Moby Dick’s Town

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Well, not really. Moby Dick was the whale chased by the Pequod out of Nantucket. I don’t mean Nantucket, though it figures in these notes, but the mainland town that in the 1830s, 40s, 50s, fitted out the most whaling ships in North America–New Bedford, Massachusetts.

I’ve been reading The Diary of Samuel Rodman, a prominent citizen who spent his work days at the “counting house,” but his evenings and Sundays in what used to be called “the bosom of his family.” He was a pious man but not in the stern, straight-jacketed manner we associate with that rock-bound coast. Though a Quaker, he bought a pew in the new Episcopal church because the Swedish dames who served his family found it the closest to their Lutheranism from home. He was also a frequent church hopper, attending services in the Congregational, the Episcopal, Baptist Churches and yes his own Friends, not just on Sunday but weekday evenings as well.

Why should we care? Try to imagine life without screens of any kind–no movies, TV, computers, hand-held communication devices. How did Samuel Rodman and his wife from New York, whom he calls “my chere H.,” enlarge their minds and enliven their hearts? Well, they gadded about. There is more “tea-taking” in Samuel Rodman’s diary than you can imagine, and it’s not for love of the beverage, but the company that surrounds the teapot. Almost every evening of the years I’ve surveyed so far, he and his family are either hosting visitors for tea, or stopping by to “take tea” with his mother, in her early 80s, his brothers, their numerous friends, many of them business associates. When his last child Ellen turns 4 in 1837, the family gives her a tea party, and her father praises her genteel, kindly serving of the tea from a child-size tea service.

By this time, Samuel and his wife Hannah Prior Rodman, have six living children ranging in age from 14 to 4. Often in the evenings when he attends lectures or lyceums, he brings along one or both of his two oldest sons: Frank and Tom. They hear well-known orators like Wendell Phillips and Horace Mann, who was the Massachusetts Secretary for Education. Others inform them about electricity, organic remains, Radicalism and Ultracism, the whale fishery, Animal Magnetism, Egypt and Palestine. Rodman sneers at Phrenology. He himself is an amateur astronomer and weather watcher who occasionally compares rainfall levels with another in town. He mightily enjoys lectures on Chemistry and Physics. And so do his wife and children.

Several adult family members live with them off and on: his wife’s sister Phebe, who seems like the angel of many households, returning to New York when their mother dies to succor her father and brother. But a few months later she and Rodman’s father-in-law from New York are settled in the large Rodman house. All kinds of educational events take place in that house: the oldest daughter Mary receives lessons on the accordian. The Accordian!?! School masters of various children stop by in the evening, yes for tea, and to quizz their charges on Latin, etc. The family reads all kinds of things aloud: I recognize the writing of Madame de Genlis, 18th-century French governess to the royal family, to the boy who would eventually become King Louis-Philippe. Madame de Genlis receives Rodman’s approval for her new educational methods: botanizing outside, teaching history with that early version of the slide show, the Magic Lantern.

Rodman is also constantly involved in his own soil–planting many young trees including elms in his town property, and making sure they’re well watered. He monitors haying and corn planting on farms outside of town. He teaches his children about flowers and plants, trees and insects. He has shares in many whaling ships and discusses their out-fitting and their taking sail, often delayed by headwinds or ice in the river. He participates in a new method for removing ice from the harbor, using “charges,” by which I think he means dynamite, and men in boats with pikes to tip and crack the ice and break it up.

And he and his family travel–many times to New York, to Newport, to Boston. There is a rail road in the 1830s which they reach by stage coach There are steamships, and “packet boats,” by which I think he means passenger sailing ships. These travels strike me as much for pleasure as business, for the family visits Boston landmarks like the commemorative marker to the Battle of Bunker Hill. Yet he is constantly a man of affairs, and when Andrew Jackson is elected president, his mood falls, for he fears attacks on the banks, and currency trouble. This comes to pass all too soon, and he is embroiled in stopping the payment of “specie” in the New Bedford banks, following the same in banks higher up.

This brings to mind the early debate between the centralists and states righters, which does not have to do with slavery direction, but everything to do with centralizing control and regulation of banking to promote lending and borrowing and the growth of commerce and industry, versus the more far-flung farming contingent, including plantation owners like Thomas Jefferson, who oppose this kinds of government centralization. In fact, by Rodman’s time, it’s clear that anti-slavery beliefs go hand in hand with more centralizing money attitudes. Rodman decries a murder in Alton, Illinois, of the newspaper editor whose Observer has championed the end of slavery. Rodman writes that the fetters that hold 2.5 million in slavery must be struck off and they “restored to the prerogatives of man.” A reminder that New Bedford was the most active anti-slavery town in New England, hosting many escaped slaves, and protecting them on arrival by ringing church bells when slaver hunters showed up.

He has a lively and sincere style. For a few hours, I’m living with him and his “chere H.” which is not boring at all, but may, in fact, have been fuller of learning and humankind than our lives today.

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