Abstract

This essay tracks the interrelated histories of the cod and the whale from John Smith’s colonial American vision of abundance to the near disappearance of the living resources he described as inexhaustible. Working at the intersections of animal studies, food studies, and the environmental humanities—and considering cultural artifacts from Smith’s tracts and Herman Melville’s fiction to Cheryl Savageau’s poetry and the underwater sculpture of Jason deCaires Taylor—the essay reads the commodification and consumption of these creatures as constitutive elements of an extinction-producing economy. Within this reading, the cod and the whale appear as exemplary figures not only for the important distinction between the edible and the exotic animal—wild food and wildlife—but also for the larger historical relation between “animal capital” and mass extinction.

To the sober student of the world’s past this historic codfish is fraught with ripe significance.

—Ernest W. Roberts, Richard W. Irwin, and James A. Gallivan, A History of the Emblem of the Codfish in the Hall of the House of Representatives (1895)
dreams
of cod
the gold
of the sea
that will
fill their bellies
and their
pockets
—Cheryl Savageau, “Cod” (2006)

Though he claimed to have set out for “whales and [to] make tryalls of a Myne of Gold and Copper,” Captain John Smith ([1616] 2006, 17) knew that the real selling point of his promotional Description of New England was the seemingly inexhaustible abundance of the Atlantic cod. The fish was so plentiful in Smith’s estimation that it would be “a very bad fisher” who failed to “kill in one day with his hooke and line, one, two, or three hundred Cods” (47). In such numbers, it was clear the cod offered potential colonizers a source not only of subsistence but of wealth. While these “excellent fish” were surely excellent enough for eating, they also afforded the “pretty sport” of pulling up “two pence, six pence, and twelue pence, as fast as you can hale and veare a line,” since cod would sell locally “for ten shillings the hundred” or in England for “more than twentie” (47). Smith goes on to liken the cod to gold and the ocean to a mine, predicting that this “trade of fish” will allow the English to outdo “the Spaniard with all his Mynes of golde and Siluer” (25–26). Smith would reiterate the analogy in concluding his Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles (1624), assuring readers that codfish would “afford as good gold as the Mines of Guiana” (248). A few years later, in his critical account of New England settlement, Thomas Morton ([1637] 1838, 58–59) reaffirmed Smith’s view of the supply and value of the cod: it was “the most commodious of all fish,” which “aboundeth,” he observed, “with such multitudes . . . that the inhabitants of New England doe dunge their grounds with it.” But more important than this use value was its value as “a commodity better than the golden mines of the Spanish Indies” (59). Just as the material bodies of the fish could “dunge” and fertilize New England’s fields, so would their monetary value catalyze New England’s emergence as a force within the Atlantic economy, empowering the English—and later the Americans—as imperial players within the geopolitical dynamics of the New World.

Exactly four hundred years after Smith’s Description, New England’s cod stocks are on the verge of total collapse (Lavelle 2015; Pershing et al. 2015; Brogan 2015). And despite the fact that these populations are near the point of “commercial extinction,” the cod remains widely available in supermarkets and restaurants.1 This ready availability shows us that the flesh of the cod remains as good as gold, but according to the conventional wisdom of our consumer economy it is ironically the value of the commodified body that has devalued the species and rendered it expendable. As the authors of a 2015 report in the journal Science put it, while some species have been left alone and even protected once they neared the threshold of extinction, others have not been so “lucky.” In the end the unlucky Atlantic cod may suffer the same fate as the bluefin tuna and nearly every variety of shark, species that are “never . . . too rare to be hunted” (McCauley et al. 2015, 2). And this bad luck is in large part attributable to the fact that, unlike whales and other charismatic species that populate the mainstream environmentalist imaginary, the cod is still generally considered to be food and therefore salable on an open and “legitimate” world market. Put another way, the distinction between whales and cod is the distinction between wildlife—which requires moral consideration and legal protection—and “wild food,” which has no moral or legal standing at all.2

