Biography 24.4 (2001) 973-975
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The last year has seen a renewed popular interest in nineteenth-century whaling. Nathaniel Philbrick, author of In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, recounted the real-life voyage on which Melville patterned Moby Dick. Sena Naslund narrated Melville's famous epic from a female perspective in Ahab's Wife: The Star Gazer. Both Naslund and Philbrick appeared on the New York Times best-seller list. Academic interest in the subject has also grown, most notably with the appearance of Lisa Norling's Captain Ahab Had a Wife: New England Women and the Whalefishery, 1720-1870. Tracing the experiences of southern New England families on sea and shore, this impressive work received the Frederick Jackson Turner prize from the Organization of American Historians. Norling shows that women's land-based labor was central to one of colonial America's most lucrative and capital-intensive industries. Taking the story through the nineteenth century, Norling explores the conflicted relationship of whaling wives to the dominant ideology of their era--Victorian domesticity. This prescriptive ideology should have had little resonance for New England women whose husbands spent much of their adult lives at sea. But as Norling explains, "domesticity offered the real-life Ahab's wife, and Ahab too, a powerful and indeed the only available way of understanding themselves as wives and husbands and maintaining their relationships during separations that now lasted three, four, or five years, and were repeated well through midlife" (7).
Eighteenth-century whaling wives had not been forced to contend with the cultural imperative of the private nuclear family. Like other colonial New England women, Nantucket "goodwives" labored within a corporate society with multiple layers of interdependence. In what Norling labels an intricate form of paternalism, shipowners extended cash and credit to the families of [End Page 973] men at sea. More importantly, however, "it was women's activities--predominantly local, daily, small in scale, often unrecorded, characterized more by barter and exchange than by cash transactions, involving services and goods that were ephemeral, consumed, used up and worn out--that kept family, household, and community going" (35-36). While whaling men necessarily experienced a disjuncture between home and work, their wives' lives revolved around female sociability and labor in the absence of their husbands. The dominance of Quakerism in Nantucket also fuelled women's willingness to subordinate individualism to the demands of family and community. The constant loss of husbands, sons, fathers, and brothers at sea made women's devotion to family and community all the more important as a spiritual obligation. Extended households that included kin and non-kin alike, as well as married sons and daughters, were normal in colonial Nantucket--a seemingly logical response to the dangers that whaling posed to familial coherence.
"Reform, Revolution, and Romanticism" (as Norling titles her third chapter) precipitated both the decline of Nantucket as the center of American whaling and the demise of the Quaker outlook that gave meaning to struggles of whaling wives. In the nineteenth century, women married to career whalemen--now concentrated in heterogeneous mainland cities like New Bedford--invested themselves in romantic love, conjugal intimacy, and the "home" as "the geographical center of emotional life, envisioned as a place of comfort and personal authenticity" (109). This ascendant bourgeois domesticity devalued women's labor while enshrining the male breadwinner ethic. Yet, the perceived need of husbands to provide for their families meant that men spent much of their married lives at sea. At the same time, in men's absences, shorebound wives worked harder than ever to sustain family economies. No wonder Norling calls domestic ideology "dysfunctional in their particular circumstances" (4).
Interestingly, domestic ideology served several useful purposes: notions of affective childrearing explained the intimate bonds that mothers and...