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.