This essay tracks the interrelated stories of the cod and the whale from John Smith’s vision of abundance to the near disappearance of those living resources he described as inexhaustible. Working at the intersections of animal studies, food studies, and the environmental humanities, in what follows I read the commodification and consumption of these creatures as constitutive elements of an extinction-producing economy. Within this reading, the cod and the whale appear as exemplary figures not only for the important distinction between the edible and the exotic animal—wild food and wildlife—but also for the larger historical relation this essay traces between “animal capital” and mass extinction. “Animal capital,” as Nicole Shukin (2009) has theorized it, consists of both the “rendering” of animal bodies into marketable commodities and a related process of figurative rendering, through which “animal life” becomes a “symbolic resource of the nation” (6). Though I consider an array of marine and archipelagic animals—including sharks, seals, and tortoises—the cod and the whale take precedence for their significance within both the “carnal” and “symbolic” registers of animal capital: as the material underpinnings of an early American economy and as “semiotic currency” within regional and national histories. And though I range across a number of writers and cultural artifacts, from early colonial promotional tracts to the poetry of Cheryl Savageau (2006) and the underwater sculpture of Jason deCaires Taylor, Herman Melville is the central literary figure. Melville articulates both a prescient vision of the whale’s endangerment and a more general attunement to the broad reach and violent operation of an economy that relentlessly transforms sentient life into market value. As this essay aims to do, Melville’s fiction connects the “carnal traffic” of animal capital to the phenomenon of extinction, casting a critical eye on a global consumer economy and a culture of consumption of nonhuman animals that together inexorably undermine their own ecological viability (Shukin 2009, 7).

Melville’s attention to both abstract commodification and material acts of killing and consuming also helps to bridge the gap between conventional understandings of individual species extinction and mass extinction as a planetary threat. In certain cases the link between deliberate hunting and species extinction is manifest, but less apparent are the more banal ways in which everyday patterns of consumption and waste drive the mass extinction now unfolding all around us.3 While overfishing contributes, mass extinction is more substantially driven by habitat destruction and global warming. But destroying the environment, as H. Peter Steeves (2011, 198) has observed, is yet another kind of slaughter, which “in the end” amounts to killing “each species and each individual thing.” Melville is keenly attuned to this relation between planetary processes and “each individual thing,” and in this regard his fiction helps us to see that the localized hunt cannot be separated from the global systems that both demand and justify it; that extinctions of individual species occur not in isolation but in relation to the traffic in animal commodities that drives them; and conversely, that these larger political and economic systems cannot be dissociated from the localized acts of killing and consuming that sustain them.

No American writer of his era did more to make “readers aware,” as Colin Dayan (2014, 53) has observed, of “brutality and extermination,” to “bring before his readers the meat—mutilated, bleeding, dead, rotting—that was as much a part of his surroundings as the glories of progress.” By focusing on Melville’s rendering of the literal and figurative “meat” of modernity and situating his body of work within a longer history of extraction and consumption, what follows will illuminate the deep interrelation of the “human” history of the United States with the simultaneously developing crisis of mass extinction. And though the whale takes pride of place in Melville’s fiction and the environmental imagination, for this very reason the Atlantic cod is this project’s iconic figure: at once the sacred creature of the origin story of the American economy and just another disposable animal that economy devours until it is gone.

All of a Trade

Since 1784, a carved and painted wooden effigy of a codfish has hung from the ceiling of the House Chamber of the Massachusetts State House (see figure 1). In 1895, a committee of state representatives was tasked with writing the history of this “sacred cod,” and its report attests to the wooden fish’s mythic status. As the committee wrote, “This painted image bears on its finny front a majesty greater than . . . art can lend to graven gold or chiselled marble” (Roberts, Irwin, and Gallivan 1895, 12). Though “sedate and solitary” in outward appearance, the fish was “instinct with memories and prophecy” linking the region’s—and thus the nation’s—glorious past to its exceptional future, typifying “to the citizens of the Commonwealth and of the world the founding of a State. It commemorates Democracy. It celebrates the rise of free institutions. It emphasizes progress. It epitomizes Massachusetts” (12). While articulating at length the effigy’s significance as a regional symbol, the committee’s history also emphasized the material contribution of the actual fish to the region and the nation. This contribution was twofold: both as a lucrative export to the world market—the report noted a haul of “53,000,000 pounds of this valuable fish product” that year to date—and as “an article of pure, plain, natural food,” one befitting “the practical, frugal spirit which laid the foundation of Massachusetts” (6, 20).

