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Monday, July 18, 2011

THE SEA HUNTERS THE GOLDEN AGE OF WHALING

Book Review
THE SEA HUNTERS
THE GOLDEN AGE OF WHALING
BY EDOUARD A. STACKPOLE

  One of the main advantage of our new palm springs vacation house is being able to get about seven boxes of books out of my storage unit.  They are mostly books I picked up when Wahrenbrock's Book House bit the dust: RIP.  Let me a share a consequence of the spread of Ereaders:  Books like this one, from a smaller publishing house and currently out of print, are going to disappear from the earth but everyone will be able to get the newist Harry Potter and Airport Novels.  Ereaders are for the proletariat.

  The Sea Hunters was written in the 50s by this guy Edouard Stackpole, who comes from Nantucket.  According to The Sea Hunters, the entire whaling industry basically came out of a handful of Quaker families who moved onto Nantucket in the 18th century.  From a modern perspective, the whole enterprise of Whaling seems rather déclassé,  rather like Mining.  Despite the decline in prominence, Whaling played a pivotal role in the development of American literature.  Three well known books are Moby Dick by Herman Melville, White Jacket by Jack London and Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana.   The American Whaling industry is also largely responsible for introducing Polynesian culture into the United States.  Because nothing has actually happened in the whaling world since the early 20th century, reading a book from the fifties makes sense.

   The actual history of whaling is pretty god damn epic.  These guys were going to the ends of the Earth before Steam Power and the Railroad made transportation cheap and accessible.  One aspect of Whaling that gets lost in the literary take is the fact that crew members got a share of the (substantial) profits from their voyages.  Also, African Americans were whaling crew waaayyy back and were generally treated as equals with whites and settled in Nantucket in the 18th century.

  Still it's hard for a modern reader to "get over" the matter-of-fact way Stackpole describes the wholesale destruction of tens of thousands of whales, seals and sea lions. FOR OIL.  I'm not trying to be all superior or anything, but humans essentially declared war on Sperm Whales in the 18th and 19th century, we killed about all of them, they killed maybe 30 of us, and when they did, a human (Melville) wrote a 600 page novel about it.  Sheesh.  Cut the whales some slack.  I can honestly say that I wish the Whales had killed more humans.

   Stackpole has a dated writing style that tends towards the anecdotal and entire chapters are devoted to the listings of islands that Whalers discovered in the Pacific, that is kind of a drag.  Ultimately though, it seems like Whales aren't being hunted to extinction anymore, and that should allow us to gain some distance on the more dated aspects of the Whaling industry, and maybe a more contemporary appreciation for this business that helped make the United States WHAT IT IS.

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