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Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America

3.94  ·  Rating Details ·  673 Ratings  ·  100 Reviews
The epic history of the "iron men in wooden boats" who built an industrial empire through the pursuit of whales. "To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme," Herman Melville proclaimed, and this absorbing history demonstrates that few things can capture the sheer danger and desperation of men on the deep sea as dramatically as whaling. Eric Jay Dolin begins ...more
Paperback, 512 pages
Published July 17th 2008 by W. W. Norton & Company (first published July 2nd 2007)
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The risk in giving your opinion about a book is that people may think you're an idiot. Worse than that, people may find out that, indeed, you actually are an idiot. This risk usually only runs with books that are acknowledged classics, or books that are trashy. For instance, you will definitely get concerned looks when you say you really hate The Great Gatsby or really love The DaVinci Code. (No offense to Dan Brown-o-philes).

This was my plight when I said I really disliked Moby Dick. Since the
Four stars, though I admit being torn between three and four stars. Honestly, three and a half. I would happily say four if I hadn’t gotten completely bogged down in the long middle section of the book giving the history of American whaling ports.

The political background on the American whaling colonies didn’t interest me nearly as much as the material on whaling itself – the lives and methods of the whalers, details of ships, whaling grounds, and so on. As a result, I put this book aside somet
Jan 08, 2017 Chris rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
It held my interest throughout it's entirety. That's saying a lot from a reader with my ADD
May 29, 2008 Connie rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The sperm whale, what an amazing animal! And man's interaction with it even more so. Colonial American whaling seems to have been overshadowed by the more popular whaling era in the mid 1800's. I am amazed at the whole proposition of chasing a leviathan in a tiny boat (no matter what decade) and have read many books, fiction and non fiction, on the subject. In other books I found no or little mention of the importance of whaling during our country's beginnings but this one has a lot of good info ...more
Jan 21, 2008 Len rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
No false advertising here. This book is exactly what it says it is: a comprehensive narrative of American whaling, from the 1600s through (nearly) the present. I give it five stars because it is difficult to imagine an author covering the subject any better than Dolan does.

The highlight of the book is its chapters on the "Golden Age" of American whaling -- from about 1800 to 1850.
May 13, 2015 Jonathan rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I love the history of whaling so for me to give this anything less than five stars would be foolish.
Steve Smits
Nov 01, 2016 Steve Smits rated it really liked it
A complete and detailed history of whaling in America, starting with precolonial times and culminating with the demise of American whaling in the early 20th century. It shows how enormous the whaling industry was and the riches it brought to many. The story gives great detail on the process of hunting whales and rendering their bodies into salable products. Profits from whaling were immense in the golden years, but waned when buffeted by political events (mainly wars) and economic impacts. The a ...more
Dec 20, 2016 Michael rated it it was amazing
Wow! This is a fantastic book. The drama is constant and so vivid. Totally surprising on parts and so concise in its recollection of the past.
Cormac Zoso
Apr 28, 2013 Cormac Zoso rated it it was amazing
This is a great book ... period.

Having read about whales and whaling since elementary school, I've got a pretty good background in the subject. Certainly, it's an above average background and while I stand squarely against modern whaling, I am fascinated with the history of the industry.

Whaling was the American oil industry prior to the first successful drilling of underground petroleum in Pennsylvania in 1859. Until that time, all the oil for the American states came from the whaling industry.
Leviathan is mainly about whaling in the British colonies in America and the industry's subsequent history in the United States. The industry petered out in the early twentieth century. The author starts with some preliminary history of European whaling. Although Greeks, Romans and Phoenicians ate whale meat, it seems that their source was whales cast up on the shore. The Basques appear to be the first Europeans who hunted whales at sea. Early European explorers of North America, such as John Sm ...more
Jan 02, 2010 Bruce rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Following the example of the native inhabitants, the first European settlers in eastern North America began harvesting whales that washed up or were beached on their shores. They were not interested in them as a source of food. You might dine on the liver or turn the brains into “dainty cakes,” but the flesh at best, was something like a course beef, or as Meriwether Lewis described it in his expedition’s journal in 1805, “it resembled the beaver or dog in flavor.” It was the blubber they wanted ...more
John Maniscalco
Aug 25, 2009 John Maniscalco rated it really liked it
I read this book because I was about to go on a trip to Cape Cod and I am from Long Island, two areas that are historically tied to whaling. This book is incredibly interesting as it not only provides information as to how whales were hunted, processed and how important whaling was to the American economy but interesting anecdotes about how whaling altered history. Additionally, this is also a biology book which describes the differences between whales, their characteristics, personalities, and ...more
Feb 27, 2014 Mike rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This ambitious chronicle of a hugely significant industry succeeds on all fronts. It's no fluke: Dolin trolled an enormous body of sources to reveal significant trends, punctuated with dramatic stories that humanize the whole venture. (I will never again walk the decks of the Charles W. Morgan at Mystic Seaport without thinking of the harrowing attack on the ship and its crew by Pacific islanders.) Dolin places whaling- rightfully- in a place of prominence in early American history. Whales and t ...more
Jun 29, 2010 Carol rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2010
I bought this book as a background to research into my family history and because I am very interested in that era and place. It was well researched and fully documented. If you look in the back of the book, you will find that the footnotes have many interesting asides to this history of whaling. I really like the detailed information about the different kinds of whales and learning about the hazards of whale fishing in the Arctic region.
I do wish that the illustrations were larger so that it w
Sep 24, 2008 Heidi rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I wrote a lovely (I think) review, but I couldn't save it because for some reason GoodReads signed me out in the middle of composing it! Rats. Anyway, here is my (failed) attempt to recreate it:

