An American Seafarer in the Age of Sail


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The Erotic Diaries of Philip C. Van Buskirk, 1851-1870

B. R. Burg

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Philip Van Buskirk enlisted in the U.S. Marines in 1846, when he was twelve years old. Beginning in 1851, he recorded his thoughts and experiences on board ship, providing a firsthand account of the countries he visited, the brawling nation in which he lived, and the everyday life and homoerotic exploits of the sailors and marines who sailed with him. B.R. Burg draws on these unconventional and revelatory diaries and on social, religious, and medical writings of the time to create a picture of nineteenth-century America that is rarely seen.

The semi-educated son of a once prosperous family, Van Buskirk had the ability and enthusiasm to depict the mores and behavior of the ordinary folk with whom he associated, something other chroniclers of his time did not do. Burg points out that a substantial gulf separated the perceptions and sentiments of literate Americans of this period from those of unlettered Americans. Van Buskirk's journals highlight the differences between these groups and tell of the conflicts that existed as the notions of propriety and morality held by the upper classes were tested by a less-than-deferential underclass.

B. R. Burg is professor of history at Arizona State University.

"The book will interest traditional naval historians, as well as social historians and ethnographers who want to explore class relations and sexual identities in mid-nineteenth-century America. The book explores the formal and informal boundaries of acceptable behavior and sets them within the context of the naval service and American society at the time."—Craig M. Cameron, Old Dominion University

"Van Buskirk's diary offers a rare account of the (homo)sexual life of American seamen in the mid-nineteenth century and useful new perspectives on the relationship between middle-class and working-class sexual ideology."—George Chauncey, University of Chicago

"An intriguing narrative. . . . An illuminating glimpse of class differences of the period as well as sex mores. Naval and social historians will find this book valuable source material."—Publishers Weekly

"Through this book we gain a window into daily life including morals, clashes of the classes, sexual activities, and the effect the growing pains of a country had on the ordinary sailor and marines during the heyday of sailing. Burg uses the meticulous diaries of Philip Van Buskirk to pull the drapes from the window so that we may gaze upon the past as it truly was."—Terry Tallent, Phoenix News-Sun

"We should be grateful that so much of Philip's diary has survived. . . . It greatly widens our knowledge of the humble mariner's life, and beyond that of his whole culture. . . . Everyone like myself who . . . has always lived close to the sea and finds both its literature and its lore constantly fascinating, will want this oddity, even cherish it."—John Fowles, Spectator

"Burg has done a fine job of organizing differences around sex and the social and economic conditions that explain van Buskirk's morality. Burg's witty, insightful commentary enlivens a well written text."—Choice

"Burg has done a fine job of organizing the material and setting it in historical context. . . . [his] witty, insightful commentary enlivens a well-written text."—Choice

"Hopefully the existence of Van Buskirk's rich diary will encourage others to undertake more comprehensive historical investigations of sailors and their sexualities."—Steven Maynard, Journal of the Canadian Nautical Research Society

"Professor Burg has assembled an exceptionally engaging study that examines the life of Philip C. Van Buskirk and that individual's perspectives on the social structures and morals attitudes of American seafarers during the waning years of sail power in the mid-nineteenth century. . . . Burg's study contributes a superbly drawn panorama of naval life 140 years ago. Drawing upon Van Buskirk's observations, Burg's text contributes fascinating insights into those operative social and moral codes that daily guided sailors' lives."—Simon P. Sibelman, Journal of American History

"Professor Burg . . . has done maritime history an important service in bringing Van Buskirk and his journals to light. Readers may find Philip Van Buskirk unappealing, or unsympathetic, but his record adds a startling and important dimension to our view of at least the nineteenth-century American navy."—Briton C. Busch, Mariner's Mirror

"It is my hope that Burg will later give us the diary of the new Philip Van Buskirk, covering the years from 1870 until his death in 1903. By putting the life of Van Buskirk into social context and interpreting the cultural significance of this diary, historians of sexuality have an unparalleled source for understanding both behavior and beliefs in nineteenth-century America."—Lynne M Adrian, Journal of the History of Sexuality

"B.R. Burg tells Van Buskirk's tale well, sparing us the soporific banality of the seaman's prose and providing ample historical context on his life and times. Burg rightly recognizes that Van Buskirk is chiefly significant to scholars for his detailed descriptions of homoerotic behavior of all sorts among sailors and the matter-of-fact acceptance of such behavior by nearly everyone. . . . In this fine book, Burg shows what the social construction of gender really means and reminds us how much it costs."—Mark C. Carnes, American Historical Society

ISBN: 9780300199772
Publication Date: May 28, 2013
238 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4