Interpretive Theme: Art and Architecture

It is accepted among literary scholars today that Herman Melville’s great whaling novel Moby-Dick, is one of the most important and influential works of literature ever written by an American. Even after almost one hundred and fifty years, scholars and readers debate the “whiteness of the whale” and the monomania of Captain Ahab as defining characteristics of American Literature.

While it is easy to point to Moby-Dick as an influential literary by-product of the American whalefishery, it is by no means the only one. The poet Ralph Waldo Emerson was for a time a preacher in New Bedford and wrote of the whaling industry. Less well known, though sometimes as literate, are the private shipboard journals kept by many thousand young New Bedforders; some of these journals have been published. Several painters made their careers depicting the industry and all its hazards, most notably William Bradford, Robert Swain Gifford, Charles Raleigh, and Benjamin Russell.

The lives of whalemen were filled with creative outlets on shipboard. Not all of the time on a whaling voyage was spent killing and processing whales. In fact, most of the time was spent looking for whales, and it was possible to go for weeks or months without successfully catching one. After taking care of the required maintenance on their vessel, most whalemen had a number of leisure hours left in each day. Over the course of a voyage whalemen developed activities to help them pass these often tedious and lonely hours between whales.

Many whalemen kept a journal of their voyage in which they documented their life at sea. They sang songs and presented theatricals, which often are described in shipboard journals. Sailors also practiced a surprising number of handicrafts given the very limited range of materials that were available on shipboard. With the bones and teeth of whales, spare pieces of rope, and objects found on their occasional visits ashore (including coconut shells), seamen fashioned working tools, souvenirs of the voyage, and gifts for loved ones back home. The unique circumstances of whaling voyages led to the development of unique art forms, the most important of which was scrimshaw, the decorative etching of pictures on whale skeletal bone and sperm whale teeth. Whalemen could see heroism in their battle with the largest creature on the planet; their own descriptions of their lives and the artifacts they left behind document both their discomforts and their attempts to overcome those discomforts—to make a home and a community for themselves at sea.

In direct contrast to the grease and grime of the whaling voyage is the other industry which depended on the whaling business in the 19th century. Some of the most fashionable of women’s dresses, with their tight waists and hooped skirts, would never have been possible had baleen not been available for the strong but flexible stays that held women in and skirts out.

Back in New Bedford the whaling influence was also seen in the local architecture. “Nowhere in America,” said Melville, “will you find more patrician-like houses, parks and gardens more opulent, than in New Bedford…Whence came they? …all these brave houses and flowery gardens came from the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. One and all, they were harpooned and dragged up hither from the bottom of the sea….In summer time the town is sweet to see.”

The success of the whaling business is reflected in the homes along County Street and the parks designed by Frederick Olmsted. But the business is also reflected in the homes of immigrants and working people who not only populated the ships, but worked ashore in the support industries.

Last updated: February 26, 2015

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