Although today the thought of whaling is repugnant to most, the history of whaling continues to make a fascinating read, especially since the author's writing is so engaging. From the first beached pilot whales that colonists found on the shore to the end of whaling in America, Dolin drew me in. The chapt
Jan 07, 2014 Hamilton rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
the best way i can think to describe this book is like a hearty, rich potato/bacon/cheddar soup. it's thick and rich and shouldn't be eaten in one sitting. you need to take your time with this thing, slowly digesting each chapter and really putting yourself in its pages. it's not terribly exciting like some of these other history books, but it's so fascinating that i was hard pressed to read anything else.

it's written like a text book and i don't mean that in a bad way. the author knows his shi
Aug 15, 2014 Rageofanath rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
When I first picked up Leviathan, I was concerned that a 500 page account of the history of whaling in America would be a real slog. I couldn't have been more wrong. Leviathan wasn't interesting simply because it was written in an easy to read style, but because the writing caused you to notice the importance of and care about the subject matter in and of itself rather than merely eliciting thoughts of "writing was engaging... for nonfiction". Though, the cover does indicate a bit of a dry read ...more
I never thought that a history of whaling in the U.S. would become one of my favorite books. But here I am! I skipped social events, stayed home and ignored other books to read this one. Something about whales just fascinates me, and the idea that they were seen as the "oil" of their day. I never thought I could explain to anyone why or how I enjoyed this book. But when I took it to the library to return it, the librarian got this glint in his eyes and said, did you like it? I said, I loved it! ...more
Mar 18, 2014 nicdavdi rated it liked it
A comprehensive and readable history of the American whaling industry - up to the end of the 19th century the largest and most efficient in the world. The book takes us through the stages of whaling - drift whaling, shore whaling and then deep sea whaling - before the long decline of the industry in the latter part of the 1800s. Whaling has been heavily romanticised and this book goes some way to debunking some of that mythology. Whaling was hard and brutal and despite the obvious bravery of man ...more
Jul 08, 2009 Nick rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It goes into great detail about the rise of the whaling industry in America and the whaling culture of America during the industries heyday. The idea of taking to the ocean for 4 years at a time, in small wooden ships, to hunt these huge creatures of the deep, strikes me as both ludicrous and thrilling. I find the stories of the ships, towns and individuals who lived and breathed whaling absolutely fascinating. These individuals (both men and women) lived very har ...more
Feb 25, 2009 Andy rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
When I think of whaling, I picture scenes from America’s “Golden Age of Whaling,” the period of great productivity between the War of 1812 and the Civil War, and also the setting for Moby Dick. But there was a thriving industry centered at Nantucket Island long before then, and whaling continued actively well into the twentieth century.

Dolin’s book provides an in-depth study of each phase of the development and eventual decline of North American whaling, with particularly strong coverage of the
Casey Mahon
Nov 14, 2015 Casey Mahon rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Just finished reading Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America by Eric Jay Dolin. Like Dolin's other books about important 19th century American industries (Fur and the China trade) this is a quick but in depth overview of an important part of our history. Whaling is now all but unknown outside of a few museums and the pages of Moby Dick, but it played an important role in colonial and early American life. The book contains the whole story of the rise of whaling, it's place in American busin ...more
Brian Von
A fascinating history of the whaling tradition in America and how incredibly short sighted and callow the human race, Americans' in the case of this book, are to eliminating species for our own selfish and often capricious benefits. Dolon does an excellent job bringing to life the history of American whaling, its foundation of slavery, usurpation of both the Native Americans and the blacks. Many young white men, described as gulls, were also duped into signing 4 years of their lives away to serv ...more
Can be very dry and times but delves in history in great detail. Very interesting watching the whale oil market come together by the early 1700s, go through the Golden Age in the first half of the 19th century, and then soon realize after the Civil War the numbers would never add up in competition with oil and other luminant / lubricants.

