American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes
GLOUCESTER. A port city on the Cape Ann peninsula in northeastern Massachusetts, Gloucester has been noted for its fishing enterprise since the first English fishermen settled there in 1623 and for the hardiness and courage of its fishermen, more than 10,000 of whom have perished at sea. Although it rose to become one of the most productive fishing ports of the world by the end of the nineteenth century, more than a century later, with fish stocks depleted, its fishing industry is in serious decline.
Accounts of experiences along the Cape Ann coast have inspired poetical re-creations. Among the earliest narratives, Francis Higginson’s New-Englands Plantation (1630) notes the abundance of mackerel as his vessel approaches Cape Ann on its voyage from England. Higginson’s description, filled with expressions of wonder at the bounty and beauty around him, prompted Ann Stanford to re-create the experience in her poem “The Rev. Higginson’s Voyage” (1981). Prominent, but perilous, features of the Cape
Ann coastline bear the names of two families caught in a furious storm in 1635 in a coastal voyage from Newbury to Marblehead. Thacher’s Island is named after Anthony Thacher, who lost his four children in the shipwreck.* Thacher’s account was first published in Increase Mather’s Essay for the Illustrious Recording of Providence (1684). Avery’s Rock, where the vessel struck, memorializes the minister John Avery and his family of ten, who perished in the disaster. John Greenleaf Whittier’s* “The Swan Song of Parson Avery” (1860) draws on the text of Thacher’s description of Avery’s conviction that spiritual deliverance awaits him in the aftermath of his inevitable death. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow,* Whittier’s contemporary, drew loosely on several newspaper reports of storms in December 1839 for details in perhaps the best-known Gloucester poem, “The Wreck of the Hesperus” (1839), which Longfellow situates on a reef in Gloucester’s outer harbor called Norman’s Woe.
Fictional recitals of Gloucester’s fishing activities abound. One of the earliest, J. Reynolds’ Peter Gott, the Cape Ann Fisherman (1856), claims historical accuracy but presents an idealized portrait of the work life of a typical Gloucester fisherman. The most famous Gloucester work of fiction is Rudyard Kipling’s Captains Courageous* (1897), the story of Harvey Cheyne, a boy who comes of age through the challenges of working on a Gloucester schooner.
James Brendan Connolly—who saw action in Cuba in the Spanish- American War, served briefly in the American navy, and fished in his early years with the Gloucester, North Sea, and Baltic fleets, as well as in the Arctic*—remains the most admired of Gloucester’s fictional chroniclers. The author of twenty-five books, most of them about the sea, Connolly vividly portrays swaggering seamen defiant of the dangers of their trade, appealing to a reading public recently enchanted by the virile fiction of Jack London.* His publications include Out of Gloucester (1902), a collection of five tales, and The Seiners (1904), a novel on mackerel fishing. Gloucester stories continued to appear throughout his writing career, including the novella The Trawler (1914). Gloucestermen. Stories of the Fishing Fleet (1930) is a collection of twenty-seven of those stories. The Book of the Gloucester Fishermen (1927) laments the decline of the all-sail fishing fleet. The Port of Gloucester (1940) tells the story of Gloucester’s connections to the sea from the first settlements to the last sailing schooners.
Edmund Gilligan authored nine novels centered on various aspects of the Gloucester fisheries, including White Sails Crowding (1939), a story of winter halibut fishing and shipwreck on the Grand Banks; The Gaunt Woman (1943), in which the Gloucester halibut vessel Daniel Webster engages a square-rigger serving as a weapons supply ship for German U-boats; and Voyage of the Golden Hind (1945), a tale of intrigue and treachery on a Grand Banks dory schooner.
