American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

NANTUCKET. As the whaling capital of the world for portions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Nantucket Island, fifty square miles and twenty-four miles off the southern shore of Cape Cod,* offered America an early example of how it might conduct itself as an independent world power. Functioning, in effect, as a cultural metaphor, the island would assume an important and enduring role in the American literary tradition.

Prior to the arrival of the island’s first English settlers in 1659, Nantucket figured largely in the oral traditions of the region’s Native Americans, with a legend linking the island’s discovery to the appearance of a giant eagle making its way into the “Nantucket” chapter of Herman Melville’s* Moby-Dick* (1851). In 1676, after the outbreak of King Philip’s War on the mainland, the island’s Indian interpreter, Peter Folger, became Nantucket’s first recognized poet, authoring an anti-Puritan ballad entitled “A Looking Glass for the Times,” which would be published posthumously in 1725 and 1763 and is praised in the Autobiography (1793) of Folger’s grandson, Benjamin Franklin. Another Folger descendant, the Nantucket whaling merchant Timothy Folger, provided Franklin with information used in his map and description of the Gulf Stream (1786). Just prior to the outbreak of the Revolution, Franklin drew upon his long-standing Nantucket connection in a meeting with the British statesman Edmund Burke, whose speech before Parliament, “On Conciliation with the Colonies” (1775), looks to the whale fishery as a quintessential example of how the “recent people” of the American colonies have, in many instances, outstripped the accomplishments of their mother country. Yet another observer who saw Nantucket as central to an appreciation of colonial America was St. John de Crevecoeur, whose Letters from an American Farmer (1782) provides an in-depth description of a Quaker whaling community that epitomizes what the American people are all about.

In the immediate aftermath of the Revolution, which destroyed most of Nantucket’s whaling fleet and removed London as a market for the island’s oil, Britain and France offered Nantucketers an array of economic incentives if they would whale from an adopted shore. Thomas Jefferson’s Observations on the Whale-Fishery (1788) recounts these developments and suggests policies that would enable America to regain its former glory as the world’s whaling leader. As it turned out, Nantucket would emerge from the political and economic chaos of the War of 1812 as the booming capital of a fishery that had grown to include the Pacific Ocean.

During this period, the exploits of the Nantucket whalemen brought national and international attention to the island. The Narrative of the Essex* disaster (1821), written by the first mate, Owen Chase,* describes the sinking of a Nantucket whaleship by its supposed prey and the incredible horrors suffered by the survivors. Two other Nantucket whalemen, William Lay and Cyrus Hussey, recounted their experiences in The Globe Mutiny* (1828), telling how Samuel Comstock led a brutal mutiny* before ultimately dying at the hands of natives in the Mulgrave Islands. In 1835 the island whale oil merchant Obed Macy published his History of Nantucket, providing not only an account of the island’s rise as a whaling port but also selections from a variety of island poets, most notably Peter Folger and an eighteenth- century Quaker whaleman, Peleg Folger.

In the meantime, a host of American writers looked to the island and these works for inspiration. In 1824 James Fenimore Cooper* established the genre of American sea fiction with the publication of The Pilot,* a novel featuring the Nantucketer Long Tom Coffin,* a giant of a man in the same mythic mold as Natty Bumppo of Leatherstocking fame. Even though The Pilot is primarily set in the English Channel, Cooper inserts a recreational whale hunt into his narrative, drawing attention to the fact that the Nantucket whale fishery has created a distinctly American breed of sailor. Joseph C. Hart’s* Miriam Coffin, or The Whale-Fishermen (1834) strives to make the same point, describing Nantucket as “this American Island” in its portrayal of the rise and fall of the female whaling merchant Miriam Coffin. Edgar Allan Poe’s* The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket* (1838) draws not only on the narratives of Nantucket whalemen but also on Hart’s whaling novel (as would Herman Melville*) in his account of a Nantucketer’s “extraordinary series of adventures.” Following in the footsteps of Hart, whose mother was a Coleman from Nantucket, two other New Yorkers with island backgrounds published highly successful novels that looked to Nantucket as the breeding ground for their heroic protagonists: The Adventures of Harry Franco (1839) by Charles Frederick Briggs* and Kaloolah (1849) by William Starbuck Mayo.*

While these novels tended to exalt the island’s status as a whaling port, the poet John Greenleaf Whittier* was more interested in its role as an exemplary Quaker community in his ballad “The Exiles” (1841). Whittier concludes his stirring account of how Thomas Macy and his family first settled on the island with a four-stanza tribute to the island as a Quaker abolitionist enclave of freedom and tolerance. A year after the publication of Whittier’s poem, an escaped slave by the name of Frederick Douglass* delivered his first speech before a white audience at the Nantucket Athe- neum. Douglass’ Narrative (1845) ends, appropriately enough, with this speech on Nantucket.