Melville (1851) taps into the wide-ranging significance of this “valuable fish” in the chapter of Moby-Dick titled “Chowder.” The title refers to the signature menu item at the Try Pots Inn on Nantucket, where Ishmael and Queequeg stay as they seek out and await the departure of their chosen vessel, the Pequod. The inn’s name refers to the processing machinery of a nineteenth-century whaleship, the “tryworks,” in which blubber is rendered into oil. Ishmael later describes this distillation as an infernal operation, wherein the fat cooks down in the “try pots,” huge cast-iron boilers suspended over a fire fueled by the solid waste products of the distilling procedure itself. These waste products—“the crisp, shriveled blubber, now called scraps or fritters”—provide the “staple fuel” of the tryworks. In this way the whale is doubly consumed, and “like a plethoric burning martyr . . . supplies his own fuel and burns by his own body” (470). The fiery spectacle of the ship with its tryworks in operation—“laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into” the “blackness of darkness” of the nighttime sea—along with the “unspeakable . . . odor,” “horrible to inhale,” amounts for Ishmael to a vision of a “red hell” and “an argument for the pit” (471, 470).

The Try Pots Inn both looks and smells far more appealing than the tryworks on the Pequod. “A warm, savory steam” emanates from the kitchen, and when the chowder appears on the table Ishmael’s description of the dish—which is marked with “salted pork cut up into little flakes; the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt” (73)—would have been right at home in the pages of popular nineteenth-century ladies’ magazines and housekeeping manuals (Stavely and Fitzgerald 2004, 97–98). But although the comforting domesticity of the Try Pots may appear entirely benign, it in fact prefigures the infernal operation of the tryworks. Ishmael even apprehends something potentially “hellish” in the carved wood sign above the entrance: “a pair of prodigious black pots” that conjure up “oblique hints touching Tophet” (1851, 72). In reality, as the ensuing repast makes clear, the pots indicate the more quotidian fact that the inn is a veritable factory of animal food, “for the pots there were always boiling chowders” (74). With chowder served at every meal, “you began,” as Ishmael says, “to look for fish-bones coming through your clothes,” and the landscape around the inn is littered with the remnants of the clams and codfish that provide the only choices on the Try Pots menu. Clamshells pave the path to the entrance, while cod bones not only provide materials for homemade jewelry but also impart “a fishy flavor to the milk” of the innkeeper’s “brindled cow,” whom Ishmael spies grazing on the “remnants” of codfish, “with each foot in a cod’s decapitated head” (74). Like the whale burning by its own body, the codfish here is doubly or even triply consumed: filleted, stewed, and finally “enriched with butter” infused with the fishy remnants of its fellows.

The excessive carnal detail of Ishmael’s descriptions of both the tryworks and the Try Pots Inn suggests their mutual implication in the excess production inherent to capitalism as a system. As sites of this kind of production, the inn and the ship are part of what Amasa Delano (1817)—the New England sea captain Melville (1856a) would fictionalize in “Benito Cereno”—called the “machinery of civilization.” In the abstract, this machinery consisted of “the means and motives for extensive improvement” that were brought to bear on the human populations of Pacific archipelagoes (Delano 1817, 70), but as the historian Greg Grandin (2014, 234) observes, it was also a set of real machines brought to bear on those islands’ nonhuman populations: “steel, iron, and fire” employed “to kill animals and transform their corpses into value on the spot.” Melville is everywhere attentive to the operation of this machinery and the visceral price it extracts. Recognizing the cost of whale oil in terms of human lives, Ishmael begs his readers to “be economical with your lamps and candles! not a gallon you burn, but at least one drop of man’s blood was spilled for it” (1851, 228). The novel repeatedly makes this clear, as Ishmael not only recounts the catastrophe of the Pequod but also provides a broad survey of the human losses that are part and parcel of the commercial and geopolitical traffic of the sea. We see this in the monuments to dead sailors in the New Bedford church and much later as Ahab muses on the “murderous hold” of “this frigate earth . . . ballasted with bones of millions of the drowned” (347). And while Melville is attentive to the human costs, he is equally so to the nonhuman. In the context of a novel so concerned with the living bodies and discarded skeletons of nonhuman animals, the field of cod bones around the inn demands closer attention, as a burial ground for a form of life reduced entirely to instrumentality. In this regard there is little difference between the rendered oil of the whale at sea and “a fine cod-chowder . . . placed before us” (73). The cod and the whale are of a piece: both made of flesh as good as gold and foundational to an imperial history driven by an extractive logic.

