Danger! Literary Content!
ILLUSTRATION: JACQUES DE LOUSTAL
For centuries, American whalers’ basic method of capture and killing remained remarkably unchanged.
It is only appropriate that a posting on Starbucks be followed by a story about the whaling industry. Go ahead, ask me why. In the analytic spirit of the week, that just shed important light for me about why I so enjoy the coffee boutique chain: I’ve never ever gotten over “Moby-Dick.”
It wasn’t that long ago that L-HC discussed reading (all right, listening) to books on tape. One of my recent pleasures was to revisit Melville’s “Moby-Dick” this summer for the first time in 32,264 years, since a senior in high school (then it was the rare cave-painting edition).
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that Arts and Letters Daily should have found this review a month or so after its publication; it’s their style. And, it is probably the nature of the Internet that everyone is writing about everything every moment, so encountering this topic was absolutely not a coincidence. I imagine that any subject I can think of is out there, 4,387 times today alone, 5,100 times tomorrow.
And I used to think it was a challenge to keep up with my daily newspaper!
To the whales:
There She Blew
The history of American whaling.
by Caleb Crain July 23, 2007
If, under the spell of “Moby-Dick,” you decided to run away to the modern equivalent of whaling, where would you go? Because petroleum displaced whale oil as a source of light and lubrication more than a century ago, it might seem logical to join workers in Arabian oil fields or on drilling platforms at sea. On the other hand, firemen, like whalers, are united by their care for one another and for the vehicle that bears them, and the fireman’s alacrity with ladders and hoses resembles the whaler’s with masts and ropes. Then, there are the armed forces, which, like a nineteenth-century whaleship, can take you around the world in the company of people from ethnic and social backgrounds unfamiliar to you. All these lines of work are dangerous but indispensable, as whaling once was, but none seem perfectly analogous. Ultimately, there is nothing like rowing a little boat up to a sixty-ton mammal that swims, stabbing it, and hoping that it dies a relatively well-mannered death.
After a short diversion that I’ll leave to faithful reader to enjoy without tipping it in advance, the review continues:
It is difficult to follow in Melville’s footsteps if you can’t tell when he’s fibbing, but there is no shortage of whaling histories for a Melville aficionado to turn to. (“Though of real knowledge there be little,” Melville wrote, “yet of books there are a plenty.”) In the latest, “Leviathan” (Norton; $27.95), Eric Jay Dolin offers a pleasantly anecdotal history of American whaling so comprehensive that he seems to have harpooned at least one fact from every cetacean text ever printed. “Leviathan” is a gentle book about a brutal industry. By ending his story when America stopped whaling, Dolin omits the most gruesome years of international whaling history, when new technology increased killing capacity approximately tenfold. He presents whaling in a more innocent age, when it was the fifth-largest industry in America and a source of national pride—in the time before ecology, as well as before steamships, as it were.
The review is here:
[Per L-HC’s reformed process, please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]
I must admit that, listening with 17,000 year old ears is astoundingly different than reading with 17 year old eyes. Melville captured in quite glorious and infinitely descriptive detail the brutal business that is whaling, brutality that weighs much heavier on MUDGE that is than on fetal MUDGE of 78,325 years ago.
The review discusses the decline of the American whaling business; my instinct had always been that it was a matter of declining stock due to overfishing, as this seems to be a growing tragedy in our oceans. But not so:
In 1838, a whaler wrote in his journal:
There was a time, (so says my rhyme,
And so ’tis prosed by many)
Sperm whales were found on “Japan Ground,”
But now there are not any.
But the economists tell us that whales are innocent of having damaged the whaling industry by becoming scarce, and nineteenth-century whalers had to keep searching for new grounds because whales in much-hunted areas grew more canny. Americans never caught enough sperm whales to throw them out of equilibrium. They did harm the populations of grays and bowheads, it seems, and maybe of right whales, too, but too late to have contributed to the decline of American whaling.
No, it was economics — the discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania just before the Civil War was only one of the last blows, the war itself providing further harm to the business.
But, what an incredibly modern novel “Moby-Dick” is, for 1851 (where it must have seemed like science fiction to Victorian sensibilities), for 1965, for 2007. Melville was an absolute genius. This opinion has been firmly held since those cave painted days, and has not changed a whit. Indeed, having read a few things in the interim, MUDGE‘s belief in the astonishing modernity of Melville has been reinforced by a few orders of magnitude.
Read “Leviathan,” I plan to because the history of technology is one of my major avocations. Had I found an educational institution as interested in the topic as I was, then, my own personal history might read differently. Now, it’s an in subject. Then, zilch. Sigh.
But then please go re-read “Moby-Dick.” Makes this poor slob’s attempts at putting his thoughts out in front of a nanopublic seem blunderingly, comically crude in comparison.
It’s it for now. Thanks,
Note!: the links to bookstores used in the final paragraphs above are for the convenience of faithful reader and represent no commercial relationship whatsoever. Left-Handed Complement should be so fortunate as to ever collect remuneration of any kind for this endeavor. I can link, so I link. It’s technology. It’s cool. Deal with it.