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Into the deep

In the 19th century, as whaleships scoured the seas for prey, New England became the center of a booming industry

Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America
By Eric Jay Dolin
Norton, 461 pp., illustrated, $27.95

When we see a whale spouting at a distance, we see another exotic fish (well, mammal). But when New Englanders of old caught a glimpse, they saw money.

What started out as a beachcomber's operation, scrounging the coast for oceanic roadkill, evolved into a highly skilled, specialized, and capitalized industry dominated by Yankees and manned by sailors of all nations. It wasn't about food: They threw the meat to the sharks. It was about the oil -- the cleanest, brightest-burning lamp oil that could be found. Spermaceti candles graced the altars of churches and lit the streets of London. Whale oil extended the working day and made the pickpockets' trade that much harder.

World-traveling whalemen stayed at sea for up to four years to fill their holds with barrels of oil, burned down from blubber right on board or scooped out of the heads of the great sperm whales. Mariners explored the South Seas, hauled aboard Galapagos turtles -- delicious, they insisted -- to extend their stores, and eventually even risked arctic ice floes in search of their overhunted prey. In the process they spun legends about killer behemoths, hostile native islanders, cannibalism (their own), and the obsessive pursuit of big kill. The industry waned only around the time of the Civil War, when hydrogen gas and kerosene were introduced and someone thought to drill 70 feet below a Pennsylvania farm for petroleum.

Eric Jay Dolin's lively and thorough history spans the rise, golden age, and decline of what was once one of New England's distinctive industries. The author of "Political Waters," a history of the pollution and cleanup of Boston Harbor, Dolin is well suited to sorting out the fish tales and the sometimes ugly truth of a violent, pressure-filled venture. He sticks mainly to the facts, providing fascinating stories when the evidence allows. And they allow often enough. In 1771 , for example, one Marshal Jenkins had his whaleboat munched by a sperm whale and found himself in the whale's mouth when she dived , only to be spit out ( whales have big mouths but small throats ) . "Legend has it that impressions of the whale's teeth were evident on Jenkins's body for the rest of his life ," Dolin writes. Four years later, a whaler spied an icebound ship off Greenland complete with a frozen crew. The captain or mate, "his face covered by a thin green patina of mold," had been sitting with pen in hand in front of the ship's logbook for 13 years.

The wildness of whaling extended to politics. Nantucketers found themselves so exposed at sea during the American Revolution that they made independent deals with the British Navy to avoid blockades. Some even migrated to Nova Scotia and France after the war. Whalers always took a beating during war because they were easy prey, their armaments being mainly for big game, but they recovered again and again. Their golden age was the long naval peace between the War of 1812 and the Civil War, when New Bedford became the whaling capital of the world and a refuge for fugitive slaves like the boat caulker Frederick Douglass.

The bigger the industry got, however, the more dire "the average whaleman's lot." Competitive pressures extended voyages and seem to have driven up the rewards for the backers and captains, lessening the share for the sailors and encouraging investors to scrimp on supplies and keep sailors in line by any means necessary. This led to a string of mutinies and the fascinating phenomenon of the whaling exposé, a genre that preceded muckraking accounts of factory conditions by a half-century. The same New Englanders who were increasingly invested in factories and increasingly horrified by stories of Southern slavery, in other words, thrilled to sentimental tales of daring -- or naive -- sailors caught between the behemoths of the sea and the monster officers on deck.

This is the drama that fascinated whaling veteran Herman Melville enough to pen what is arguably the masterwork of American literature. Dolin quotes Melville on the mightiness of his theme, but he declines to dive into the murky waters of myth and imagination, whether of the sailors or the reformers. His insistence on the preeminence of whaling in American history would have held more water if he had gone beyond the industry and the coastal towns, and even beyond his moving descriptions of shipboard life and the whales' behavior, to plumb New England's distinctive legends of giant catches and wrecked lives.

But any student of whaling or of America knows that the main story is the main chance. Dolin chose to take on the subject in its broadest form, and if he leaves us wanting more, that is what good history does. "Leviathan" starts us on the beach, takes us to the ends of the earth, and deposits us at the dawn of our time, back home, without forcing us to get our hands greasy . If you like your beach books to address fundamental questions, though, you might want to stow "Moby-Dick" as well.

And don't forget those turtle sandwiches.

David Waldstreicher teaches at Temple University and is the author of "Runaway America: Benjamin Franklin, Slavery, and the American Revolution."