Ishmael delivers a condensed version of the related histories of oceanic extraction and American empire in the chapter titled “Nantucket.” According to “legend,” indigenous people came to the island seeking to recover a child stolen by an “eagle” that “swooped down upon the New England coast,” but following the eagle to Nantucket, “they found” only “an empty ivory casket,—the poor little Indian’s skeleton” (69–70). Given their island setting—the fact that they were “born on a beach,” as Ishmael puts it—it is no “wonder . . . that these Nantucketers . . . should take to the sea for a livelihood” (70). After an apprenticeship of clam digging and fishing from the shore, “they pushed off in boats and captured cod; and at last, launching a navy of great ships on the sea, explored this watery world . . . and . . . declared everlasting war” on “that Himmalehan, salt-sea Mastodon,” the whale (70). Though Ishmael elides indigenous and colonial histories here—who, exactly, was “born” on that beach?—the transition from cod to whale corresponds to two distinct yet related historical movements: from subsistence to profit-driven resource extraction and from settler colonialism to global imperial expansion.4

Ishmael clearly links the acquisition of territory with the extraction of resources, but it is also worth noting in Ishmael’s account the slippage between geopolitical history and geological time. Ishmael likens the whale to the mastodon—a well-known figure in the nineteenth century for both the wonders of deep time and the horrors of extinction—and compares the whaling business to a total war that will challenge the resilience of species.5 And Ishmael’s elision of indigenous and colonial histories allows him to further extend the logic of extinction to the project of empire. The eagle—an imperial symbol shared by ancient Rome and the modern United States—swoops down on the New England coast and murders the indigenous child, eradicating future generations and pointing toward the “extinction” of a “race.”6 Soon after, Ishmael selects the Pequod as the historically freighted ship on which his own future will unfold. That ship—named for what Ishmael calls “a celebrated tribe of Massachusetts Indians; now extinct as the ancient Medes”—is a floating museum of material relics of the history of empire and extraction Ishmael has just related. Like the innkeepers with their cod jewelry, the Pequod is functionally and decoratively fashioned from the remnants of its animal prey: the teeth of slaughtered whales adorning the bulwarks, a tiller “curiously carved” from the “lower jaw of her hereditary foe” (77). These animal relics are layered materially onto the wars of conquest signaled by the ship’s name. Through this layering of human history and nonhuman bodies, the ship registers the destruction of cultures and ecosystems that has attended the extractive and expansive course of US empire, as well as the impulse to historiographical appropriation, through which the “vanishing Indian,” like the disappearing buffalo, could be naturalized and assimilated to a narrative of American progress. Here both the whale (through its bones) and the Indian (through its name) are enlisted as symbolic allies in their own eradication, just as the whale’s body provides fuel for its own fire and the cod lends its flavor to the butter that enriches the chowder.

If the whale served primarily to “light the gay bridals and other merry-makings” of an emergent American bourgeoisie and to lubricate the machinery of an increasingly industrial capitalism, the codfish was integral to the regime of “cheap food” that fueled the slave labor system that provided the agricultural raw materials for industrialization (Melville 1851, 398).7 The largest markets for New England cod were the slave plantations of the Caribbean and, later and to a lesser degree, of the southern United States (Kurlansky 1998, 80–87; Stavely and Fitzgerald 2004, 72–73, 118). As a young man, Amasa Delano cut his teeth as a sailor both catching and carrying codfish to the slave colonies of the Caribbean (Grandin 2014, 63, 69). Later on, he shifted his commercial attention from cod in the Atlantic to sealskins in the Pacific, but here again he found himself dealing in human slaves. Sealing was a rapacious business, which produced the near extinction of its own product in the Pacific within fewer than three decades (131–41). By his own account, Delano personally carried more than a hundred thousand sealskins from the island of Más Afuera to the Canton market, stacking them in the hold “in the manner,” as he put it, “of salted dried cod fish” (1817, 306). Delano estimated that American sealers like his own had removed at least three million from that single island over seven years. By 1804, the end of this seven-year period and the year a group of enslaved Africans would revolt on board the slave ship Tryal—providing Delano with an economic opportunity and Melville with the story of “Benito Cereno”—the seals had all but disappeared from Más Afuera and many other islands of the Pacific.

