GUIDED BY MY ONGOING obsession with the novel Moby-Dick, I embark upon a pilgrimage to the New Bedford Whaling Museum. It’s a fascinating, well-funded repository of dramatic nineteenth-century maritime artwork, scrimshaw, harpoons, and various whaling implements, as well as a half-scale re-creation of a successful whaling ship named the Lagoda. The museum makes concrete much of what I’ve gleaned about the historic whaling industry from reading and rereading Moby-Dick. What most intrigues me — but is given somewhat short shrift by the museum — is the industry’s gross unsustainability. In two or three hundred years, U.S. whaling corporations fished out entire oceans and severely depleted the global whale population, cutting a critical lifeline for many indigenous peoples who had sustainably harvested whales for two thousand years or more. Whereas native peoples in Asia and the Americas had a deep reverence for the whale, nineteenth-century Americans had a more entrepreneurial attitude toward whaling. After being tapped for spermaceti oil and ambergris and stripped of blubber, immense sperm whale carcasses were dumped unceremoniously back into the sea. Ambergris was a key ingredient in the production of perfume, the same substance that Melville’s mystical contemporary, Walt Whitman, “knew and loved” but ultimately considered a useless vanity. Baleen from right whales was used to make hoop skirts and corsets (also known as “whalebone prisons”).
Aside from indulging American vanity, by and large the industry profited most from oil — whaling was, in fact, the original “Big Oil.” In 1853, just two years after the publication of Moby-Dick, the industry had its most successful season, killing eight thousand whales, rendering hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil, and netting $11 million — making it the fifth-largest industry in the country. Spermaceti was used as a clean, clear-burning, Benjamin Franklin–endorsed lamp oil and illuminant, providing light for most of the developed world. And like its dirty, crude oil descendant, whale oil lubricated the furious machinery of the Industrial Revolution. In Charles Olson’s 1947 book Call Me Ishmael, he writes, “So if you want to know why Melville nailed us in Moby-Dick, consider whaling. Consider whaling as FRONTIER and INDUSTRY. . . . The Pacific as sweatshop . . . the whaleship as factory, the whaleboat the precision instrument.”
As America grew, so did the demand for whale oil, but soon demand outpaced supply. As whale populations dwindled — as we reached a kind of nineteenth-century Peak Whale — voyages to distant seas like the South Pacific and even the Arctic became necessary. The New Bedford museum depicts this era in a series of haunting, sublime paintings of whaling ships dwarfed by icebergs. Two-year whaling voyages became the norm, as did the increasingly dehumanizing and dangerous aspects of life aboard a whaler; in the mid-nineteenth century something close to one-third of all American whaling hands deserted their ships. Another death knell for the whaling industry was the discovery of petroleum near Titusville, Pennsylvania, during the late 1850s. Originally developed as a cheaper replacement for whale oil, petroleum soon inundated the modern world, its omnipresence fueling the rise of the automobile, petrochemicals, and plastics. Now, of course, demand for petroleum impels us to much more perilous, violent lengths than ever dreamt of by the old captains of New Bedford.
My next stop at the Whaling Museum is the auditorium, where an educational film called The City That Lit the World plays on a constant loop. Though it occasionally references Moby-Dick, the film is narrated in an unironic tone of nostalgia and patriotism, as if ridding the ocean of whales was a national pastime of which every red-blooded American should be proud. And while largely attributing the demise of whaling to the discovery of petroleum, without mentioning overfishing, the film fails to make any spiritual links between the two ultimately unsustainable industries — or to point out what seems obvious to me: that history is repeating itself.
Maybe someday, I daydream, I might bring my own children to a Texas attraction called the Midland Oiling Museum, where visitors will marvel at display cases lined with hundreds of old dipsticks, dirty oil filters, and cans of Pennzoil and Valvoline. The larger rooms will contain antiquated oil derricks, photos of defunct refineries, well-preserved gas station pumps, lovingly restored Cadillac Escalades and a half-scale model of the Exxon Valdez. All of this will be presided over by large, painted portraits of oil-hungry executives and politicians, edged with gilded frames and tastefully illuminated by recessed lighting. We will all stand around smiling, pointing, pretending to be interested while patronizing curators wax nostalgic about the relatively short life span of such a wasteful, violent, environmentally toxic, yet wholeheartedly American enterprise.