Negotiating Crisis and (Il)Legitimacy: Atlantic American Narratives of Piracy, 1678-1865

Negotiating Crisis and (Il)Legitimacy: Atlantic American Narratives of Piracy, 1678-1865

Alexandra Ganser

Elise-Richter Project supported by the Austrian Federal Research Fund/FWF

3-year Senior Postdoc Project
Feb. 2015-Oct. 2018

Project Assistant: Eléonore Tarla (


The project traces the construction of the pirate in transatlantic American literature and culture from the late 17th century to the Civil War, exploring in what ways the cultural imaginary teased out the pirate’s ambivalent potential as a figure of identification and Othering, and how it has been used to articulate and negotiate ideas of (il)legitimacy. Narratives about pirates were significant for the formation and development of a number of popular genres in Anglophone print culture: of published trial reports, execution sermons, and broadsides, in which condemned ‘pirates’ justified their actions in the late 17th and early 18th centuries; of popular histories and historical romances in the 19th century, which romanticized the pirate as a revolutionary outlaw; of captivity narratives during the so-called U.S. ‘Barbary Wars’ against North African city-states (1801-05, 1815), in which former American captives who had been caught by Muslim ‘pirates’ in the Mediterranean and sold into slavery compared them favorably to triangular slave traders; or of caricatures of Southern ‘pirates’ at the beginning of the Civil War, which were printed upon Union envelopes to deplore slavery and the act of secession.

Authors like Cotton Mather, James Fenimore Cooper, and Herman Melville were similarly drawn to the pirate’s ambivalent appeal for the rhetorical and literary negotiation of contemporaneous questions of legitimacy: with regard to Puritan authority, the American Revolution, or the institution of slavery. Historically, pirates were marked by their shifting national, racial, and at times even gender affiliations; because of this semantic elusiveness, s/he also became a literary trope which allowed for a symbolic negotiation of various identity constructions (such as British colony versus independent Republic; or United versus divided, slave-free or slaveholding States during the War of Secession) that had come into crisis in the (post-)colonial history of the United States and the Anglophone Caribbean.

The project recasts piracy as a discursive category moving in a continuum between the propagation of (post-)colonial adventure and accumulation on the one hand and critical commentary on exploitation and colonial oppression on the other. Reading narratives of piracy as symptomatic of various crisis scenarios, the project examines how the pirate was imbued with (de)legitimatory meaning during such periods and how popular cultural texts interpellated a non-elite readership to reflect on pressing issues of legitimacy—and thus on the future of American national identity.

Upcoming Activities:

  • Under contract: Maritime Literature and Culture, book series ed. with Meg Samuelson (Univ. Adelaide) and Charne Lavery (Univ. Witwatersrand), Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Essay collection Maritime Mobilities: Critical Perspectives, ed. with Charne Lavery, Palgrave Macmillan 2018 (in preparation).
  • Monograph Crisis and Legitimacy in American Narratives of Piracy, 1678-1865, Palgrave Macmillan, 2018 (in preparation).

Past Activities:

  • Conference "Liberty and Death: Prates and Zombies in Atlantic Modernity," Jan 18-19, 2018, IFK Vienna (with Gudrun Rath).
  • American Comparative Literature Association conference panel, "Practices of Mobility: Narratives and Counter–Narratives" (with Kyle Kamaiopili, Emerson College & Thomas Massnick, University of Wisconsin-Madison); paper "The Pirate Ship as Heterotope in the First Caribbean Novel". Univ. Utrecht, July 6-9, 2017.
  • "Early American Pirate Narratives and the Construction of Masculinity," Society for Early Americanists (SEA) Annual Conference, Tulsa, Oklahoma, 2-5 Mar. 2017.
  • Lecture Series "Outlaws, Rebels, Misfits: Cultures of Deviance," WT 2016/17, feat. Kris Lane, Ana Sobral, Michael Zeuske, Sonja Schillings, Iris Gareis, Andrea Mayr et al. (in cooperation with KonaK)
  • "The Gender Politics of Early Pirate Melodrama." Paper, Conference "The Politics and Polemics of Gender in Early American Theatre," Sep. 29-30, 2016, University of Salzburg (Skype lecture). 
  • "Pirates as Border Crossers," lecture series "Grenzfiguren," Univ. Flensburg, July 2016.
  • Workshop, German Assoc. for American Studies Annual Conference, Osnabrück 2016: "Embodiments of the Law in American Literature and Culture" (with Stefanie Schäfer)
  • "Cross-Dressing and Piracy in Antebellum American Literature." Invited lecture, FAU Erlangen, May 10, 2016.
  • Interdisciplinary Conference: Maritime Mobilities: Critical Perspectives from the Humanities (Feb. 1-2, 2016, in cooperation with the research platform Mobile Cultures and Societies, University of Vienna) [Archive: Call for papers]
  • Senior discussant, graduate conference Mobility Meets Little Resistances, Univ. of Vienna, Nov. 26-28, 2015
  • "Crisis and Risk in 19th-Century Popular Narratives of Piracy." Invited Paper, "Perilous Passages: The Birth of Risk in 19th-Century American Culture." Oct. 23–24, 2015, Schloss Thurnau. (Brief paper in absence due to illness) 
  • Vortrag, "Piraten und Utopische Experimente in den USA." Themenschwerpunkt (Alp)Traum USA: Mythen, Utopien, Aggressionen. Aktionsradius Wien, 20., Gaußplatz 11, 17. Nov. 2015, 19h30. 
  • Paper, American Studies Association (ASA) Annual Meeting "The (Re)production of Misery and the Ways of Resistance", Toronto, Oct. 8-11, 2015
  • Konferenz "BEWEGUNGSMUSTER - DARSTELLUNGSVERFAHREN - KONZEPTE" der Forschungsplattform MOBILE KULTUREN UND GESELLSCHAFTEN / Univ. Wien, 23. Juni 2015, 14h, Sky Lounge der Universität Wien, Oskar-Morgenstern-Platz 1, 1090 Wien
  • "Flanieren durch die Wissenschaft" (im Rahmen der 650-Jahr-Feier der Univ. Wien): "Populäre PiratInnen in der atlantischen Welt des 17.-19. Jahrhunderts" (14.06.2015)

Project Publications (open access):

Media Reports: