Born of Whale Oil and Witches

[T]his remote, rocky, barren, bushy, wild-woody wilderness, a receptacle for Lions, Wolves, Bears, Foxes, Rockoones, Bags, Bevers, Otters, and all kind of wild creatures, a place never afforded the Natives better than the flesh of a few wild creatures and parch’t Indian corn incht out with Chesnuts and bitter Acorns, now through the mercy of Christ become a second England for ferilness in so short a space that it is indeed the wonder of the world…

—Edward Johnson, The Wonder-Working Providence of Sion’s Savior in New England, 1654


The town itself is perhaps the dearest place to live in, in all New England. It is a land of oil, true enough; but not like Canaan; a land, also, of corn and wine. The streets do not run with milk; nor in the spring-time do they pave them with fresh eggs. Yet, in spite of this, nowhere in all America will you find more patrician-like houses; parks and gardens more opulent, than in New Bedford. Whence came they? how planted upon this once scraggy scoria of a country?

Go and gaze upon the iron emblematical harpoons round yonder lofty mansion, and your question will be answered. Yes; all these brave houses and flowery gardens came from the
Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. One and all, they were harpooned and dragged up hither from the bottom of the sea. Can Herr Alexander perform a feat like that?

In New Bedford, fathers, they say, give whales for dowers to their daughters, and portion off their nieces with a few porpoises a- piece. You must go to New Bedford to see a brilliant wedding; for, they say, they have reservoirs of oil in every house, and every night recklessly burn their lengths in spermaceti candles.

In summer time, the town is sweet to see; full of fine maples — long avenues of green and gold. And in August, high in air, the beautiful and bountiful horse-chestnuts, candelabra-wise, proffer the passer-by their tapering upright cones of congregated blossoms. So omnipotent is art; which in many a district of New Bedford has superinduced bright terraces of flowers upon the barren refuse rocks thrown aside at creation’s final day.

And the women of New Bedford, they bloom like their own red roses. But roses only bloom in summer; whereas the fine carnation of their cheeks is perennial as sunlight in the seventh heavens. Elsewhere match that bloom of theirs, ye cannot, save in Salem, where they tell me the young girls breathe such musk, their sailor sweethearts smell them miles off shore, as though they were drawing nigh the odorous Moluccas instead of the Puritanic sands.

–Melville, Moby Dick, Chapter 6, “The Street”


Even in 1620, two centuries before New Bedford began sending out fifty whaleships a year, the religious Separatists who founded Plymouth Colony knew that whales meant big money

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. As the first permanent English settlement in New England, the Plymouth colonists garnered a privileged place in American history as the “Pilgrims.” To historians of the American whaling industry, they appear as founding fathers of a very different sort, important for being the first among the English to advertise the bounty of whales off the coast of southern New England.

“Oil and Bone” by Nancy Shoemaker


“A grave and dark-clad company,” quoth Goodman Brown.

In truth they were such. Among them, quivering to and fro between gloom and splendor, appeared faces that would be seen next day at the council board of the province, and others which, Sabbath after Sabbath, looked devoutly heavenward, and benignantly over the crowded pews, from the holiest pulpits in the land. Some affirm that the lady of the governor was there. At least there were high dames well known to her, and wives of honored husbands, and widows, a great multitude, and ancient maidens, all of excellent repute, and fair young girls, who trembled lest their mothers should espy them. Either the sudden gleams of light flashing over the obscure field bedazzled Goodman Brown, or he recognized a score of the church members of Salem village famous for their especial sanctity. Good old Deacon Gookin had arrived, and waited at the skirts of that venerable saint, his revered pastor. But, irreverently consorting with these grave, reputable, and pious people, these elders of the church, these chaste dames and dewy virgins, there were men of dissolute lives and women of spotted fame, wretches given over to all mean and filthy vice, and suspected even of horrid crimes. It was strange to see that the good shrank not from the wicked, nor were the sinners abashed by the saints. Scattered also among their pale-faced enemies were the Indian priests, or powwows, who had often scared their native forest with more hideous incantations than any known to English witchcraft.

–Hawthorne, “Young Goodman Brown”


Dollars damn me; and the malicious Devil is forever grinning in upon me, holding the door ajar. My dear Sir, a presentiment is on me,–I shall at last be worn out and perish, like an old nutmeg-grater, grated to pieces by the constant attrition of the wood, that is, the nutmeg. What I feel most moved to write, that is banned,–it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot. So the product is a final hash, and all my books are botches.

–Herman Melville, Letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne, June 1851


What is to be done and to what end?

We cannot act without corruption when the end is what corrupts.  In acting thus, we too are then corrupt.

A light can shine out from within, but always it is splintered and always clouded with the motes of abstracted ends.

We are darkened by and burdened by the false and heavy attractions of substitute materials.

The gold we gather only to usurp the truer glimmer.

Sullied, ashen…we carry on our bones uholy flesh.


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