One Whaling Family
American whalemen never said harpoon, but toggle-iron, never “There she blows”—because how can you tell a whale’s sex from a spout on the horizon?—but “there blows” or just “Blo-o-ows.” These things mattered. The chief vices of seafaring literature in the great days of sail were melodrama and verbosity, to feed the expectations that popular journalism had aroused. No book on whaling could take the place of Moby Dick, least of all the modest group of three first-hand narratives collected in One Whaling Family. But the fonder one is of Melville the greater one’s appetite is likely to be for what you might call the nuclear evidence of whaling, as Charles Olson demonstrated in Call Me Ishmael. In this respect One Whaling Family is a very fine elixir of factuality that needed a long underground maturing. Its first half, Eliza Azelia Williams’s journal of her first whaling voyage from 1858 to 1861 with her young husband, a “lucky captain,” Thomas William Williams of Wethersfield, Connecticut, has a ripened pathos in 1964 that it would not have had in 1864. The son born to her on this voyage, William Fish Williams, became a distinguished engineer who served six years as Commissioner of Public Works in Massachusetts. Two admirable chronicles that he wrote in later life make up the book’s second—and to me more interesting—half; they are as satisfying in their sobriety and obvious reliability as only the best scientific demonstration can be.
In very different ways mother and son define the genius of the father, who emerges as the truest of Emersonian heroes, an incarnation of mute Self Reliance—too authentically and pragmatically Emersonian to have been noted by Emerson, whose view of the working man of his time still had some romantic condescension behind it. The poetry of whaling rests in this ultimate suitability of a man to a job, of mid-nineteenth-century society to this kind of enterprise. One Whaling Family is a grammar of elements, as responsive as your curiosity and imagination can make it.
For the first dozen or so pages, Eliza Azelia Williams seems almost too quaint to be real, as accidental in her charm as a pile of driftwood, a dreadful speller, a prude—“There is a great state of immorality among the Natives, particularly among the women, like all other Natives, I believe”—as ignorant as a small-town upbringing in inland Connecticut could make her. A tiny woman who didn’t come up to her husband’s stretched arm, whose photograph as a young wife shows little more than conscience and submissiveness, she was as blank a page as circumstance ever wrote upon. The extent of her mental preparation for seagoing is revealed by an entry almost a year after sailing from New Bedford: “There are a good many birds around, called Gulls.” Timidly domestic on land, she went to sea reluctantly with all her defenses up. Of her first whale: “To begin then, I can not say …