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Rendered Obsolete: The Afterlife of the U.S. Whaling Industry in the Petroleum Age
Jamie Jones
Fellow 2018-19

Rendered Obsolete: The Afterlife of the U.S. Whaling Industry in the Petroleum Age chronicles the United States whaling industry from its decline and obsolescence in the second half of the nineteenth century through its commemoration in the early twentieth century. Whale oil was a key element of industrialization and urbanization in the United States, serving as an illuminant and as a lubricant for industrial machinery. But by the late nineteenth century, the United States whaling industry had been rendered obsolete: its main commodity, whale oil, supplanted by petroleum produced in U.S. oilfields. Throughout the course of its peak production and especially—surprisingly—in its decline, the U.S. whaling industry was the subject of a profuse and widely-circulated cultural production: a body of personal narratives, novels, engravings, newspaper accounts, public performances, films, and exhibitions that documented, dramatized, and, in some cases, romanticized the industry even as its main commodity was rapidly supplanted by petroleum. Rendered Obsolete assembles this archive for the first time and offers a new reading of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick as a work of “peak whale oil” that forecasts the impending obsolescence of the whaling industry.

Rendered Obsolete examines the cultural afterlife of whaling in order to pursue the question: Where do industries go when they die? The whaling industry did not disappear as it obsolesced; rather, it attests to obsolescence as a process of persistence. The U. S. whaling industry migrated from the realm of oil extraction to the realms of culture, tourism, and politics. The culture surrounding the extraction of whale oil also provided conceptual templates that shaped the energy regime that replaced it: petroleum. Whaling culture provided ways of imagining energy that remain with us.