Food for Thought Lecture Series: The Cultural “Afterlife” of Whaling with Dr. Jamie Jones

Where do industries go when they die? The case of the U.S. whaling industry shows that industries do not disappear as they obsolesce; they find new life in surprising places. Popular culture from the nineteenth century through the present remembers (and misremembers) 19th-century U.S. whaling in order to explain a wide variety of modern phenomena. This presentation traces the cultural afterlife of whaling in two of the industries that replaced whaling: tourism and petroleum. Illinois University professor, Dr. Jamie Jones, on-island researching this topic at the NHA Research Library, reports on the findings for her upcoming book.

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.

Jamie L. Jones is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She earned her Ph.D. in American Studies at Harvard University.  Her research in the environmental humanities explores the historic pivot in energy use in the nineteenth century, when whale oil and other organic energy sources gave way to fossil fuels.  Jones considers the way that U.S. literature, art, and popular culture represented that energy transition, and she finds that these cultural representations in turn have shaped our perception of environmental change, our practices of energy extraction and consumption, and our imagination of the world’s oceans. Her current book project, Rendered Obsolete:  The Afterlife of U.S. Whaling in the Petroleum Age, chronicles the culture of the U.S. whaling industry from its peak production through its obsolescence in order to addresses the question:  “Where do industries go when they die?” Jones’s work has been published in American Art, Configurations, and Common-place. Her research has been supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Whiting Foundation, the John Carter Brown Library, and others. Jones has won several awards for her teaching at Harvard University, the University of Michigan, and the University of Illinois.  She also circulates her research through a varied public humanities practice that includes museum work, media appearances, and non-scholarly writing for venues that include the BBC World New Service, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and The New York Times.

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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