Although a plethora of nineteenth-century writers and intellectuals went to Nantucket and recorded their impressions (including Daniel Webster, John James Audubon,* Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Tho- reau*), it would be left to Melville, who appears not to have visited the island prior to writing Moby-Dick (1851), to provide the definitive account of Nantucket in its whaling heyday. Although written well after the island had surrendered its whaling preeminence to New Bedford, Melville’s “Nantucket” chapter combines Burke’s sense of the fishery’s global scope with Cooper’s conception of the whaleman as a rugged individual to portray the Nantucketer as an unstoppable, all-conquering hero: “For the sea is his; he owns it, as Emperors own empires” (ch. 14). The summer after the publication of Moby-Dick, Melville visited Nantucket for the first time, writing a series of letters to Nathaniel Hawthorne,* known today as the “Agatha letters,” which contain stories and scenes collected during his trip. Melville would subsequently write an unpublished novel entitled The Isle of the Cross (the manuscript of which has never been found), which may have drawn upon this material; echoes from this visit are also detectable in Melville’s book-length poem Clarel (1876).

Even as Nantucket fell into a century-long economic decline with the loss of the whaling industry, the island maintained a reputation for literary sophistication. In addition to works of poetry, highlighted by the collection Seaweeds from the Shores of Nantucket (1853), island authors such as Frederick Coleman Sanford, in a series of articles published in local and regional newspapers entitled “The Nantucket Sea Kings,” helped to promote and inevitably romanticize Nantucket’s whaling legacy. In the meantime, Nantucketers caught up in the exodus to the west brought a decidedly island perspective to an ever-evolving national literature, of which Martha Summerhayes’ Vanished Arizona, Recollections of the Army Life of a New England Woman (1908) is a prime example. The Nantucket roots of Ernest Hemingway’s* mother would have a profound influence on that writer, who traveled to the island with her as a boy and subsequently read Melville’s Moby-Dick while still in high school, ultimately moving to the old whaling port of Key West* and turning to the sea as a major source of inspiration.

The increasing popularity and influence of Moby-Dick throughout the twentieth century ensured that Nantucket would always be something more than an island summer resort when it came to the American literary imagination. Robert Lowell’s* seminal poem “Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” (1946) begins where Moby-Dick ends, with the sinking of the Pequod.* Proclaiming that “this is the end of whale road,” Lowell—a conscientious objector during World War II—brings a sense of outrage, horror, and loss to a meditation on Nantucket’s brutal and pious Quaker whaling heritage. John Steinbeck,* who had grown up in the whaling town of Monterey, California, wrote much of East of Eden (1952) while on Nantucket, ultimately moving to the old whaling port of Sag Harbor, New York, where he wrote his last novel, The Winter of Our Discontent (1961), about a defunct whaling town beset by the challenges of becoming a summer resort. From the local humorist Nathaniel Benchley, whose novel The Off-Islanders (1961) brings issues of national and international importance to bear on a Nantucket-like place, to the dramatist John Guare, Nantucket remains, in the words of Joseph C. Hart, “this American Island.” [See also AMERICAN INDIAN LITERATURE OF THE SEA; LIGHTHOUSE LITERATURE; NANTUCKET CYCLE; WHALING NARRATIVES]

FURTHER READING: Crosby, Everett U. Nantucket in Print. Nantucket, MA: Tetaukimmo, 1946; Philbrick, Nathaniel. “ ‘Every Wave Is a Fortune’: Nantucket Island and the Making of an American Icon,” New England Quarterly (1993): 43447; Philbrick, Nathaniel. Away Off Shore, Nantucket Island and Its People, 16021890. Nantucket, MA: Mill Hill, 1994.

Nathaniel Philbrick