Book Review (Kind Of): In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick

So, a piece of info about your blogmistress that probably won’t surprise anyone: I don’t normally buy books without reading reviews of them first, because I don’t want to end up paying money for something that looked good but turned out to be deficient or substandard in some way. I made an exception for In the Heart of the Sea when I found it at the front of Books-a-Million last month, for a few reasons. One, it was a mass-market paperback so it didn’t cost too much; two, Nathaniel Philbrick is a well-known historian with a good reputation; and three, flipping through it, I realized it would give me an opportunity to expand upon a topic I’d already discussed here at Scarlet Letters. And on that note, if you’ve seen the In the Heart of the Sea movie that was recently made, you’re probably wondering what a book about whaling and survival at sea has to do with the usual fare here (Christian gender issues and patriocentricity). More on that in a minute. First, the book.

If you didn’t know anything about the Essex disaster (and I didn’t), Philbrick provides an engaging introduction, as well as relevant background information both on Nantucket whaling in general, and how the Essex incident inspired Herman Melville to write Moby-Dick. Most of the book is a narrative, reconstructed from survivors’ accounts, but Philbrick maintains the quasi-narrative style even in the sections that are more informational. Consequently, the book reads up quickly and has an almost fiction-like feel at times. (For those, like me, who are more academically inclined, Philbrick outlines his primary sources chapter-by-chapter in an appendix.) I suspect it helps enhance the realism that Philbrick actually lives on Nantucket. He’s also apparently written a history of the island from 1602 to 1890 (Away Off Shore) which I’m now planning to read. So no, “history books” do not, in fact, have to be dry and clinical, and I would recommend this one to folks interested in survival stories, maritime history, American history, and more specifically New England and/or Massachusetts history.

(Quick note: if you don’t have a strong stomach or are especially sensitive, parts of this book might be difficult to read. There are detailed descriptions of how various animals were slaughtered, most obviously how sperm whales were killed and processed for oil on board ship, and Philbrick pulls no punches about survival cannibalism at sea. For full disclosure, I squirmed a bit in places and I have a very high tolerance for violence in print. So yes, there’s blood and gore. You have been warned.)

And now, since I said this was only “kind of” a book review and promised I would connect this to stuff I’ve already talked about, let’s move on to what I actually bought the book for: Philbrick’s historical tidbits about gender roles on 19th-century Nantucket.

I briefly mentioned Nantucket here once, a long, long time ago, back when I was still doing my Big Box series, because Doug Phillips said this in one of his lectures:

May I suggest to you that a young man who has set his goals on a job that will require him to be fourteen hours away from home each day cannot be a faithful father? It is impossible to properly fulfill your responsibilities as a husband and a dad and not be there with your family. You can’t do it.

At the time, I pointed out that if Phillips had been around in the 19th century, he would have been presenting any Christian man in the whaling industry with, essentially, a choice between doing his job and impoverishing his family, at a time when learning a new trade required years of all-consuming training and there was no government safety net. I stand by that, but I want to expand on it a bit using In the Heart of the Sea as a jumping-off point.

First, and let’s put this in the most succinct way possible: from a personal standpoint, whaling life sucked. This is probably one of the most extreme job-induced separations any family could ever sign up for. It makes most modern military deployments look like a walk in the park, esp. since the only form of communication possible was letters, which would take months to even reach a ship literally on the other side of the world (and then any reply would take a few more months to get back home). Voyages were routinely years long – because ships had to sail all the way around South America and out into the Pacific to reach the prime whaling grounds – and a lot can happen back home over the course of two or more years. This is probably best illustrated by Philbrick’s description of the family life of Owen Chase, first mate of the Essex:

Chase’s first voyage after the sinking of the Essex, as first mate aboard the New Bedford whaleship Florida, lasted less than two years and reaped two thousand barrels of oil. When he returned to Nantucket in 1823, he found a second child, Lydia, toddling in the wake of her older sister, Phebe Ann, now approaching four. Chase chose to remain on-island for the birth of his next child, a son, who was named William Henry. Owen’s wife, Peggy did not recover from the delivery. She died less than two weeks later. Owen was now a twenty-seven-year-old widower with three children to care for.