Raymond McFarland presents a firsthand account of the labor of the mackerel fishery in The Masts of Gloucester (1937) and celebrates the heroic qualities of the “high-liners,” the elite seamen whose reputations for courage and competence were legendary in the community. A teacher and scholar, McFarland also wrote A History of the New England Fisheries (1911), a survey of the development of the fishing industry from the early seventeenth to the late nineteenth centuries, with emphasis on the herring, shellfish, cod, and mackerel fisheries and with an account of the evolution of the New England fishing schooner. Sterling Hayden’s* autobiography, Wanderer (1963), includes, among numerous other seagoing experiences, an account of working in his youth as a deckhand on Gloucester schooners. Joseph Garland’s Lone Voyager (1978) is a tribute to Gloucester’s most famous dory fisherman, Howard Blackburn, who survived savage wintry seas for three days when lost in the fog by freezing his hands to the oars of his dory and rowing ashore. A noted local historian, Garland has also written a history of the coastal section of Gloucester known as Eastern Point (1973) and Down to the Sea: The Fishing Schooners of Gloucester (1983), an illustrated history of the men and schooners of the period between 1870 and 1930, commonly known as “Gloucestermen.”
Notable among early American poets associated with the Gloucester area are Richard Henry Dana Sr.,* author of a well-known sea poem, “The Buccaneer” (1827); Epes Sargent,* the son of a Gloucester sea captain whose Songs of the Sea with Other Poems (1847) includes the popular song “A Life on the Ocean Wave”; and Lucy Larcom,* whose Wild Roses of Cape Ann, and Other Poems (1880) contains a nine-poem cluster devoted to the sea and the fishing fleet. James Davis Pleasant Water: A Song of the Sea and Shore (1877) is a long, narrative portrait idealizing Gloucester fishermen. Clarence Manning Falt presents a more realistic picture of the Gloucester fisherman’s activities, often in the vernacular, in Gloucester in Song (1894) and Wharf and Fleet: Ballads of the Fishermen of Gloucester (1902). T. S. Eliot’s* “Cape Ann” (1936), “Marina” (1930), and “The Dry Salvages” (1941) reflect the influence of the summers he spent on Cape Ann in his youth.
More recently, Vincent Ferrini* uses Italian American dialect in his poetry to remind his contemporaries of Gloucester’s immigrant maritime heritage in a period when the city seems to be losing its seagoing identity. In Know Fish (1979), Ferrini chides Gloucester’s political and commercial powers for undermining the way of life of the city’s working-class “fisherfolk.” Inspired by Ferrini, Charles Olson* takes up the theme of Gloucester’s changing maritime destiny in The Maximus Poems (1983). More literary and less proletarian than Ferrini’s poetry, Olson’s verse epic surveys Gloucester’s past and present in the context of an American history removed from its communal and spiritual roots.
In his plays of working-class life, especially North Shore Fish and Henry Lumper (Gloucester Plays, 1992), Israel Horovitz captures the economic and moral decline that Ferrini had predicted. Horovitz’s Captains and Courage
(1997), a centennial adaptation of Captains Courageous, interweaves the destinies of Rudyard Kipling’s principal characters with their struggling descendants 100 years later: Ben Cheyne, one of the last Gloucester fishermen; Roland Troop, whose sense of impending doom makes him a reluctant crew member; and Manny Shimma, a neglected, abused, homeless juvenile. Troop’s portentous mood may have been influenced by the enormously popular retelling of the actual sinking in 1991 of a Gloucester swordfishing vessel, the Andrea Gail, in Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm* (1997). [See also GHOSTS AND GHOST SHIP LEGENDS; SEA DELIVERANCE NARRATIVES]
FURTHER READING: Bartlett, Kim. The Finest Kind. New York: Norton, 1977; Boeri, David. “Tell It Good-Bye, Kiddo”: The Decline of the New England Offshore Fishery. Camden, ME: International Marine, 1976; Connolly, James Brendan. The Port of Gloucester. New York: Doubleday, Doran, 1940; John F. Brown Marine Collection, Cape Ann Historical Association; Kenny, Herbert A. Cape Ann, Cape America. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1971; McFarland, Raymond. The Masts of Gloucester. New York: Norton, 1937.