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"A Bold and Hardy Race of Men"

The Lives and Literature of American Whalemen

Jennifer Schell

Publication Year: 2013

In his novel Miriam Coffin, or The Whale-Fishermen (1834), Joseph C. Hart proclaimed that his characters were “a bold and hardy race of men,” who deserved the “expressive title of American Whale-Fishermen.” 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 nineteenth-century 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 nineteenth-century America.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-vi

Table of Contents

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xvi

Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick is, by far, the most famous book ever written about the New England whale fishery and its workers. More than a hundred years before the novel’s publication, however, writers had already recognized the potential in this “mighty theme.”1 Almost as soon as they arrived in the New World, explorers and colonists began to develop the ...

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pp. 1-19

Soon after Joseph C. Hart published his novel Miriam Coffin; or, The Whale-Fishermen in 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,...

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1. Manly Physical Labor and American National Identity

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pp. 20-41

J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer may 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 of Letters, Crèvecoeur’s narrator, a Pennsylvania...

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2. The World of Whaling and its Residents

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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 of Moby-Dick, for example, Ishmael describes Nantucket whale hunters as isolated islanders, as rootless cosmopolitans, and as representative Americans....

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3. Foremast Hands and the Art of Physical Labor

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pp. 74-104

J. Ross Browne uses the phrase “poetry of incident” 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...

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4. The Whaling Industry and its Chains of Command

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pp. 105-136

The Essex’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 ...

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5. Unconventional Gender Roles at Home and at Sea

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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...

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6. Racialized Discourses and Cosmopolitan Workforces

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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. Throughout Indian Nullification, a protest William Apess wrote on behalf of the Mashpee Wampanoags to “the white...

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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 ...


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pp. 209-250


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pp. 251-262

About the Author

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pp. 263-265

Back Cover

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p. BC-BC

E-ISBN-13: 9781613762738
E-ISBN-10: 1613762739
Print-ISBN-13: 9781625340191
Print-ISBN-10: 1625340192

Page Count: 296
Publication Year: 2013