As with the cod and the commerce of the Atlantic, Delano’s traffic in Pacific seals was part and parcel of a larger economy that Grandin (2014, 97–105) has called the “skin trade,” through which human and nonhuman bodies were commodified for a global market. Grandin has also suggested that the depletion of seals is a salient context for understanding Delano’s taking of the Tryal and the re-enslavement of its human cargo (234–35). Delano encountered the Tryal in February 1805, in a secluded bay of the island of Santa Maria. Months earlier, the enslaved Africans on board had risen up in rebellion, killing their owner, Alexandro Aranda, along with many white sailors, and taking control of the ship. Through an elaborate performance of their own enslavement, the Africans were able for several hours to deceive Delano into believing the whites were still in command of the Tryal, but eventually the truth of the rebellion was revealed, prompting Delano and his men to retake the ship by force. In his Narrative, Delano frames his actions as the restitution of both the social order and the law of the sea, yet he notably prefaces his account of the Tryal incident with a rundown of the sorry state of his own commercial affairs. The seals were gone, and Delano “had not made enough to amount to twenty dollars for each of [his] people” (1817, 320). Under such circumstances, the hundred thousand dollars he discerned in “the ship and what was in her” presented a better prospect than the most fantastical windfall of sealskins (327). Situated within a global economy in which human and nonhuman bodies are equally fungible commodities, it is significant that in Melville’s version of the story the better part of the violence required to recapture the ship was carried out with “sealing-spears,” not exactly the weapons of empire but the tools of its economy—tools through which, by the kinds of processes Melville painstakingly elaborates throughout Moby-Dick, the living being becomes inanimate value (1856a, 244–46).

The context of extinction especially draws our attention to these sealing spears in “Benito Cereno,” just as it adds a dimension to the significance of the ship’s figurehead, which comes into view as the reality of slave rebellion is revealed. The white bones of the enslaver Aranda function here as a calculated terror, effected by the white man’s reduction from his self-assigned supremacy to the status he shares with the seals and the fish, the status of meat. And these naked bones have replaced the “proper figurehead” of Christopher Columbus, “discoverer of the New World,” who represents not only the advent of Atlantic slavery but also the initiation of the biotic exchange and the extractive economy that now culminate in global warming and mass extinction (254).8 As both sealer and slaver, which Charles Darwin (1987, 129) noted were “all of a trade,” Delano is himself an instrument of this instrumentalizing economy. In the context of Moby-Dick, we might say that if the fiery spectacle of the tryworks represents Ahab, the comparative domestic tranquility of the Try Pots and its production of chowder is Delano. Like sealskins stacked in the manner of codfish in the hold of Delano’s vessel, the field of cod bones outside the inn reveals the operation of a banal ecological evil that leads inexorably toward extinction.9

Murdered Things of the Sea

Although Delano’s primary contribution to the economy of extinction was carrying codfish to the Caribbean and sealskins to the Canton market, he also harvested Galapagos tortoises by the hundreds to provision his crew and to trade with other vessels in the region. The tortoises there were not only abundant but delicious. “Their flesh,” as Delano (1817, 378) would attest, “is of as sweet and pleasant a flavor as any that I ever eat,” and each tortoise yielded “ten or twelve pounds of fat,” as “yellow as our best butter, and of a sweeter flavor than hog’s lard.” Thirty-five years later, Darwin arrived in the Galapagos, and his account reaffirms Delano’s view of the archipelagic animal economy and the food culture of the islands. While the woods of Charles Island were teeming with “wild pigs and goats,” Darwin (1846, 142) noted that “the staple article of animal food” was still “supplied by the tortoises.” And though the tortoises’ “numbers” had been “greatly reduced,” he nonetheless observed ships carrying off hundreds at a time, while local inhabitants could still rely on “two days’ hunting giving them food for the rest of the week” (142). During his stay on James’s Island, Darwin encountered Spaniards drying fish and salting tortoises, and everyone dined on the giant reptiles: “While staying in this upper region,” he recalled, “we lived entirely upon tortoise-meat: the breast-plate roasted (as the Gauchos do carne con cuero), with the flesh on it, is very good, and the young tortoises make excellent soup” (144).

Darwin’s observations here have wide-ranging implications: the relentless consumption of tortoises points ominously toward their extermination, while at the same time the comparison to carne con cuero—meat with the leather on it—links this consumption to the emerging beef and leather industry Darwin had earlier encountered in Argentina and thus to the larger “skin trade” of human slavery and animal capital. In addition to the harvesting of tortoises, Darwin also notes the presence of pigs and goats. For hundreds of years, Europeans and then Americans had been releasing such “food animals” wherever they landed (Armstrong 2002, 416). From an ecological perspective, these are invasive species that have been wreaking havoc on archipelagic ecosystems since the Columbian exchange.10 A hundred years after Moby-Dick, Rachel Carson (1991) would observe that human travelers had “turned loose upon the islands a whole Noah’s Ark of goats, hogs, cattle, dogs, cats, and other non-native animals,” bringing down “the black night of extinction” on “species after species of island life” (93). Among her sources was Darwin (1846, 290), who noted that goats “were introduced” to the island of St. Helena in 1502, and by 1731 “the evil” they had wrought had been “completed and found irretrievable.”

