Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America

Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America

Article excerpt

Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America. By Eric Jay Dolin. New York: WW. Norton & Company, 2007. 479 pages. $18.45 (hardcover).

In 1635 Governor John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony recorded in his journal that some of the colony's residents had located a whale on Cape Cod and processed it for whale oil. Thus the first known account of drift whaling, the use of creatures cast by nature upon the shore, by English colonists in North America entered into the historical record. In the roughly three centuries that followed, those interested in exploiting the whale looked progressively farther afield for the bounty of the seas. The small boats used by early shore whalers gradually gave way to ocean-going vessels from places like Nantucket and New Bedford. On board these ships men sailed around the world and back again in search of the profits to be made on the sale of products taken from whales: oil, baleen, spermaceti, and ambergris.

Eric Jay Dolin's Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America offers an enjoyable and highly readable account of the industry's advent, maturation, apex in the "golden age of whaling," and ultimate decline. At its heart, Leviathan is a work of historical synthesis offering relatively little information or interpretation that is truly new. Readers well versed in the history of American whaling will observe the clear influence of a number of the field's major texts on Dolin's work, including quite prominently Alexander Starbuck's classic History of the American Whale Fishery in the text's earliest pages.

Unfortunately, within the text there are a number of questionable, imprecise and ambiguous passages, two examples of which will suffice. The shore whaling industry, readers are told, demanded so much labor that "Capt. …

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