“'I Would Prevent You from Further Violence': Women, Pirates, and the Problem of Violence in the Antebellum American Imagination" analyzes how antebellum American pirate stories used the figure of the pirate to explore the problem of violence and the role women play in opposing violent men. This project joins ongoing conversations about women in the nineteenth century in which scholars, such as Nina Baym, Mary Kelley, and Mary Ryan, have made key contributions by recovering a domestic model of nineteenth-century womanhood. As my work demonstrates, antebellum Americans were similarly invested in a more adventurous, and sometimes violent, model of womanhood that was built upon the figure of the gentleman pirate and placed in opposition to violent men. I argue that it is important to think about the pirate story and the figure of the pirate, not only in the context in which it has come to be known—escapist fantasies written for boys and young men—but as a place where authors reinforced, modified, and established different models of gender roles. Frequently within the mid-nineteenth-century American pirate story, authors answered the question of who is allowed to be violent by demonstrating that women had the capacity for violence and constructing scenarios illustrating that women were often the only ones in a position to forcibly oppose violent men.
The pirate story uniquely blends different narrative conventions: adventure stories that are often believed to appeal to male audiences and domestic scenarios that are usually understood to resonate with female readers. Although historical and fictional pirates of other eras and geographical locations have been examined, little scholarship has focused on piracy in the antebellum American imagination, even though the figure of the pirate continued to proliferate, especially in popular fiction, throughout the nineteenth century. My project addresses this gap not only by demonstrating the importance of pirates in nineteenth-century American fiction, but also by exploring how American authors, such as James Fenimore Cooper, Catherine Maria Sedgwick, J. H. Ingraham, and Eliza Ann Dupuy, were responding to and revising earlier British depictions of the figure of the pirate by Byron and Walter Scott.
In addition to its unique focus on pirates in antebellum American fiction, my project explores a body of popular texts that has been neglected by scholars. These ephemeral stories are difficult to obtain outside of archives and libraries; however, they were extremely popular in their own time. While scholarship has shifted to recognize the value in previously dismissed popular texts, story papers and shilling novelettes have not yet been thoroughly analyzed, and my project seeks to reintroduce a small portion of these texts through archival research centering on the work of Maturin Murray Ballou and Benjamin Barker. By placing transatlantic canonical texts in conversation with formerly neglected ephemeral mediums, I explore stories that resonated with audiences and proposed unconventional violent and heroic models of womanhood, thus disrupting the idea that there was a monolithic version of womanhood in antebellum America.