Melville landed in the Galapagos a few years after Darwin and would draw on his own experience to write “The Encantadas” (1856b). Darwin and Delano inform Melville’s account in complementary ways: while both observe how native animals figure within the increasingly globalized human economy, Darwin goes further to situate this economy in relation to emergent understandings of extinction and geological time. For Delano the Galapagos and its creatures constitute little more than material resources facilitating an extractive enterprise, but for Darwin the tortoise both makes a good soup and opens a window onto the prehistoric past. “These huge reptiles,” as Darwin (1846, 141) observed them “surrounded by the black lava, the leafless shrubs, and large cacti” of the volcanic landscape, “seemed . . . like some antediluvian animals,” and more generally the dominance of reptiles as opposed to mammals on the islands might send “the geologist . . . back in his mind” to the age of the dinosaurs, “to the Secondary epochs, when lizards, some herbivorous, some carnivorous, and of dimensions comparable only with our existing whales, swarmed on the land and in the sea” (162).

The Galapagos tortoise similarly evokes a geological timescale for the narrator of “The Encantadas.” In the second sketch the narrator describes three tortoises brought on board his ship as “antediluvian,” seeming to have “newly crawled forth from beneath the foundations of the world” (Melville 1856b, 300). Years later, from the scene of writing, the narrator reports being haunted by the “ghost of a gigantic tortoise” with the phrase “Memento * * * * *” inscribed and “burning in live letters upon his back” (296). This ghost returns from the past of the narrator’s experience, drawing him back to the Galapagos, just as the tortoise in the flesh had drawn his mind back to the foundations of the world. The spectral tortoise may haunt as an individual—the unquiet ghost of one of those from which the narrator and his shipmates had “made a merry repast from tortoise steaks, and tortoise stews” (303)—but given its association with geological time, along with Melville’s evident echoing of Darwin, the memento mori would seem to signal the shared precariousness of humans and nonhumans at the level of species, a mutual contingency that the discourses of deep time and extinction reveal.

Central as they are to “The Encantadas,” these discourses were already fully elaborated in Moby-Dick, providing a deep temporal backdrop to Ishmael’s account of the nineteenth-century animal economy. As the tortoise does for the narrator of “The Encantadas,” whale fossils and skeletons open a portal to a world that both precedes and will outlast the human:

When I stand among these mighty Leviathan skeletons . . . I am, by a flood, borne back to that wondrous period, ere time itself can be said to have begun; for time began with man. Here Saturn’s grey chaos rolls over me, and I obtain dim, shuddering glimpses into those Polar eternities; when wedged bastions of ice pressed hard upon what are now the Tropics; and in all the 25,000 miles of this world’s circumference, not an inhabitable hand’s breadth of land was visible. Then the whole world was the whale’s. (1851, 508–9)

Ishmael’s consideration of this world anterior to his own ultimately leaves him “horror-struck at this antemosaic, unsourced existence of the unspeakable terrors of the whale, which, having been before all time, must needs exist after all humane ages are over” (509). And this apprehension of deep time and the long history of life in turn informs Ishmael’s assessment of the threat the human poses to the whale. Given the relentlessness of the whaling fleet, Ishmael wonders “whether Leviathan can long endure so wide a chase, and so remorseless a havoc; whether he must not at last be exterminated from the waters, and the last whale, like the last man, smoke his last pipe, and then himself evaporate in the final puff” (512).

Having posed this question, Ishmael quickly and somewhat surprisingly concludes that the whale is “immortal in his species, however perishable in his individuality,” and will thus “outlast all hunting” (514). Lawrence Buell (2001, 210) and many readers have taken this turn as evidence that Melville is not entirely convinced of the nature of the threat and that he raises the specter of extinction “only to dismiss it.” But this specter is not so easily dismissed, especially if we consider that Ishmael’s apparent dismissal follows directly on the discussion of deep time and extinction in which he imagines the survival of the whale beyond the end of all “humane ages.”

