Calculating People

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Marine archaeologists should announce today that they have found the remains of the whaleship, the Two Brothers---a vessel captained by the same George Pollard Jr. who captained the doomed Essex. So reports the New York Times. The Essex sank at the mercy of a very angry Sperm Whale. Its story inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick.

Lest it seem odd that Pollard should receive a second commission after his disaster with the Essex, Melville offered his own explanation, via Ishmael, in a comment on the commercial wiles of Nantucketers:
Nor is it so very unlikely, that far from distrusting his [Ahab's] fitness for another whaling voyage, on account of such dark symptoms, the calculating people of that prudent isle were inclined to harbor the conceit, that for those very reasons he was all the better qualified and set on edge, for a pursuit so full of rage and wildness as the bloody hunt of whales.
In one sentence, Melville casts whaling---and perhaps business more generally---as cold, sterile, and rational, even as it taps into great wellsprings of power, destruction, and irrationality.

As far as I can tell, Patricia Cline Cohen did't draw on Melville at all in her excellent book on US numeracy, A Calculating People, though she could have done so with profit. Commerce stands at the center of Cohen's story---it drives the spread of numbers throughout American society, before the state and science help out. Melville suggests a strain of critique in the mid-19th century, not only of business, but of the alliance of enumeration and rationality more generally.

4 comments

is this all because of melville saying "calculating people" in that quote? i don't see where he's critiquing the "alliance of enumeration and rationality more generally" with that line. first of all, that's a strong reading of melville's "calculating" to align it with this other book about numeracy - not that "prudence" which is closer to what melville means isn't linked to commerce and numeracy (sure it can be), but this seems like a pretty thin keyword-search to hang the whole thing on. also, isn't melville's story partly about how whaling was kinda a science (not just commerce), and so that goes against Cohen's overall point about numeracy assuming you're right to draw the two together..

Hey Eddie: I read the NY Times article, thought back to this bit of Melville, which I love, and then wondered if this was where Cohen got her title. It wasn't, I found out. So I wondered what would happen if I tried to put the two texts in conversation.

Melville---I feel certain---meant to take full advantage of the fact that "calculating" could mean "prudent" while also evoking the counting house.

I also stand by the significance of the juxtaposition of the careful businessmen in Nantucket and the "bloody hunt" led by a crazed (this is Ahab, after all) and blood-thirsty, doomed-to-destruction captain.

Other readings are welcome.

Dan, I'm sympathetic to your fondness for Melville and your defense of his variegated sense of his own language and its social roles (esp. vis-a-vis Nantucket).

Are you saying that Melville's critique is meant to reveal the complementarity of "calculating" businessmen and the "wildness" of the business on which they attend from remove?

If so, you could have done a better job up-front to make that clear, and (maybe) have avoided angering Eddie in the process.

Well-said Hank. I stand duly chastened.

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