeys
“The ocean is an idea, and the history of that idea is almost as ever-changing as the realm it reflects. This is a fascinating book about where the ocean came from. I don't mean the physical ocean but the sea in which swims our consciousness.”—Carl Safina, president, Blue Ocean Institute
“A great read. Kroll writes with the same narrative verve that distinguishes popular nature writers.”—Mark Hamilton Lytle, author of The Gentle Subversive: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, and the Rise of the Environmental Movement
1. The Oceanic Hunting Grounds of Roy Chapman Andrews: Whales as Resource and Game in Postfrontier America
2. Robert Cushman Murphy and the Natural History of Ocean Islands: Conservation and the Myth of the Inexhaustible Ocean Frontier
3. Sensational Management: William Beebe and the Natural History of the Ocean Sublime
4. Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us: The Construction of Oceancentrism
5. Eugenie Clark and Postwar Ocean Ichthyology: Gender, Oceanic Natural History, and the Domestication of the Ocean Frontier
6. Technophilia and Technophobia in the Ocean Commons: Thor Heyerdahl and Jacques Cousteau during the Cold War