In the fall and winter of 1824-25 he came to know a woman with whom he already shared a special bond. Nancy Slade Joy was the widow of Matthew Joy, second mate of the Essex. She and Matthew had been married for two years before her husband had shipped out for the last time. In June of 1825, nine months after the death of Peggy Chase, the widow and widower were married, and Nancy became the stepmother of Owen’s three children. …

Chase’s first voyage as captain of the Charles Carroll was a financial success. After three and a half years, he returned in March 1836 with 2,610 barrels of oil, almost twice the return of his first voyage as captain aboard the Winslow. But the voyage came at a great personal cost. Nine months after her husband left the island, Nancy Chase gave birth to a daughter, Adeline. A few weeks later, Nancy was dead. Greeting their father at the wharf in the spring of 1836, were Phebe Ann, almost sixteen; Lydia, thirteen; William Henry, eleven; and Adeline, two and a half – a girl who had no memory of her mother and had never known her father.[1]

I’ve wondered for years how, even in the modern military, patriocentric families make decisions on a day-to-day basis when the patriarch has shipped out on a 9-month submarine deployment, or is serving on the ground in Iraq or Afghanistan. I personally know one Navy chaplain who was stationed away from his family for 15 straight months. And all of that is far, far less extreme than what whalers’ families went through on a regular basis. I admit that in the age of texting and Skype, it’s much, much easier for a patriocentric wife to keep in touch with her husband. But again, in case it wasn’t obvious, whalers’ wives did not have Skype.

So if we plopped Doug Phillips (or any other patriocentrist) down in the 19th century, what would be his solution to this problem? How would he get his gender roles to practically apply here? Would his only answer be to phase out the whole system? If so, what’s his plan for a replacement? It’s not as if everyone in America and Europe would have stopped using sperm oil just because Doug Phillips up and told them the whaling industry’s gender roles were inadequately Biblical. Of course, the problem eventually solved itself via the discovery of petroleum and the advent of electricity, but those are all part of the Industrial Revolution. Which Phillips also hates.

Phillips is, however, right about one thing: frequent, prolonged absences of husbands and fathers affected the workings of society in Nantucket. Namely, women had to pick up the slack themselves, and this was related to the dominant religious tradition on the island:

With their men gone for so long, Nantucket’s women were obliged not only to raise the children but also to run many of the island’s businesses. It was largely the women who maintained the complex web of personal and commercial relationships that kept the community functioning. …

Quakerism contributed to the women’s strength. In its emphasis on the spiritual and intellectual equality of the sexes, the religion fostered an attitude that was in keeping with what all Nantucketers saw plainly demonstrated to them every day: that women, who on Nantucket tended to be better educated than the island’s men, were just as intelligent, just as capable as their male counterparts.[2]

Since In the Heart of the Sea is actually about the Essex disaster, not gender roles, Philbrick doesn’t go into great detail on this point, but more information can easily be found elsewhere. Take, for instance, this short piece in the Nantucket Chronicle about what became known as “Petticoat Row,” a particular street with mostly female-run businesses:

Women ran the businesses not only to support their families while their husbands were away, but to be prepared for an unsuccessful voyage or the not infrequent case of husbands being lost at sea. Within the heavily Quaker-influenced society, women were encouraged to work for a wage, and working women were highly esteemed within our small island community. They may have been harassed by a few – mostly men – but the community relied on their shops and the work they did in the small manufactories that were developed during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They were not “feminists,” although they were a part of and also influenced future women’s rights activists, many of those whom, like Nantucket-born Lucretia Coffin Mott, grew up with their mothers running such shops. And like the equality found at Quaker meeting, this public role gave women a bit of leverage and social prestige.[3]

And speaking of Lucretia Coffin Mott, here is her own description of the situation:

Women have long been regarded as the stronger part. This is owing in some measure to so many of the men being away at sea. During the absence of their husbands, Nantucket women have been compelled to transact business, often going to Boston to procure supplies of goods – exchanging for oil, candles, whalebone – &. c – This has made them adept in trade. They have kept their own accounts, & indeed acted the part of men. Then education & intellectual culture have been for years equal for girls & boys so that their women are prepared to be companions of men in every sense – and their social circles are never divided. Successive generations of this kind of mental exercise have improved the form of the head, and the intellectual portion predominates.[4]

Mott, it turns out, is an interesting figure who, for myriad reasons, would give Doug Phillips an ulcer. Not only was she a devout Quaker (Phillips basically rejects all non-Calvinist thought as non-Christian), she was also a rabid abolitionist, and an early feminist who ultimately organized the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, NY with Elizabeth Cady Stanton. (A biography of Mott can be found here.)

And so again I have some practical questions for Phillips. If a Christian woman finds herself in a situation like a Nantucket whaler’s wife – with her husband gone and inaccessible for protracted periods of time – what does she do? Life doesn’t grind to a halt until he gets back. Bills have to be paid, decisions have to be made, and so on and so forth. If these women were “disobeying God” by doing things like running businesses – which is the only logical conclusion I can come to based on Phillips’ own previous statements – what were they supposed to do? Phillips would probably label their behavior “rebellion” – but it looks a lot more like the only practical response to a situation in which half of the productive members of society (i.e., men) were literally not even there for years at a time.

