Carnegie Mellon University

Three Sheets to the Wind: The Jolly Jack Tar and Eighteenth-Century British Masculinity

Author: Juliann Reineke

Degree: Ph.D. in Literary and Cultural Studies, Carnegie Mellon University, 2018

My dissertation traces the development of the Jolly Jack Tar, a widespread image of the common British sailor, beginning with the formal establishment of the Royal Navy in 1660 and ending in 1817 with the publication of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, a novel devoted to presenting a new model of the professional seaman. I also analyze Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates (1724), Tobias Smollett’s Roderick Random (1748), and Olaudah Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative (1789) in conjunction with ephemeral cultural artifacts like songs, cartoons, newspapers, and miscellany to fill in the variable, uneven history of the novelistic Jack Tar over the course of the long 18th century.

My analysis seeks to answer the following questions: How do fictionalized accounts of sailors (like those found in novels) reflect, challenge, or reinforce the portrayal of sailors in other cultural texts, like songs or plays? How does print culture inflect the construction of Jack Tar, particularly regarding the figure’s connection to Britain and an emergent national identity? How do literary and cultural texts represent seamen’s complicated relationship to the home and the family, particularly when seamen were, by the nature of their profession, typically far from Britain?  To answer these questions, I bring together print history, performance studies, post-colonial studies, maritime history, and disability studies. I contend that the complex image of Jack Tar was a tool authors employed to advocate for a new type of British man, one who is brave, patriotic, and supportive of the homefront, but also destructive, a drunkard, and sexually promiscuous. I argue that the Tar was used by black and white sailors to craft their own self-representations and carve out a place in British society. Lastly, portrayals of Jack Tar on the British stage, in images, and in novels, particularly those published at the end of the long eighteenth century, seek to contain and reframe the potentially destabilizing effect of demobilization which resulted in thousands of seamen, many of whom disabled, returning home and lacking a clear path for reintegration. In essence, complex and often contradictory literary and cultural representations of the Tar reflected eighteenth-century Britons’ concerns over emergent masculine identities as well as anxieties of and hopes for the expanding nation.