It's striking how much man can simply ignore the harm he does in the name of profit. The only thing that saved the whales was the innovation of new oils chiefly
Jun 04, 2008 Bostian rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Another audiobook, but I've actually listened all the way through and then started again. I picked this up after listening to Moby Dick again which I bought in Peoria for something to listen to while awake at night, trying not to think about work. Then, after finishing these compact discs, I decided to start reading a text copy of Moby Dick. I've managed to create a direct association between American whaling & life in the Midwest by reading both of these books almost completely through twic ...more
Nicole Helget
Apr 30, 2012 Nicole Helget rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Oh man. It took me forever to finish this book. I pecked at it every now and then for a couple of months, and then in the past few days, the last 100 pages or so breezed by. The book, chronicling the whaling industry in America, is extremely thorough. The best parts include primary source documents from the people who wrote down their whaling experiences throughout the years, especially when they came from whalers who were disgruntled (and they had so many reasons to be) or had a sense of humor. ...more
Ben Vogel
Feb 28, 2016 Ben Vogel rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I did not know nearly enough about this aspect of American history, and this book did an excellent job of filling me in. The economic history of whale hunting and whale oil is truly fascinating, and although the book does not cast moral judgment, truly horrific on a scale matched only perhaps by the buffalo.

I found Leviathan to also give insights into the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and the American Civil War from a unique angle.

Thorough, well written, and engaging. I recommend for any
Feb 15, 2010 Adam rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
A very interesting history of an important commercial affair in early America. It goes through the beginnings of how it started in the New World and delves into the sorts of families and men that took up this undertaking. A little long and difficult to read at times. But all in all it brings some interesting facts which broadened my understanding of whaling. Not pretty, but neither was that occupation.
James (JD) Dittes
I read this in advance of a vacation to New Bedford this summer(2008). It is a fascinating history--particularly as it covers the difficult political balance Nantucket had to play during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. The history petered out a little as it covered the Golden Age of the 1850s, but it still gives solid ideas about the importance of whaling and what it's like to work on a whaler.
John DiConsiglio
I didn’t expect Moby Dick, but Leviathan is barely seaworthy. The author writes with the style and enthusiasm of a bored middle school history teacher. We go head-to-tail on every aspect of whaling in America, but curiously spend little time aboard actual boats. Halfway through, the book finally sets sail, but by then you may have abandoned ship. Anchoring the text to an Essex-like tale of a real whale hunt would have helped.
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I love telling dramatic, sometimes wondrous, and often tragic stories about people, commerce, maritime history, and the environment. My goal is to entertain and inform, and leave people glad that they took the time to read one of my books.

My most recent book is Brilliant Beacons: A History of the American Lighthouse (Liveright (a division of W. W. Norton), April 2016), received starred reviews f
More about Eric Jay Dolin...

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“The heroic and often tragic stories of American whalemen were renowned. They sailed the world’s oceans and brought back tales filled with bravery, perseverance, endurance, and survival. They mutinied, murdered, rioted, deserted, drank, sang, spun yarns, scrimshawed, and recorded their musings and observations in journals and letters. They survived boredom, backbreaking work, tempestuous seas, floggings, pirates, putrid food, and unimaginable cold. Enemies preyed on them in times of war, and competitors envied them in times of peace. Many whalemen died from violent encounters with whales and from terrible miscalculations about the unforgiving nature of nature itself. And through it all, whalemen, those “iron men in wooden boats” created a legacy of dramatic, poignant, and at times horrific stories that can still stir our emotions and animate the most primal part of our imaginations. “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme,” proclaimed Herman Melville, and the epic story of whaling is one of the mightiest themes in American history.” 4 likes
“American whale oil lit the world. It was used in the production of soap, textiles, leather, paints, and varnishes, and it lubricated the tools and machines that drove the Industrial Revolution. The baleen cut from the mouths of whales shaped the course of feminine fashion by putting the hoop in hooped skirts and giving form to stomachtightening
and chest-crushing corsets. Spermaceti, the waxy substance from the heads of sperm whales, produced the brightest- and cleanest-burning candles the world has ever known, while ambergris, a byproduct of irritation in a sperm whale’s bowel, gave perfumes great staying power and was worth its weight in gold.”
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