I’m also certainly not trying to imply that all aspects of this situation were positive. It would be extremely difficult to have anything resembling a normal relationship with your husband (or father, in the children’s case) if you only saw him for a few months every two to three years. Philbrick is open about the fact that many women on Nantucket were opium users, and relates a story about a “he’s-at-home” (the local name for, essentially, a 19th-century dildo) that was found hidden in the chimney of one of the historic homes on the island. In other words, no one would willingly sign up for a lifestyle like this unless they had no other choice – which is exactly the point. So given that this was how the Nantucket economy operated at this particular historical moment, would Phillips have any practical way to implement his system that didn’t necessitate completely changing the reality on the ground and/or demanding that everyone move? (Then again, other patriocentrists have cavalierly suggested that people move if they cannot find an NCFIC-affiliated church in their area, so I suspect that, in general, they are pretty callously clueless on this point.)

There’s also a peculiar irony here if Phillips’ only solution is truly to scrap the system. To do this, Phillips would obviously have had to end the whaling industry. This is, amusingly enough, perfectly in line with the goals of some environmentalists, esp. more radical groups like Greenpeace (who are infamous for interfering with modern whaling). Whatever any of my readers might think of environmentalism, Phillips hates it, with a passion. He’s even gone so far as to refer to Earth Day as the time when “millions of people (perhaps billions) representing the countries of the United Nations will stop to celebrate the high holy day of [pantheism and earth worship] as they pay homage to the earth god.”[5] How interesting that in his zeal for gender roles and home economy, Phillips has accidentally ended up agreeing with one of the only groups he hates as much as feminists.

Unfortunately, by this point, I have a sneaking suspicion that I’m just shouting at a wall. I doubt any of these questions would bother Doug Phillips very much, because historical facts seem to have almost no impact on patriocentrists whatsoever. In fact, about halfway through writing this, I realized Phillips (or someone like him) could easily spin this entire post into a judgment narrative, in which America was ultimately cursed with feminism because of the ungodly reversal of gender roles perpetrated by Nantucket whalers and their evil egalitarian Quakerism. It was a depressing little epiphany. Then again, given some of the things Kevin Swanson has said about history – he believes Nathaniel Hawthorne was moved to write The Scarlet Letter by Satanic forces, and that Hawthorne’s sister was trying to demon possess his children – I suppose it could still be a lot worse. So I guess, in the end, there’s nothing to say but:


[1]In the Heart of the Sea, p. 212-213, 215.

[2]In the Heart of the Sea, p. 15.

And since there’s never a bad reason to share great music, here’s They That Go Down to the Sea in Ships, an anthem by Anglican church composer Herbert Sumsion that fits this post perfectly. This particular performance by the Choir of Ely Cathedral has a sort-of connection to your blogmistress, too, as my choir was in residence for a week at Ely Cathedral a few summers ago, doing choral evensong service every night. Enjoy!

2 comments on “Book Review (Kind Of): In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick

  1. fiddlrts says:

    So many interesting things here. The kids and I are reading through Kipling’s “Captains Courageous right now, which is a story of the New England fishing fleet. They weren’t gone as long as whalers, but still for huge portions of each year. And fishing, unlike whaling, isn’t really optional if you want to feed people.

    Similarly, one of my all time favorite books, Two Years Before the Mast details the life of a merchant sailor. (Lawyer Richard Henry Dana took to the sea to improve his health and eyesight, and ended up as an advocate for ending the use of the lash.)

    And then there is the Middle Ages, when soldiers would commit for years at a time, and the women ran everything. (As Dorothy Sayers pointed out, whole industries including beer making were for centuries the domain of women – who kept their wages in many cases – until they were industrialized and men took over.)

    If anything, human history points to humans adapting to necessity however they can. And for more of history than Phillips would ever admit, this meant that women worked and ran their own industries.

    Just my two cents, but I don’t think Phillips – or any of the Patriarchists for that matter – really have a problem with *poor* women working. They are the laboring, not the breading class. For him, it is the “godly” ones – aka the wealthy privileged ones – who need to avoid labor. And for everyone, of course, he doesn’t think women should have economic or social power (or political power). That, I think is the point. Never mind that this hasn’t ever completely worked in history and would be largely impractical today as well…

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Remember that before he went down in that sex scandal (keeboarping his Commander’s Handmaid), Douggie ESQUIRE (he really loved using that faux-Noble title) would cosplay as a Highborn Nobleman. (To the point one blog commenter called him “Little Lord Fauntleroy”.) Or as General Patton, not an enlisted man in Patton’s 3rd Army. (I would like to run him into the REAL George Patton…)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s