Captain Ahab Had a Wife: New England Women and the Whalefishery, 1720-1870 / Edition 1

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During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the whaling industry in New England sent hundreds of ships and thousands of men to distant seas on voyages lasting up to five years. In Captain Ahab Had a Wife, Lisa Norling taps a rich vein of sources--including women's and men's letters and diaries, shipowners' records, Quaker meeting minutes and other church records, newspapers and magazines, censuses, and city directories--to reconstruct the lives of the "Cape Horn widows" left behind onshore.

Norling begins with the emergence of colonial whalefishery on the island of Nantucket and then follows the industry to mainland New Bedford in the nineteenth century, tracking the parallel shift from a patriarchal world to a more ambiguous Victorian culture of domesticity. Through the sea-wives' compelling and often poignant stories, Norling exposes the painful discrepancies between gender ideals and the reality of maritime life and documents the power of gender to shape both economic development and individual experience.

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Editorial Reviews

William and Mary Quarterly
Gracefully written, the book is about contradictions: between what society expected of women and men and what the vicissitudes of life demanded and actually produced.
Sea History
A thorough and penetrating history of the whaling masters' wives of Southern New England and the complex culture created through their interactions with their often absent husbands and each other.
Virginia Quarterly Review
With a deft pen Lisa Norling illuminates the everyday lives of families living in the whaling communities in Southeastern New England during the 18th and 19th centuries.
Norling has adeptly woven together a number of threads—the history of New England whaling, Nantucket Quakerism, and the social and economic world of whaling communities.
Times Literary Supplement
[Norling] has made full use of the vast archive of women's papers that, willy nilly, were collected along with those of their men, as America began preserving the memory of one of its greatest early industries.
From the Publisher
Gracefully written.

William and Mary Quarterly

A thorough and penetrating history.

Sea History

[This book] gives a larger, more nuanced picture of whaling behind the scenes than anywhere else I know of.

American Studies

A signal achievement in American women's and gender history. . . . Scholars will ignore her at their peril.

Journal of American History

This book is required reading . . . for anyone interested in maritime gender systems.

International Journal of Maritime History

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807848708
  • Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
  • Publication date: 10/16/2000
  • Series: Gender and American Culture Series
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 392
  • Product dimensions: 6.22 (w) x 9.26 (h) x 0.92 (d)

Meet the Author

Lisa Norling, associate professor of history at the University of Minnesota, is coeditor of Iron Men, Wooden Women: Gender and Seafaring in the Atlantic World, 1700-1920.

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Read an Excerpt

Captain Ahab Had a Wife

There are very few women in Melville's monumental 1851 novel, Moby-Dick or, the Whale. Captain Ahab did, actually, have a wife. But she never appears in person, and she is mentioned only twice: once to signify Ahab's possession of "humanities" (warmer, softer, more nurturing and forgiving qualities) and once, by Ahab himself, in reference to his rejection of those humanities in his monomaniacal quest for the great white whale.[1] Of course, most of the action takes place at sea, and few women went to sea in the nineteenth century. So why remark on their absence from the book? I begin with Captain Ahab's wife because I think the way she is invoked in the novel suggests both the symbolic importance and the substantive absence of women from maritime culture then and from most maritime history now.

In both realms, attention has focused largely on the ship itself, a highly specialized and almost wholly single-sex environment--though certainly not a "genderless" one.[2] In fact, seafaring has traditionally been one of the most strikingly gendered pursuits, an aggressively masculine world of "iron men on wooden ships" that marginalized and objectified real women while feminizing the sea, ships, and shoreside society. Women have served as the foil against which sailors and maritime culture in general asserted their rugged masculinity and demonstrated their estrangement from land-based society, as they "wandered," often "in exile," over "the trackless deep" on ships that were always called "she." In seafaring custom, song, and craft, women have featured more prominently as metaphor than as flesh-and-blood persons.[3]

In fairness, it was (and is) harder to see maritime women than it was to see sailors themselves because, though Jack Tar and Captain Ahab himself were immediately recognizable, their wives, mothers, and sisters did not look different from other women. These women did not walk with a rolling gait, their faces were not unusually weather-beaten, nor did they dress distinctively. They could not compare their hometowns to other ports around the world or tell from firsthand experience heroic tales of the beauties and terrors of the ocean or of the perils in hunting leviathan beasts. Very few women spent much time aboard ship. Their connection to the sea--what determined the rhythms and routine of their life--was through men.

For a century or more, a large popular audience of nautical enthusiasts has been moved by the poignancy of the women left behind onshore and been fascinated (and sometimes titillated) by the tales of the unusual women who broke with convention and went to sea. In contrast, most maritime historians have tended to dismiss as trivial and derivative the experiences and perspectives of Mrs. Ahab and her sisters. But recovering the stories of real maritime women enables us to move beyond the figureheads and the chantey characterizations, the stiff and the stereotypical, and to restore crucial, missing dimensions of the social history of seafaring. Just as turning the lens of the telescope to a different magnification reveals a quite different picture,[4] broadening our vision beyond the ship to the shoreside community from which crews were drawn and ships were launched makes possible a more complete and more accurate history not only of maritime women but also of seafarers and of maritime enterprise.

If maritime historians have neglected the female part of the landward dimension, so too have other American historians largely overlooked the significant maritime elements in America's past. In particular, very few historians of women have yet challenged the conflation of the coastal with the marginal. The oversight is unfortunate. Before the late nineteenth century, sailors were, after farmers, the second largest occupational group in America, and for the preceding two and a half centuries our economy and society were fueled in major ways by maritime activities. As recent landmark scholarship in the social history of American seafaring has demonstrated, maritime enterprise and culture reflected, in some ways typified, and often influenced broad developments in American history from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries.[5] Sailors were neither atypical or irrelevant. This study is intended to serve as a case in point: it aims to show how the particular interplay between economic, social, and cultural shifts in the whaling communities of southeastern New England throws into striking relief not only the conflicted development of liberal individualism for men (explored by Melville) but also the development of its female corollary, Victorian domesticity.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Captain Ahab Had a Wife
1. Nantucket and the Eighteenth-Century Whalefishery
2. Family, Faith, and Community on Colonial Nantucket
3. The Impact of Religious Reform, Revolution, and Romanticism on Nantucket
4. New Bedford and the Nineteenth-Century Whalefishery
5. Love, Marriage, and Family in the Nineteenth-Century Whaling Communities
6. The Failure of Victorian Domesticity on Shore and at Sea
Conclusion: The Nantucket Girls Song
Appendix: Annotated List of Major Informants by Family
Series List

The American whaling industry's home region
Major eighteenth-century whaling grounds
Major nineteenth-century whaling grounds

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