Saturday, April 12, 2008

Leviathan A History of Whaling In America-- Eric Jay Dolin-- Review

Leviathan A History of Whaling In America by Eric Jay Dolin is a history of whaling in America. Even though the book is exhaustive in coverage of the subject, the writing makes the subject truly interesting. There are numerous anecdotes and incidents in history which are described in detail like the story of Mocha Dick, the whale which Moby Dick may have been based on. The book covers the expanse of American history from the colonists to the early 20th century.

One of the themes in this book is the pattern which whaling followed. Whaling started in America with drift whaling, people watching for beached whales, then the colonists started whaling close to shore to catch whales which were abundant in the coastal waters. As the whales became more scarce, whaling ships were built and sent out to sea, eventually becoming mobile whale oil processing factories. Then as the whales became more scarce, whale men spent as much as four years at sea trying to catch whales. Towards the end in desperation, American whale men attempted to hunt whales in the Arctic which led to a variety of disasters.

Another theme in this book is the way Americans viewed whales. In the beginning whales were fish of the sea to be taken as natures bounty. They were cold creatures that could be eaten by christians during holidays, they were a substitute for red meat. Whaling was a brutal business where animals were cut up to provide fuel, whale oil, grease for machinery, soap, fine candles, bone for corsets, and other products. Men took incredible risks in small boats to hunt giant creatures which could turn on them and kill them.

Where the whaleboats traveled, they devastated a variety of native creatures including whales. Sea turtles were viewed as an excellent source of provender by the whalers in the Pacific. The turtles were hunted to near extinction. When the whalemen headed north into the arctic, they took part in the hunting of walrus for oil, ivory, and skins. This was the brutal process of the seal hunt. The author pointed out that it wasn't until the 1850s when there were a lot less whales that people started calling the whalers brutal.

Another theme is that whaling was the first energy industry. It was whale oil which lit the big cities during the industrial revolution. London, New York, and Paris all required whale oil to keep their cities lit at night. This was considered a critical industry by the British and the Americans. During the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and the American Civil War, whaleships were captured as prizes or burned by privateers or warships.

This book contains a lot of detail about how whaling was done. There are descriptions of all the implements used, the processing of whales, and the running of whale ships. This was described as a dirty brutal job done by polyglot crews hailing from all over the world. The food was bad, the job was dangerous, and for the average crewman low paying.

The book has two sets of black and white illustrations. There are numerous old black and white photographs of the whaling process, scrimshaw, whale products, and the men and wives of the whaling crews.

I think the book is attempting to become a definitive source on American whaling history. The notes section runs from Pp. 375-451. There is a very detailed index as well. Despite this, the book is still very easy to follow.

Quoting the Eric Jay Dolin, website,

"Eric Jay Dolin was awarded the 23rd annual (2007) L. Byrne Waterman Award, by the New Bedford Whaling Museum, for outstanding contributions to whaling research and history, for the publication of Leviathan. "

This is possibly one of the best history books I have read in a while. It was quite enjoyable to read and I learned a lot.


DineometerDeb said...

Not related to this post, but your previous post on graphic novels, I just wanted to share that I have been reading The Rabbi's Cat and find it be very good.

Book Calendar said...

I'll take a look. A book with a talking cat sounds very intriguing.