The Written Word

Lisa Norling uses written correspondence from whaler’s wives to their husbands in Ahab Had a Wife: New England Women and the Whalefishery 1720-1870 to emphasize the multiple ways women portrayed themselves according to romantic conventions and the ideals of femininity in whaling communities.

Letters from Ruth Grinnell to finance, James Sowle, Westport Massachusetts, 1848:

Woman as nurturing, sympathetic supporter: “James do not be discouraged, keep up the good spirits and if you do your duty to God and man nothing more is required of you.  Do not, my love, hesitate to write me as often as ever on account of your unluckiness,–so much the more I want to hear from you, that I can sympathize with you.”

Woman as moral arbiter: “James do you swear at all[?] I hope not, after the promises you made to me…I sincerely hope my own dear James does not take Gods name in vain…James I do not want you to deceive me by searing when you are out of my presence…or to try to make me think that you do not for you know that I abhor deception.”

Woman as religious exhorter: “I was very sorry to hear you had been sick; but I am glad you realize the shortness and uncertainty of time. Oh my dear James, may you wisely consider the subject and throw it not carelessly aside, remember that you are momentarily exposed to danger and that God alone is your protector, and can you expect him to guard you while you continue in sin and disobedience to him? Go now to you Saviour and plead and beseech him to forgive your sins and to make you a new creature, sinless before the world. James if you ever need religion you need it now…Let not my entreaties be in vain, I cannot repent for you, would that I could.”

Woman as flighty and capricious: “James do not think I am crazy when you see this scrabbling for I am nothing more so than I used to be.”

Ruth and James’ relationship:

The love object as the focal point of one’s earthly existence: “What should I do if you should die, I should long to die, all I have to hold me here is you.”

The loved one, the companion of one’s heart, as the only true friend: “I should like to know where you are to-day, whether you are sick or well[,] dead or alive.  I wish it was so that you could be there then I should not be so lonesome.  You know that I have no dear friend to whom I can pour out my joys and griefs[,] non that will share them with me.”

Love conquers all: “It is not because I love you any the less, no, for every day do I love you more devotedly, time and distance does not make me forget, but the longer I am separated from you the more I miss your society.”

The private, heart-centered home in opposition to the external public realm: The world seems so cold and thoughtless but if you were here then should I have a friend in whom I could confide, in whom I could…trust, shall I say, trust, would that I could say so without doubt.”

Norling, Lisa. Captain Ahab Had a Wife: New England Women and the Whalefishery 1720-1870. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2000.


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