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Reviewed by:
  • Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America
  • Karen Oslund (bio)
Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America. By Eric Jay Dolin. New York: W. W. Norton, 2007. Pp. 479. $27.95.

According to the dust jacket, Eric Jay Dolin's Leviathan: The History of Whaling "teems with fascinating vignettes," and, indeed, the book lives up to its billing. Some of these stories make interesting additions to American political and economic history, as well as to the history of whaling. For example, I learned that in 1779 some inhabitants of Nantucket were so distraught by the interruption of their whale trade with the British during the Revolutionary War that they entered into negotiations with Sir Henry Clinton, commander of the British army, to halt attacks on the island in exchange for the promise of the British receiving a welcome there "as friends." When General Horatio Gates, commander of the American forces in New England, discovered the contact, he quite naturally regarded it as treasonous and lodged a legal complaint against the Nantucketers. The General Court in Massachusetts sided with Gates and forbade the Nantucketers from having any further contact with the enemy.

This episode nicely illustrates the economic importance of whaling in eighteenth-century America and the effect of the Revolution on this trade. By the time the Treaty of Paris ended the war in 1783, the "American whale fishery lay in ruins," according to Dolan (p. 163). The rest of Leviathan recounts the story of the recovery of American whaling in the first half of the nineteenth century (although suffering again during the War of 1812) and its decline after the 1850s, due to the combined forces of the American Civil War, the replacement of whale oil by petroleum, a series of Arctic disasters, and international competition. The competition came especially from the Norwegians, who introduced the harpoon cannon in the 1860s. After 1900, whaling was regarded as belonging to the glamorous past in America, as it was portrayed in the 1922 film Down to the Sea in Ships, set in the 1850s and filmed in New Bedford. The townspeople, by that time shorn of their traditional [End Page 745] livelihood, found some new employment as extras and consultants on the film set.

Leviathan is a very straightforward narrative history. According to Dolan, whaling in America rises and falls—like waves do or like whales themselves do. Unfortunately, he offers about as much explanation for this narrative of whaling as he might be able to give for the waves or the whales. Dolan asks some interesting historical questions along the way but never really answers them. For example, why did Americans, both during the colonial period and during World War I, reject whale meat as food, when Europeans did not? Dolan does not stop to investigate. More frustrating for historians of technology, we don't find out why Norwegians invested in new technology at the end of the nineteenth century, while the Americans were letting their old wooden whaling boats rot. Whaling in America no longer seemed profitable, but if the Norwegians, Russians, and Japanese still thought there was money to be made in the oceans, why didn't the Americans? Why didn't they import the harpoon cannon and chase the faster-swimming blue and fin whales as well? The United States surely does have a "fascinating" whaling history, distinguished from that of other nations, as Dolan asserts, but why did whaling develop differently here than elsewhere? Leviathan repeats the story of American exceptionalism without offering any analysis of it. At times, the book just attends to American history for its own sake, with seven pages covering the outbreak of the Revolution that are unrelated to whaling developments.

As a contribution to the academic history of whaling, of the United States, or the history of technology, Leviathan is probably more frustrating than useful. For the general reader interested in whaling, and especially for Revolutionary War buffs, on the other hand, it would be a satisfying read. The reproductions of advertisements of whale products and of Nantucket and New Bedford in their whaling heyday are excellent.

Karen Oslund

Dr. Oslund is assistant professor of history at Towson University...


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