After dashing off yesterday’s post on Sunday night, I picked up a little book I’ve had in my private collection for some years now, The Story of Yankee Whaling. It’s part of the now-defunct American Heritage Junior Library series of history books for young readers, and it’s a charming little volume about the grand adventures and brutal lives of whalers in colonial and nineteenth-century America.
The first edition of the book was published in 1959, but my edition is a slender paperback edition from 1965. It is rich in primary source documentation, as well as sketches and woodcuts from the high watermark of whaling. The author is Irwin Shapiro, who worked closely with Edouard A. Stackpole, the then-curator of the Mystic Seaport Marine Historical Association in Mystic, Connecticut.
While I still have most of the book left to read, I was immediately struck by two qualities: the book, intended for children, is still fairly advanced by our standards today. Secondly, the book does not attempt, patronizingly, to apologize for its subject matter.
Consider: in our present age, what could be more hostile to PC culture than whaling? Whales are charismatic mega-fauna (and, indeed, quite intelligent creatures)—they’re basically sharks with good PR. Japan is still roundly denounced for continuing the practice.
And yet, in the foreword to 1965 edition, Mr. Stackpole never includes the now-obligatory, “While the Yankee whalers were brave men, whaling was and is a vicious crime against nature.” Thank goodness! Instead, he writes that readers will enjoy “long-forgotten episodes and stories” of the “whalemen-adventurers.”
The first chapter I read Sunday night details how the great beasts were hunted, with no feigned remorse at their deaths. The closest it got to touching upon an issue like over-fishing was in a discussion of how whalers moved further out to sea in search of their blubbery quarry, and that the right whale became more scarce, causing sailors to turn to the more valuable sperm whale.
I suppose such post-hoc mea culpas could pop up later in the book, but I doubt it. Even in that dreadful decade, Americans in the 1960s believed in the greatness of their heritage. Children could be captivated for hours with a book about the unsung heroes who built New England, and the country, aboard creaky vessels on the high seas.
We used to learn of such noble, heroic adventures. A fresh series of unapologetically patriotic, adventurous, swashbuckling books for young readers on our great national heroes—from the forgotten whalers to notable figured like John Paul Jones—would be a boon for children and our nation alike.
More updates to come on this little tome. Happy Reading!