WHALING NARRATIVES - American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

WHALING NARRATIVES. Whalemen often kept their shipboard accounts in the form of a logbook or journal, which was more or less a personal narrative of the seaman’s voyage. Commonly elaborated ashore into a more coherent narrative, the most interesting examples offer a detailed view of shipboard life, describing not only the writer’s experiences through the voyage but his emotional reaction to those experiences.

American whalemen were often on their ships for two or three years, and life in the ship’s universe and in the ship’s ports of call, particularly in the Pacific and Arctic,* was noteworthy for its unique aspects. Shipboard life included not only the business of whaling but also other ship duties. Numerous diversions were necessary to make life in cramped and otherwise uncomfortable quarters bearable; scrimshaw and other artistic endeavors, songs, and plays were all recorded.

Because most whalemen before the mast were not well educated, most whalemen’s journals had little literary pretense and even less literary merit. Journals descriptive of disasters were the earliest type of American journal to be published. These include Owen Chase’s* Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck* of the Whale-Ship Essex* (1821), William Lay and Cyrus M. Hussey’s A Narrative of the Mutiny,* on Board the Whaleship Globe* (1828), Horace Holden’s A Narrative of the Shipwreck, Captivity, and Sufferings of Horace Holden and Benj. H. Nute (1836), Elisha Dexter’s Narrative of the Wreck and Loss of the Whaling Brig William and Joseph (1842), Thomas Spencer’s Narrative of the Events Attending the Massacre of Part of the Crew Belonging to the Whaleship Triton, of New-Bedford, by the Natives of Sydenham’s Island (1848), Alonzo Sampson’s Three Times around the World (1867), Charles S. Taber’s A Narrative of a Shipwreck in the Fiji Islands 1840 (1894), and Thomas I. Jenkins’ Bark Kathleen Sunk by a Whale (1902). A number were published for pecuniary reasons, such as J. C. Mullett’s Five Years on the Pacific Ocean (1858).

Descriptions of exotic life, particularly in the Pacific, were also popular. Representative examples are Francis Allyn Olmsted’s* Incidents of a Whaling Voyage (1841), William Torrey’s Torrey’s Narrative: or, the Life and Adventures of William Torrey, Who . .. Was Held a Captive by the Cannibals of the Marquesas (1848), Edward T. Perkins’ Na Motu: or, Reef-Rovings in the South Seas (1854), Charles L. Newhall’s Adventures of Jack (1859), and James H. Woodhouse’s Autobiography of Captain James H. Woodhouse (1897).

An often-published genre of American whaling literature was the reform narrative. Some were consciously modeled after Richard Henry Dana Jr.’s* Two Years before the Mast* (1840); J. Ross Browne’s* Etchings of a Whaling Cruise (1846) is perhaps the best example. Others include Stephen Curtis’ Brief Extracts (1844), Rev. Henry T. Cheever’s* The Whale and His Captors (1849), George Whitfield Bronson’s Glimpses of a Whalemen’s Cabin (1855), and Daniel Weston Hall’s Arctic* Rovings (1861). A subcategory included whalers who had found religion or who had recovered from alcoholism, including Joseph Gatchell’s The Disenthralled (1843), Reuben Delano’s The Wanderings of Reuben Delano (1846), and George L. Colburn’s Scraps from the Log Book of George Lightcraft (1847). Some women at sea, wives or daughters of whaling masters, kept journals, but none were contemporarily published.

Imaginative literature sometimes took the form of a whaling journal: Herman Melville’s* Moby-Dick* (1851) is the best-known example. Melville’s sources included Owen Chase’s Narrative (cited earlier) and Jeremiah N. Reynolds’* “Mocha Dick,” a story of a white whale first published in the Knickerbocker (1839). Other novelists used the form of a whaling journal, including Charles M. Newell in Leaves from an Old Log. Pehe-Nu-e (1877). Newell, a sometime whaling master, consciously drew on Moby-Dick. English author Frank T. Bullen, who had sailed on an American whaler, used the experience for his Cruise of the “Cachalot” (1898).

Film adaptations of whaling narratives include Down to the Sea in Ships (1922, 1949). [See also HART, JOSEPH C.; JOURNALS AND LOGBOOKS; WOMEN AT SEA]

FURTHER READING Busch, Briton Cooper. “Whaling Will Never Do for Me”: The American Whaleman in the Nineteenth Century. Lexington: U of Kentucky P, 1994; Forster, Honore. The South Sea Whaler. Sharon, MA: Kendall Whaling Museum, and Fairhaven, MA: Edward J. Lefkowicz, 1985; Forster, Honore. More South Sea Whaling. Canberra: Research School of Pacific Studies, Australian National U, 1991; Hohman, Elmo P. The American Whaleman. New York: Longmans, 1928; Miller, Pamela. And the Whale Is Ours: Creative Writing of American Whalemen. Boston: Godine, 1979; Sherman, Stuart C. The Voice of the Whaleman with an Account of the Nicholson Whaling Collection. Providence, RI: Providence Public Library, 1965.

Edward J. Lefkowicz