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Tuesday, October 16, 2018

October 16, 2018: Whaling Histories: Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard


[On October 18, 1851, the first edition of Herman Melville’s epic novel Moby-Dick was published in London (under its initial title, The Whale). So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Melville’s novel and other histories and stories related to the book’s ostensible subject, the world of whaling. Leading up to a special weekend post on a wonderful colleague at the New Bedford Whaling Museum!]
On how the divergent whaling histories of two neighboring islands led to distinct subsequent and ongoing identities.
The Massachusetts islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard are less than 25 miles apart as the crow flies (although the typical ferry route is apparently more like 70 miles), but when it comes to the history of the whaling industry, the two are much farther apart. As I highlighted in yesterday’s post, for more than a century Nantucket was the center of the New England and American whaling industry, a focus which might well have been precipated by a single event: per island historian Obed Macy and his 1835 book The History of Nantucket, sometime in the mid-17th century a “scragg whale” (likely a gray whale in modern parlance) entered Nantucket harbor and was killed by the early English settlers; Macy and others trace the island’s dominance of the whaling industry from that singular (and quite random) starting point. While Martha’s Vineyard certainly hosted whaling ships of its own, the industry came to prominence significantly later on the island than it did on Nantucket, and was thus always competing with other sizeable fishing trades like that in swordfish. (For a very thorough history of Martha’s Vineyard, see my paternal grandfather Arthur Railton’s magisterial and highly readable 2006 book The History of Martha’s Vineyard.)
Whatever the particular factors that led to Nantucket’s dominance in the whaling industry (not just over its island neighbor but over the rest of the world, at least until the rise of New Bedford that I charted yesterday), by 1851 Melville could write in Moby-Dick’s Nantucket-set Chapter 14, “Two thirds of this terraqueous globe are the Nantucketer's. For the sea is his; he owns it, as Emperors own empires.” That divergence had already by that time produced one striking American historical distinction between the two islands: Nantucket voted to remain neutral at the start of the American Revolution, thanks in large part to its need for shipping access and protection for its whalers; while Martha’s Vineyard joined the rest of Massachusetts in rebelling against the English. But it was in the late 19th century, as the whaling industry began its gradual but irreversible decline (again as I traced in yesterday’s post), that the divergence between the two islands truly began to resonate. Nantucket had by that time also experienced a couple of significant natural events that hastened whaling’s decline there: the July 1846 “Great Fire” that forced many inhabitants to leave the island; and the increasing silting of Nantucket harbor, which made it more and more difficult for large whaling ships to enter (compared to the deep harbor of New Bedford in particular).
When, for both those local and much broader reasons, whaling declined in Nantucket, the island’s dependence on the trade meant it did not have much else to offer residents; most of them left (the island’s population was about 4000 by 1887), and the island remained largely unpopulated and isolated until the mid-20th century. In part because of its more diverse commercial identity, Martha’s Vineyard was able during the same period to shift much more quickly and dramatically, becoming throughout the late 19th century host to a number of resort communities and summer residences. While Nantucket has over the last half-century developed its own such summer and wealthy populations, I would argue that the Vineyard remains far more of a summer resort community; one reason why two of the last four presidents have made it a vacation site of choice, after all. And if so, then the two islands’ divergent, and at least somewhat random, histories with the whaling industry continue to echo significantly down into our 21st century moment.
Next whaling post tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other whaling contexts or connections you’d highlight?

Monday, October 15, 2018

October 15, 2018: Whaling Histories: New Bedford


[On October 18, 1851, the first edition of Herman Melville’s epic novel Moby-Dick was published in London (under its initial title, The Whale). So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Melville’s novel and other histories and stories related to the book’s ostensible subject, the world of whaling. Leading up to a special weekend post on a wonderful colleague at the New Bedford Whaling Museum!]
On three telling stages in the history of “The Whaling City.”
New Bedford, Massachusetts might be known as “The Whaling City,” but the association of that vital American industry with the southeast MA city was from an inevitability. Much of the first century or so of American whaling was closely tied to the island of Nantucket (one of the subjects of tomorrow’s post), but a single 1765 event began to shift that center of gravity. It was that year that Joseph Rotch, an English immigrant who had become one of the most established and successful names in the Nantucket whaling trade, purchased 10 acres of land in New Bedford and began to move his business there (although his son and grandson continued to run operations out of Nantucket as well). For many years businesses in Boston, Newport, and Providence had monopolized the refining and use of whale oil (as Nantucket did not have the resources to do so), but Rotch’s move allowed him to build such refineries in New Bedford, linking the various sides of the whaling trade in a striking and significant new way. Long before Henry Ford and his ilk, Rotch’s vertical integration of an industry fundamentally changed American history.
The late 18th century “Great Age of Sail” was very good to New Bedford, but it was in the mid-19th century that the next striking innovation pushed the city into an even more prominent place in both the whaling industry and the American landscape. In 1848, ex-slave turned New Bedford blacksmith and abolitionist Lewis Temple (now there’s a premise for a film if I ever heard one, although many details of Temple’s life, including whether he escaped or was freed from slavery, remain unknown) invented “Temple’s toggle,” a new form of harpoon based in part on Eskimo designs but adapted to use a wooden shear pin to brace the spear’s toggling head. Temple’s harpoon would become the gold standard for the industry within a few years, and cemented New Bedford’s place at the center of the whaling trade. Not unlike Eli Whitney’s cotton gin—but with an extra layer of irony given Temple’s own race and personal history—“Temple’s toggle” is a fraught invention, one that principally made it easier to kill and consume large numbers of innocent creatures (a point worth considering throughout the week’s post, to be sure). But you can’t tell the story of America without the story of whaling, and you can’t tell that story without Temple’s invention forming a key chapter.
In many ways that chapter was the industury’s and New Bedford’s high-water mark, however. As early as 1849 many seamen (and ships) left the area to move west as part of the California gold rush, but it was 1859 that really signaled the beginning of the end for the whaling industry. It was in that year that petroleum, which had only recently begun to be refined anywhere in the world, was discovered by Edwin Drake in Titusville, Pennsylvania; soon this alternative form of oil would begin to eclipse whale oil around the nation (and world). A subsequent tragedy, the Whaling Disaster of 1871 in which 22 New Bedford whaling ships (among 33 total ships) were abandoned and crushed by arctic ice off the northern coast of Alaska, contributed to the industry’s gradual demise. Yet gradual is indeed the word: America’s largest whaling company, New Bedford’s own J. & W.R. Wing Company, did not send out its last ship until 1914; and the last successful whaling expedition out of the city took place in 1925 when the John R. Manta sailed from New Bedford harbor. Perhaps the end of the industry (and all the shifts that precipitated in New Bedford) was more inevitable than its origins; but like all historical changes, that shift took place slowly and haphazardly, one more complex history captured in New Bedford.
Next whaling post tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other whaling contexts or connections you’d highlight?

