Whaling Men and Wailing Wives

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I must admit, though I also majored in English Literature in undergrad, I hated Herman Melville. Having read Billy Budd and Bartelby, the Scrivener, I found I could not force myself to work through a more lengthy Melville work such as Moby Dick. This was more of a problem with Melville’s writing style, more than his central themes and topics. Thus, rather than finding Lisa Norling’s Captain Ahab had a Wife (2000) a most disagreeable read, I found it thoroughly enlightening and enjoyable. Her title and introduction raise a very good point about people’s understanding about the New England whalefishery in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: women are largely absent. As this point and the larger historiography were already covered by Amber, I will simply move on to my critique, which, admittedly, will largely be a critical analysis that focuses on what it was about this book that made it so good. In total honesty, I could find very little at fault with Norling’s monograph. From start to finish, I found it enthralling and exceptionally well-written; furthermore, her argument is convincing and well-backed by exceptional evidence and strong organization.

Sarah will be discussing the argument itself in further detail, but for now, it is sufficient to say that Norling argues, fundamentally, that the gendered ideal for the cult of domesticity that became popular in the United States in the nineteenth century was largely an unrealized one for the women of southern New England who were surrounded by the whalefishery business. At the center of her evidence are the personal letters, commonplace books, and diaries of 66 New England families, providing insight into the lives of around 200 individuals. In addition, Norling uses J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer, which gives a contemporary analysis of Nantucket and its people from an outsider’s perspective, as well as record books from retail shops, Quaker meeting notes, and census data. The combination of very personal and very impersonal evidence allows Norling to paint a fairly detailed, if not complete, picture of daily life for women and their husbands in primarily Nantucket and New Bedford. Because of this evidence, Norling is able to place this fairly small group of people (comparatively) and their experiences within the context of the United States, changing the narrative of not only maritime studies, but women’s studies as well.

Perhaps one of the most enjoyable aspects of this book is Norling’s intimate discussion of the diaries and letters. Nantucket, New Bedford, and other New England whalefishery towns came to life through these sources; I felt that I was given a glimpse of these people’s 18th and 19th century lives, allowing me to better understand this society that is vastly more different than my own. I was captivated by each story, each life that Norling discussed in her book. Without them, not only would Norling’s study have been significantly less enthralling, but those sources are indeed necessary in proving Norling’s point that though nineteenth century women did indeed  long for an idealized home life and domestic bliss, the whalefishery lifestyle made that ideal almost impossible to accomplish. We know this now because Norling lets these women explain this concept in their own words.

Also extremely effective is the way Norling physically organized the narrative of the book itself to build up her argument throughout and drive her point home at the end. Structuring Captain Ahab had a Wife fairly chronologically, Norling’s first chapter largely describes Nantucket life and its place as the eighteenth century epicenter for the whalefishery, particularly emphasizing that while whaling ships did often leave for lengthy periods, these expeditions were drastically more local in scope, additionally stating that voyages typically lasted for several months at a time. Her next chapter focuses on the interconnection between religion, family, and community in colonial Nantucket, explaining particularly the Quaker religion and lifestyle and prescribed gender roles. Norling’s third chapter explains the impact that religious reform, the American Revolution, and Romanticism had on Nantucket and the whalefishery in the latter half of the eighteenth century, which led to the epicenter of whaling to shift from Nantucket to New Bedford. In her fourth chapter, Norling describes 19th century life in New Bedford, focusing especially on changing perceptions of gender conventions, the increased length in voyages (now up to 5 years or so) due to better technology and ships that allowed whaling crews to venture farther out to sea and to more treacherous waters. This chapter also explains that women whose husbands went to see were now using their housewifery skills to earn cash income through such jobs as sewing or taking in boarders. Her fifth chapter discusses explicitly the role of love, marriage, and the family in 19th century whaling communities. In this chapter, Norling describes the complexity that these prescribed gender roles brought to these communities; she discusses the “potential for confusion and struggles over authority” upon a husband’s return home from a voyage, the sexual double standard for fidelity, as well as the identity crisis these “Cape Horn widows” faced in their struggles with forming a home and yet still living with parents or in-laws shortly after marriage. Lastly, Norling connects all of these issues in her sixth chapter on the difficult decision wives of captains faced: the choice to stay home and raise children or to fulfill wifely duties on board a whaling ship. Tellingly, Norling calls this last chapter “The Failure of Victorian Domesticity on Shore and at Sea.” The narrative structure Norling creates allows readers to follow a deliberate “before and after” or “cause and effect” relationship not only for the whaling business itself, but for the women who faced challenges inherent in being the wife of a sailor.

In her thematic, yet chronological discussion, Norling allows the people of these whaling communities to tell their own stories of hardship, joy, disappointment, and frustration. This near-perfect integration of evidence and analysis within a well-organized construction allows Norling to present a narrative of 18th and 19th century American lives that does not quite fit the one we have come to understand.

While my title might seem somewhat cynical, I found it appropriate because Norling herself discusses this perception of 19th century female lives: “an important part of women’s work was to suffer.” Though many women found freedom in their whalefishery communities, that freedom did come with a price.



One thought on “Whaling Men and Wailing Wives

  1. Fascinating post! For me, it raises the question of whether the “cult of domesticity” was ever realized? Did Victorian domesticity ever work perfectly? As Norling says, the gendered division of labor that arose in the nineteenth century matched the division between domestic and seafaring life in whaling communities. Even so, 19th c. women (and men) were disappointed in their expectations for marriage and family. What must it have been like for other women when confronted with Victorian gender ideals?

    I also want to raise again the question I posed after Amber’s post. Does reading the cult of domesticity backward onto women’s experiences preordain the conclusions?


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