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"A Bold and Hardy Race of Men"

"A Bold and Hardy Race of Men": The Lives and Literature of American Whalemen

Jennifer Schell
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 280
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  • Book Info
    "A Bold and Hardy Race of Men"
    Book Description:

    In his novel Miriam Coffin, or The WhaleFishermen (1834), Joseph C. Hart proclaimed that his characters were “a bold and hardy race of men,” who deserved the “expressive title of American WhaleFishermen.” Hart was not the only American author to applaud these physical laborers as the embodiment of national manhood. Heroic portraits of whalers first appeared in American literature during the 1780s, and they proliferated across time. Writers as various as Lydia Howard Huntley Sigourney, Frederick Douglass, and Walt Whitman celebrated the talents of the seafarers who transformed the New England whale fishery into a globally dominant industry. But these images did not go unchallenged. Alternative visions—some of which undermined the iconic status of the trade and its workers—began to proliferate. Even so, these depictions did very little to dismantle the notion that whaling men were prime exemplars of a proud American work ethic. To explain why this industry had such a widespread and enduring impact on American literature, Jennifer Schell juxtaposes and analyzes a wide array of eighteenth and nineteenthcentury whaling narratives. Drawing on various studies of masculinity, labor history, and transnationalism, Schell shows how this particular type of maritime work, and the traits and values associated with it, helped to shape the American literary, cultural, and historical imagination. In the process, she reveals the diverse, flexible, and often contradictory meanings of gender, class, and nation in nineteenthcentury America.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-273-8
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xvi)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-19)

    Soon after Joseph C. Hart published his novelMiriam Coffin; or, The Whale-Fishermenin 1834 it became a bestseller, enthralling nineteenth-century American readers with its vivid descriptions of whale hunting in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and rural life on the island of Nantucket. Though the book is no longer widely read, for its contemporary readers, it valorized the lives and achievements of New England whalemen, whom it presents, using all capital letters, as national heroes.

    In the exercise of their hazardous trade they have become a bold and hardy race of men;—in danger, cool, collected and adventurous;—seldom...

  5. 1 Manly Physical Labor and American National Identity
    (pp. 20-41)

    J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur’sLetters from an American Farmermay be the first text to describe the exceptional qualities of New England whalemen. It is also one of American literature’s earliest attempts to appropriate the work of whaling for national purposes. Throughout the Nantucket chapters ofLetters, Crèvecoeur’s narrator, a Pennsylvania farmer named James, compares whalemen to men working in other sectors of the American economy, beginning with farmers. “If these people are not famous for tracing the fragrant furrow on the plain,” James says, “they plough the rougher ocean” to “gather” the “riches it affords.” Later, he...

  6. 2 The World of Whaling and Its Residents
    (pp. 42-73)

    Figurations of whalemen as the embodiment of an ideal form of national manhood, though popular in American literature, did not go unchallenged. In chapter 14 ofMoby-Dick, for example, Ishmael describes Nantucket whale hunters as isolated islanders, as rootless cosmopolitans, and as representative Americans.

    And thus have these naked Nantucketers, these sea hermits, issuing from their ant-hill in the sea, overrun and conquered the watery world like so many Alexanders; parcelling out among them the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans, as the three pirate powers did Poland. Let America add Mexico to Texas, and pile Cuba upon Canada; let the...

  7. 3 Foremast Hands and the Art of Physical Labor
    (pp. 74-104)

    J. Ross Browne uses the phrase “poetry ofincident” to describe the yarns told by one of his crewmembers, John Tabor. A harpooner, Tabor “had spent twenty years of his life at sea, and had seen a great deal of the world…. He had endured every species of hardship, and he bore upon his face and body scars which he had received in various encounters.” What intensifies Browne’s appreciation of Tabor’s artistic abilities is his lack of formal schooling. “Tabor, in particular,” he writes, “—though he never made use of a poetical word; though he had never read a...

  8. 4 The Whaling Industry and Its Chains of Command
    (pp. 105-136)

    TheEssex’s first mate, Owen Chase, describes whalers as upwardly mobile workers, all of whom have the potential to become successful self-made men: “They have an ambition and pride among them which seeks after distinguishment and promotion. Almost all of them enter the service with views of a future command; and submit cheerfully to the hardships and drudgery of the intermediate stations, until they become thoroughly acquainted with their business.”¹ Writing just thirty-three years later, Jacob A. Hazen offers a markedly different view of what it was like to work in the New England whaling industry. Furnishing his readers with...

  9. 5 Unconventional Gender Roles at Home and at Sea
    (pp. 137-168)

    The unusual domestic arrangements whaling families adopted further complicated the notion that whalemen were national heroes. These sailors were away from home for three or four years at a time, and during that time the majority of whaling wives remained ashore, either alone or with extended-family members. By necessity, these women assumed all of their spouses’ familial duties in addition to their own: they parented the children, managed domestic affairs, and transacted the family’s business dealings. Sarah Orne Jewett captures the difficult and lonely lives these whaling wives led in her novelDeephaven. There, one character, a whaleman’s wife named...

  10. 6 Racialized Discourses and Cosmopolitan Workforces
    (pp. 169-198)

    The nineteenth-century New England whale fishery employed many nonwhite and foreign-born seafarers.Moby-Dick’s harpooners represent three of these minorities: Tashtego, a Wampanoag; Queequeg, a Polynesian; and Daggoo, an African. ThroughoutIndian Nullification, a protest William Apess wrote on behalf of the Mashpee Wampanoags to “the white people of Massachusetts,” the author refers to the many Indians who toil away, ill compensated, in the lower ranks of the whaling industry. Quoting an extract from theBoston Daily Advocate, he indicates that “many of the stoutestwhalersare produced among our small Indian tribes,” and that “they are defrauded by the whites...

  11. Epilogue
    (pp. 199-208)

    William Cullen Bryant’s narrative poem “Catterskill Falls” describes “a youth of a dreamy mood” pursuing a panther through the wintry woods of the Catskill Mountains. Stumbling upon the famous cataract and pausing to admire its frozen grandeur, the boy sees several phantoms hovering over its “glistening pillars” and “crystal battlements.” Who were these spirit-men? Some were hunters who roamed through the forest tracking their game; others were mariners who wandered the world in search of whales and seals.

    There pass the chasers of seal and whale,

    With their weapons quaint and grim,

    And bands of warriors in glimmering mail,


  12. Notes
    (pp. 209-250)
  13. Index
    (pp. 251-262)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 263-266)