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 I think there is much beauty to them; there is not much form, but a mass of flesh. Their flukes and fins are handsome. They are about mouse color.” By the normal standards of journalism her record is highly opaque, but this opacity is often charming in its quick vivid flashes, sometimes monotonous when nothing is happening, finally tantalizing in what it holds back, in the curiosity it stimulates about her husband’s extraordinary tact in keeping her so well and keen through three-and-a-half years at sea, many harrowing life-and-death crises, and two successful pregnancies, for both her sea-born children were remarkable people. Several appealing glimpses of “Willie” (the engineer-to-be) riding the deck in his cart throwing his cap and boots overboard whenever possible, making trouble for the crew, but no hint of the anguished Spockery that makes modern child-rearing so much more hazardous than hunting whales in 1858. After “gamming” all day with another captain’s wife, Eliza departs pleased and complacent at nightfall for her “Ocean Home,” a good, dry, stoical floating New England housewife. Deprecating everything (including herself) unless it fits one of her upper-case abstractions, ministers to her comfort, is picturesque, friendly, or unquestionably tremendous, Eliza is too plain to be disappointing, too open-hearted not to register some of the majesty, beauty, and terror of her life.
A holy trinity of the deep, Father, Mother, and Boy Baby are perfectly satisfied with each other. “Willie” tells in his account of his last voyage with his father at the age of fifteen in 1873-74 (written in 1929) of how his mother used to hold the heads of severely wounded men while his father sewed them up. “In my experience, a woman can be depended upon to show true nerve and grit at the crucial moment better than a man.” Except in professional skill and doggedness, captain Thomas Williams seems as different from Ahab as Melville himself from Thomas Jefferson. It’s no surprise that so risky a profession, one so dependent on the congeniality of captains and their families (many brought wives and children to sea; Eliza mentions one who had “a young Lady Companion” as well as a wife and two children, another who “has a young Man aboard that he can psychologise”) would scarcely have prospered under the control of maniacal theologians like Ahab. In its great days before the Civil War, whaling was a meritocracy; captains “came in through the hawsepipe” and worked up through the ranks. Most were from inland farms.
The American captain of that day was a plain, rather reticent, serious minded man utterly devoid of show or swagger. He held no commission and wore no uniform but he could say with John Paul Jones, “By God sir I am captain of this ship because I am the best man in her”…It is a strange-sidelight of human nature that a calling which depended entirely upon individual skill, courage and resourcefulness should have completely eliminated the boaster…My mind often drifts back to those clear eyed men of the sea when I am obliged to listen to the lurid description of the terrible fights some man thinks he has had to reach his goal, and I wonder what is his conception of a fight.
Going out alone at night for a whale in a thick fog in an ice-bound bay when the others are too tired, too proud of his skill with a hand lance ever to use a bomb lance, calmly bargaining with a village of Solomon Islanders known to have previously slaughtered a whole boat’s crew on some mysterious misunderstanding, visiting, planning, consulting amongst the fleet, never missing a chance at a whale, the only skilled navigator aboard until his son is old enough to help him, staying awake for days at a time, stopping a rebellion of a dozen drunken crewmen by flailing into them briefly and efficiently with his fists, more dependable than his own chronometers—one wonders what this captain’s vices could have been?
One of the rare men whose eloquence lies entirely in his actions, he presided over America’s immaculate nineteenth-century idyll of extroversion. He gave us a legend, a world, a liturgy of the hunt.
October 22, 1964