History of whaling is an American story, in which Vineyard figures modestly
With positive reviews appearing from coast to coast, Eric Jay Dolin's new book, "Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America," is getting lots of media buzz. Mr. Dolin, whose book tour for publishers W.W. Norton has him scurrying across New England from now into December, will be on the Vineyard Thursday, July 26, to discuss his book in a free program at the Martha's Vineyard Museum in Edgartown.
In an interview from his Marblehead home last week, Mr. Dolin said he understands the whaling era is a proud chapter of the Vineyard's history. And he promised that when he visits next week, he'll be prepared to defend the fact that his book gives Nantucket an entire chapter while the Vineyard gets little more than a mention - as the island 15 miles west of Nantucket.
Mr. Dolin's defense, mainly, is that squeezing 300 years of history into fewer than 400 pages isn't easy. "To encompass the entire history of whaling in America," he says, "there's so much that I had to leave out. My original manuscript was 40,000 words longer than the book you have in front of you. I couldn't possibly do justice to even the top 10 whaling ports. Provincetown had a sizeable whaling fleet, too, and I know I'm going to get grief when I go out there for not writing more about it, but if I had given due time to Martha's Vineyard, to Sag Harbor, to New London, to Provincetown, to Brewster, this book would be so big I wouldn't be onto a second printing, because nobody would read it."
Historian Eric Jay Dolin.
After scanning the index for references and weathering the initial disappointment, Vineyard history buffs will have to acknowledge that given what he set out to do, Mr. Dolin has gotten the balance about right. The simple fact is that while whaling may have been important in the history of Martha's Vineyard, Martha's Vineyard wasn't terribly important in the history of American whaling.
Arthur Railton explains in his 2006 book, The History of Martha's Vineyard, that in the 1800s, going to sea was the most popular occupation for Vineyard men. In the 1850 census, 686 Vineyard men gave their occupation as "mariner," while farmers were the next most numerous at 342. On the other hand, the best scholarship shows that in all the years of American whaling, New Bedford sent 5,146 ships sailing on whale hunts, Nantucket sent 2,223 and Edgartown just 237. Holmes Hole and Menemsha, between them, accounted for just 17 whaling trips.
Scholarship and entertainment
"Leviathan" is annotated with more than 100 pages of footnotes, bibliography and index. Still it's clear that Mr. Dolin and his publishers have aimed this book squarely at the popular market. The Boston Globe quotes Robert Weill, Norton's executive editor, as saying, "We wanted a book that the family and the eager reader can take to the beach, be entertained, and learn about American history."
It's also clear the publishers believe they may have found the next popular (and profitable) historian in the lineage of Nathaniel Philbrick and Dava Sobel: Norton has signed Mr. Dolin to a two-book contract; last week he quit his day job of the last five years, as a policy analyst with the National Marine Fisheries Service.
At the NMFS, which he pronounces like the word "nymphs," Mr. Dolin worked with the New England Fisheries Management Council, writing fisheries regulations for some of the ocean's humblest species - squid, mackerel, butterfish, Atlantic herring and spiny dogfish. It was, he says, just a job; his ambition for years has been to make his living writing books.
It was about the time he took the NMFS job five years ago, Mr. Dolin says, that he decided to write a book on the history of whaling. At first, he wanted to focus just on the time from the first settlement of America to the Revolutionary War, but his editors at Norton persuaded him the project needed more sweep. Certainly it has a central subject far grander than the dogfish; the whale, says Mr. Dolin, "has to be the number one example of charismatic megafauna. They're just these magnificent creatures."
And Mr. Dolin has no trouble filling a book with wonderful stories of the whales and the enterprising sailors who hunted them. He does so without moralizing, without donning the modern-day lenses of the conservationist view or tackling the ethical questions of man's responsibility to the natural world. "It's always so dangerous," he says, "to try to go back and reinterpret history through your own modern perspective."
In "Leviathan," Mr. Dolin has chosen simply to tell the stories. "I found myself marveling at these stories," he says, "even though some of them were gruesome, and I would never want to be part of those stories - and I think I was able to look at them like a historian."
Steering clear of Melville
Having sidestepped the ethical issues of a fishery that drove some of earth's most magnificent creatures nearly to extinction, Mr. Dolin also steers a fairly wide berth, in "Leviathan," around the literary black hole of whaling, Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick."
Melville's novel, which Mr. Dolin admits to having read and not particularly enjoyed in high school, gets one page in his new history, plus a dozen or so scattered references. Conscious of the weight of Melville's great work, he acknowledges it in his text as "arguably the greatest novel in American history." But in "Leviathan," Mr. Dolin devotes twice as much space to an entertaining set of stories about the sperm whale's remarkable penis. He says, "To be honest, I didn't read Moby-Dick entirely through again in the course of preparing this book. I didn't want this to be a book that was a sort of annotated Melville."
Mr. Dolin's narrative style can be clumsy, but his wonderful material sweeps the reader along, through tales of fortunes made and lost and oceangoing adventures from the equator to the Arctic. Partly because of its scope, and partly because whaling is such a profoundly American story - such a vehicle for American enterprise and industry, such an emblem of the frontier mentality that still struggles with the notion of limits - "Leviathan" ends up illuminating the story of America as it chronicles one industry's dramatic rise and fall.
Says Mr. Dolin, "People ask me, why were Americans so much better at this than anybody else? It's hard to pinpoint it, but I think part of it has to do with the American spirit - exploration, entrepreneurship."
His next book project is another epic history, the story of how the fur trade transformed America. "I became fascinated," he says, "when I read a single fact: that the Pilgrims made more money from trading beaver furs than codfish. The fur trade had this tremendous impact on our history during the 1600s and 1700s, and up into the 1800s with the bison robe trade and the destruction of the bison herds."
So his next narrative will be planted safely on land, but Mr. Dolin will still be writing about mankind's nasty habit of annihilating other species. Reflecting on this, he says:
"I really don't have this fascination with exterminating animals. But that's okay, if people want to peg me - as long as they read my books!
"But you know, I don't view Leviathan as a book about things people kill. It's a book about American history, using whaling as a backbone. That's how I tried to approach this project, and that's why I enjoyed writing it. I think there are lessons people can draw upon in our past."
Times contributor Nis Kildegaard is editor of the Martha's Vineyard Museum's bi-annual newsletter, "The Messenger."
Eric Dolin speaks on "Leviathan" at 5 pm on July 26 at the Martha's Vineyard Museum in Edgartown. Admission to all events in the museum's summer lecture series is free.