A book of extensive excerpts of whalemen’s own escape literature, their own personal journals, often sentimental claptrap about home, love, and death, but best when devoted to their trade of whaling which they tended to depict accurately and realistically.
p. 9-10: Most whalemen journalists never expected their works to be read or saved. Few were interested in writing other than as a daily record, and few of the journals make interesting reading. Most lapse into an irritating sameness, no matter what their date. Except for the occasional excitement of taking a whale, life on board ship began and ended in routine….
Even those whalemen who enjoyed writing and did a great deal of it were frequently overcome with boredom and a sense of futility that daily journal keeping seemed only to aggravate. George Mills, for example, a mate on several whaleships in the mid-1850s, kept a journal which includes many poems and some fiction. But prolific as he was, the prospect of recording daily life on a whaleship became impossible. His journal, after the first forty-six pages, contains the following: NOTICE No, as I live, and nothing happens more than what eventfully takes place. I will not continue Log keeping no more. No how for it is one day out and another in. Just the same. therefore Please Excuse Etc
p. 17: The mid-nineteenth century produced vast amounts of cheap, conventional literature, and many whalemen read it. No wonder: in both the cramped quarters of the officers and the squalid quarters of the crew, monotony was ever present. Voyages were long (three years was common), and months could go by without sighting a whale. Shipboard tasks took up part of the day, but still there were long bleak stretches that scrim-shawing, singing, and fighting could never fill. For many, reading was the best escape. Francis Olmsted’s Incidents of a Whaling Voyage describes the forecastle of the North America designed with its crew’s literary entertainment in mind.
The forecastle of the North America is much larger than those of most ships of her tonnage, and is scrubbed out regularly every morning. There is a table and a lamp, so that the men have conveniences for reading and writing if they choose to avail themselves of them; and many of them are practicing writing every day or learning how to write. Their stationery they purchase out of the ship’s stores, and then come to one of the officers or myself for copies, or to have their pens mended. When not otherwise occupied, they draw books from the library in the cabin, and read; or if they do not know how, get someone to teach them. We have a good library on board, consisting of about two hundred volumes….
[Olmsted, Francis: Incidents of a Whaling Voyage (New York: Appleton, 1841) p. 52.]
p. 18: Until about 1830, a turning point for American literature as well as American whaling, the published authors mentioned or quoted in journals are the traditional British and American favorites still known today. References are frequent to such writings as Shakespeare’s plays, the Bible, the poetry of Alexander Pope, James Thomson’s ‘The Seasons,’ and Edward Young’s ‘Night Thoughts.’ After 1830, the rise of the popular press widened the scope of available reading matter and generally lowered its quality. Seven compulsive list makers, all officers, have left full records of their shipboard reading. The later the list, the more prevalent are ephemera, dime novels or their equivalents. Frederick H. Russell, on the Pioneer in the 1870’s, lists fifty-nine novels and nine ‘Stories I have read in the ledger [clearly a newspaper]’ as his reading for that voyage. While he did read such popular and now classic novels as The Black Tulip, The Woman in White, Oliver Twist, and Our Mutual Friend, most of Russell’s list is comprised of sensational literature. At least eight entries are from Beadle’s series of dime novels, and many have titles like Adelaide the Avenger and Chenga the Cheyenne. [Russell’s journal is at Sterling Library, Yale]
p. 18-19: In the same work, Olmsted states that many other whaleships resembled the North America. He was mistaken. Few whaleships had any library at all. Most whalemen were limited to what they brought with them or what they could exchange during gams. J. Ross Browne’s Etchings of a Whaling Cruise (1846) describes the more usual situation, in this case at sea enroute to the Indian Ocean:
p. 110: The monotony of a long passage is known to every body who has ever read of the sea. Seldom is it relieved, except by a squall, a calm a sail in sight, or some trifling adventure. Time hung very heavily on our hands, though we contrived various means to pass it away as pleasantly as possible. The chief resources I had for driving dull care away were reading, drawing, writing in my journal, eating whenever I could get any thing to eat, and sleeping whenever the Portuguese would give me a chance. As to reading, I was necessarily compelled to read whatever I could get. Unfortunately, I had brought neither books nor papers with me, so that I had to depend entirely on the officers, none of whom was [were] troubled with a literary taste. Mr. D_____, the first mate, who was very friendly toward me, had a bundle of old Philadelphia weeklies, which I read over a dozen times, advertisements and all. The cooper, a young man from New Bedford, was by far the most intelligent man aft. His stock of literature consisted of a temperance book, a few Mormon tracts, and Lady Dacre’s Diary of a Chaperone… [I read these till I almost had them by heart. The captain himself was an illiterate man, ‘wise in his own conceit.’ He had the reputation at home of being a pious man; and, as some evidence of this, I procured from one of the officers a work belonging to him of a religious character. I can not say, however, that his conduct was in strict conformity with the reputation he had gained as a man of piety.] One of my shipmates had a Bible; another, the first volume of Cooper’s Pilot; a third, the Songster’s own Book; a fourth, the Complete Letter Writer; and a fifth claimed, as his total literary stock, a copy of the Flash newspaper, published in New York…[in which he cut a conspicuous figure as the ‘Lady’s Fancy Man.’.] I read and reread all of these. Every week I was obliged to commence on the stale reading, placing the latest read away till I systematically arrived at them again,[when they were pretty fresh, considering the number of times they had been overhauled. When I became thoroughly satiated with the fresh and stale, I had recourse to drawing at which I considered myself somewhat of an amateur…. [Taken from p. 110-11 of Browne’s Sketches.]
[The remainder of the book consists of topical chapters of selections from the journals of whalemen such as those noted above, much of it in poetry. Topics include 2) Thoughts of Home; 3) Eternity of Love; 4) The Grim Messinger of Death; 5) Us Lone Wand’ring Whaling Men. Miller’s Afterword claims that the real contribution of these seven journal writers was not in their accounts of home, love, death, etc. to which they add little, but rather to their accounts of whaling itself, the one area they did not romanticize. “Their fresh, exuberant writing celebrate their unusual life in pursuit of the whale” (p. 177).]