Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Erotic Diaries of a Victorian Seafarer in the US Navy

An American Seafarer in the Age of Sail: The Erotic Diaries of Philip C. Van Buskirk, 1851-1870 An American Seafarer in the Age of Sail: The Erotic Diaries of Philip C. Van Buskirk, 1851-1870 by Barry Richard Burg
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is not what you think it's about. :)

Philip C Van Buskirk was an educated young man whose family fell on hard times. Consequently:

1) He is an outsider to the world in which he now must live. For example, although he is a common drummer boy/sailor/marine he has more in common with the officers.

2) He has beautifully clear handwriting.

His urge to record his internal life is amazing - he kept diaries for *years*. And they're mostly about his private hopes, disappointments, and thoughts - not about the places he went (China, Japan) nor the Civil War he fought in.

This is a very different record of shipboard life, and of interest to anyone who likes the Age of Sail.

The reason the title has "erotic" in it is because Van Buskirk - a moral, if not Puritan, middle-class boy - is seriously appalled at the frequency of male/male relations between other crew members. Apparently unlike the British navy, the American navy accepted these liaisons as a matter of necessity and as long as it didn't interfere with your duties all's well that ends well.

Because there was little privacy on board, Van Buskirk's diaries were often read by others. Sometimes people objected to what he wrote. Interestingly, his descriptions of male/male erotic behavior were NOT objected to, which furthers the idea that this was normative behavior.

Van Buskirk is a complex, not to say seriously messed-up, person. When he grows up, he has difficulty forming friendships with adults his own age. And thanks to Victorian America's obsession with masturbation as a direct road to death and Hell, he keeps meticulous track of his bodily fluids and constantly writes of how he despises himself.

As a narrator, you may not like him, but this window into a male mind of the mid-to-late 19th century is priceless.

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