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Wednesday, October 17, 2018

October 17, 2018: Whaling Histories: Writing about Whaling in 2018

[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 the perils and necessities of highlighting disgraced histories.
The week’s series is far from over, of course, but since for the final two posts I’m going to focus on first a literary (Melville’s novel) and then a contemporary (Japanese whalers and Greenpeace activism) subject respectively, I wanted today to take up a historical question that I raised briefly in Monday’s post but really colors this entire series and topic. I wrote there, about Lewis Temple’s new harpoon, that “‘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 posts, 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.” I certainly still believe that the first clause in that last sentence is accurate and important; but at the same time you could advance a reasonable critique that in my first two posts for the week I have largely set aside the violence and horrors of whaling, in a way that I would not if (for example) I were writing posts about the histories of lynching, Native American genocide, or other such human-centered horrors. (I should add that, for what it’s worth, I will focus my final post of the week very fully on the violence and horrors of whaling.)
Again, that would be a reasonable critique, and I don’t really have a great response. There’s no doubt that animal rights and animal studies have not been main threads of my work here on this blog (or anywhere else in my career, although I have gone vegetarian over the last year for reasons both health-related and ethical), and thus that when I’ve written about histories or stories that involve violence or cruelty toward animals (such as the Southwestern and local color humor tales I highlighted in this post), I haven’t foregrounded or perhaps even addressed at all those issues in the same way I would with violence and cruelty toward humans. I hope it’s clear that I don’t in any way support or endorse such animal cruelty, not only in extreme and now generally disgraced situations such as whaling (on which more in a moment) but even in more socially acceptable ones such as hunting or the meat industry. But nonetheless, I know I haven’t highlighted those issues much in this space, and I promise that if and when they are relevant to topics, I’ll work to include and engage with them more fully (as I hope this post is doing for this week’s topic).
But at the same time, I think there’s at least one more significant point to be made when it comes to writing about a topic like whaling in 2018. There is now widespread consensus that whaling is a disgraced and deplorable practice that should be outlawed (although it is still part of our world, as I’ll discuss in Friday’s post). But for the vast majority of the decades and centuries when whaling was at the heart of American industry and (at least in New England) society, that perspective—and really any sustained consideration of the whales’ rights and status—was almost entirely absent from the conversation. To my mind (and please as always correct me if you have a different take!), that is, whaling did not generally engender in its own eras the kinds of debates and critiques that human horrors such as slavery and Native American genocide did, which would mean that to write back into those prior eras our own modern (and quite correct) critiques would in that way impose upon history a quite distinct 20th and 21st century perspective. Perhaps we can and should do just that—but I would argue that we must also seek to understand the perspectives and narratives present in historical moments and communities, not out of any necessary agreement but instead out of the vital project of recovering and learning from them.
Next whaling post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other whaling contexts or connections you’d highlight?

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