The New Bedford Whaling Museum's Moby-Dick Marathon is an annual non-stop reading of Herman Melville's literary masterpiece. The multi-day program of entertaining activities and events is presented every January. Admission to the Marathon is free.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Making America Corporate

Making America Corporate is the catchy title of a book by Olivier Zunz (a prof. of history at U.Va.) that examines the transformation of the American workplace during the half-century between 1870 and 1920.  The book itself -- fairly dry and academic -- is not something I would recommend that most people rush out to buy.  But the changes it traces have probably had a greater impact on our everyday lives than the more exciting topics of better-known historiographers.

Today, most adults in the West are employees: they support themselves and their families by working for somebody else (usually a business entity).  But back before America was "made corporate," being an employee was not much of a life.  Mature American men typically worked for themselves, in most cases on farms.  Working for someone else was what you did as a young man, before you had gained the cash and skills to strike out on your own.  A man who spent his whole life as someone else's employee was seen as a bit of a failure, a nobody.  The office clerks in "Bartleby, the Scrivener" give an idea of the type.  The only significant exceptions were upper-level civil servants and men in managerial positions with the country's few large-scale industries (mainly railroads).

The lives of 19th-century employees in the United States did not get much attention from novelists, especially in the first three quarters of the century.  Moby-Dick is therefore unusual, if not unique, in this regard.  It depicts in authoritative detail the life and work of one type of employee of the 1850s, the whaling man.  This may partly account for Moby-Dick's extraordinary resonance with modern readers -- Melville's flamboyant and sympathetic rendering of the life of the industrial employee speaks to core concerns of the typical adult today.

Whalemen were as much industrial workers as they were sailors.  Whale ships were among the first factory ships in history.  Rather than merely catching whales and towing them into port for processing, the whalers caught them, butchered them, and rendered them into the final product, oil.  Hence the unseamanlike appearance of whalers, as noted by Richard Henry Dana.  They were mobile, floating industrial plants.

Melville shows us the laborer's life from two main viewpoints: that of the inexperienced hand at the bottom of the pecking order (Ishmael) and that of the senior employee with very valuable skills (Queequeg).  We see their search for work, their job interviews and job offers, and virtually everything their jobs entailed.  All we do not get to see is their payday and discharge, since the voyage was cut short.  Or, in a sense, their payday comes when Moby Dick kills the boss and wrecks the factory, and all except Ishmael are discharged permanently. 


  1. Kill the boss and wreck the factory ...the stuff that dreams are made on. Moby Dick sticks it to the Man! (AKA 'Turnabout is fair play.')

  2. I wouldn't agree with the turnabout allusion. After all, the boss doesn't kill his employees and wreck their houses. A bit harsh, that. Tempting as it may be...