Saturday, October 13, 2018

October 13-14, 2018: American Gay Studies: Pop Culture Representations


[October 11th marks the 30th annual National Coming Out Day, an important occasion in the unfolding story of gay rights in America. So this week I’ve AmericanStudied a handful of figures and stories from the history of gay rights, leading up to this special weekend post on gay identities in American popular culture!]
On three iconic late 1990s pop culture texts that in different ways continue to echo into our 21st century moment.
1)      Ellen: In April 1997, Ellen was just another successful Seinfeld-inspired sitcom in its fourth season, featuring a talented young stand-up comedian (Ellen DeGeneres) surrounded by a group of kooky but lovable friends (the show was called These Friends of Mine for the first season). But in that month, both the show’s main character and Ellen herself came out as gay (to Oprah Winfrey in both cases), and the landscape of television was changed forever (DeGeneres was the first openly lesbian actress playing an openly lesbian character on TV). Despite backlash, the show remained on the air for another season, although ABC’s parent company Disney did significantly dial back its promotion which likely contributed to the show’s 1998 cancellation. But Ellen was not absent from TV for long (she starred in another short-lived sitcom in 2001 and in 2003 launched her hugely popular and ongoing talk show), and indeed for two decades has been one of the most consistently prominent and beloved gay cultural icons. I don’t know that any single figure has moved gay identities into the American pop cultural and social mainstream more than DeGeneres, and that started with her show’s 1997 coming out episode.
2)      Will and Grace: Just over a year after that pivotal Ellen episode aired, NBC debuted the first major network sitcom to include gay protagonists from the outset, Will and Grace. In the course of its eight-season run, Will and Grace would become one of the early 21st century’s most popular and acclaimed shows: from 2001 to 2005 it was the highest-rated sitcom among adults 18-49; and it received 16 Primetime Emmys among 83 nominations, to cite two ways to measure such success. But I would argue that the show’s most striking feature was its relative lack of controversy—again, less than 18 months earlier Ellen’s coming out episode had garnered a great deal of backlash and criticism from conservative circles; whereas with Will and Grace such criticism, while present, was negligible and didn’t seem to affect the show’s promotion or popularity in the slightest. And that trend only continued when the show returned for a 2017-18 9th season (with early renewal for 10th and 11th ones), as the return has been popular but seemingly without much affect on the cultural zeitgeist. If so, that’s a reflection of how much the show helped changed the conversation around pop culture representations of gay Americans.
3)      Boys Don’t Cry: 1998 also saw the release on an award-winning documentary, The Brandon Teena Story, which detailed the tragic life and brutal 1993 rape and murder of a transgender young man in Nebraska. Filmmaker Kimberly Peirce (herself a prominent gay artist) had been working on a screenplay about Teena since reading a 1994 Village Voice piece about him, and the documentary spurred her to make that story into a feature film, 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry. Starring Hilary Swank as Brandon, Chloë Sevingy as his girlfriend Lana Tisdel, and Peter Sarsgaard as his eventual killer John Lotter, the film offers a sometimes melodramatic and romanticized but mostly gritty and realistic depiction of Teena’s life, love, and death. I’ll admit that when I saw the film in theaters I had never heard the term transgender and would never have known to apply it to Teena; in that way, the film itself can be seen as having helped move us toward more communal conversation about this American community. Yet as this 2016 student protest of the film illustrates, and as the recent controversy over Scarlett Johansson’s plan to play transgender man Dante Gill drives home, that conversation has changed significantly since the late 1990s. Cultural representations such as Ellen’s and Will and Grace might still resonante, but we’re not in nearly the same place as we were two decades ago, and that’s a fraught but vital fact.
Next series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other representations of gay identities or stories you’d highlight?