OLMSTED, FRANCIS ALLYN - American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

OLMSTED, FRANCIS ALLYN (1819-1844). Francis Allyn Olmsted, author of Incidents of a Whaling Voyage to Which Are Added Observations on the Scenery, Manners and Customs, and Missionary Stations of the Sandwich and Society Islands (1841), was twenty years old when he graduated from Yale University in the fall of 1839. Despite the urgings of his friends, on 11 October of that year he shipped aboard the New London whaleship North America, Nathaniel Richards, master, on a voyage to the Pacific Ocean. In the preface to Incidents of a Whaling Voyage, Olmsted describes shipping aboard a whaler in hopes of overcoming illness, a chronic disorder of his nervous system, in the warm and mild tropics. With a penchant for moralizing and an acute skill for observation, he embarked as a convalescent passenger when he was well enough to do so. He claims to have kept both a journal and a sketchbook, but there is no indication that either has survived in public collections.

In the New York Review (October 1841), an anonymous review of Incidents of a Whaling Voyage decried Olmsted’s book, saying that “it bespeaks for him no promise of success as a narrator of the adventures and perils of the sea” (535). The reviewer compares Olmsted’s work to that of Richard Henry Dana Jr.* and James Fenimore Cooper,* the luminaries of American sea literature in those years. Olmsted appears lackluster because of his pose as spectator rather than participant. However, after the manner of Thomas Beale, Olmsted’s aspiration was to write a description of whaling “proportionate to its adventurous character and importance,” and in this he succeeds. He makes no pretense at any point to being a sailor, and he offers the reader solid observations of life aboard an American whaleship. Likewise, his illustrations are the first pictures of whaling to appear in an American whaling narrative. Neither Cooper nor Dana attempted to illustrate their works, but Olmsted felt that the illustrations were more important than the text itself for accuracy. There are three full-page whaling scenes, one full-page view of the North America, one unique view of pulling teeth from the jaw of a sperm whale, and two midpage vignettes: one of whale craft, including harpoons, and one a pattern of cutting-in showing how the blubber was removed from the whale.

Perhaps his own training in the medical profession at Yale inspired Olmsted to emulate so closely the efforts of Thomas Beale, a surgeon on the British whaleships Kent and Sarah and Elizabeth between 1830 and 1833. Beale’s The Natural History of the Sperm Whale (1839) is a work of singular importance to whaling historians and cetologists. Olmstead acknowledges that some of the statistical data in his chapters on whales and whaling were acquired after his return, and, like Beale, he quotes large passages from other scholars of the day.

Similar to Beale’s lengthy descriptions of the inhabitants of various Pacific island groups, Olmsted digresses from his whaling narrative text to take a light-duty anthropological view of the natives of the Hawaiian Islands, paying special attention to missionary activities. His observations and comments on these islands and Tahiti constitute half the text. [See also WHALING NARRATIVES]

Michael P. Dyer