In that discussion, Ishmael’s paleontological language allows him to situate the business of whaling within a deeper history of planetary change and species extinction. Turning his attention to a variety of ancient whales he has encountered or read about, Ishmael takes up what he calls a “fossiliferous . . . point of view,” from which prehistoric remnants flash up in light of the potentially apocalyptic dangers of industrialization and global commerce (1851, 506). From this perspective, Ishmael apprehends fossils as ancient forms of inscription legible to readers in the present, while at the same time identifying the economy he describes and in which he is implicated as a geological force, one that may render the future devoid of both nonhuman animals and human readers. These apprehensions not only call into question the project of extractive capitalism but cast an ironic shadow over the project of human knowledge as it is presented in the novel. For in a world “after all humane ages are over,” such knowledge loses both its subject and its addressee. From the fossiliferous point of view, the human is less an exceptional agent of extraction and epistemology than it is a material specimen for the fossil record of the future.

This destabilization of the human was an inevitable corollary to Georges Cuvier’s groundbreaking theories of deep time and extinction. As Cuvier (1827, 3) put it, his discoveries effectively “burst the limits of time,” radically unsettling what Martin Rudwick (2005, 1) describes as “a taken-for-granted timescale of only a few thousand years for the whole history of the universe,” and therefore requiring a reconsideration of the relation between the human species and that universe. Cuvier introduced the notion of prehuman time and consequently conjured the possibility of a posthuman world. As the concepts of deep time and extinction gained greater traction, romantic writers like Thomas Campbell, Lord Byron, and Mary Shelley responded with an emergent literature focused on the figure of the “Last Man.” Ishmael evokes this tradition when he imagines the whale outlasting his human pursuers and when he envisions the last whale and the last man evaporating together in the final puff. But he plants this idea of the mutual extinction of human and nonhuman—linking both to the extractive economy in which he is involved—a few chapters earlier when the second mate Stubb kills a whale. While “thoughtfully eyeing the vast corpse he had made,” Stubb observes that the whale’s “pipes” have been “smoked out,” before “withdrawing his own [pipe] from his mouth” to scatter “the dead ashes over the water” (1851, 320). Stubb and the corpse prefigure the last man and the last whale mutually smoking their last pipes, Ishmael’s vision of the culmination of an economy that threatens human and nonhuman alike.11

Just as the narrator of “The Encantadas” snaps himself out of the geological nightmare of his encounter with the tortoise by making it into a soup, so, too, does Stubb escape his discomfiting affiliation with the corpse he has made by eating it. But here Ishmael offers a critical commentary on the “merry repast” of “Stubb’s Supper” by suggesting there is something “intemperate” in the second mate’s fondness for “the whale as a flavorish thing to his palate” (326). This intemperance is highlighted by way of analogy to the “thousands on thousands of sharks” who join him for dinner, “smackingly” feasting on the whale’s body that has been secured to the side of the ship (326). Reflecting on sharks and Stubb mutually dining on the whale, Ishmael develops an analogy between shark and human that ultimately reduces both to the category of meat. In an extended metaphor, Ishmael likens naval vessels “amid the smoking horror and diabolism of a sea-fight” to one common “table where red meat is being carved,” while the sharks circle like hungry dogs, “ready to bolt down every killed man that is tossed to them” (327). In this arrangement sailors and soldiers become “butchers over the deck table . . . cannibally carving each other’s live meat with carving-knives all gilded and tasseled,” while down below “the sharks . . . are carving away under the table at the dead meat” that falls to them from above. From this Ishmael draws the apt conclusion that “were you to turn the whole affair upside down, it would still be pretty much the same thing . . . a shocking sharkish business enough for all parties” (327).

In its transspecies dynamic, “Stubb’s Supper” presents us with a variation on what Kyla Wazana Tompkins (2012) has called “eating the other.” For Tompkins, figurative acts of racialized cannibalism effect an “internalization of racial difference” through which whiteness is constituted (91).12 In “Stubb’s Supper” race and species are in play in a complex discursive interrelation, such that Stubb’s consumption of the whale signals an internalization of both racial and species difference, thus constituting not only whiteness but white humanness (91). In this regard, Stubb’s consumption of the whale ought to reaffirm the strong distinction between human and nonhuman, while his badgering of Fleece, the ship’s black cook—whom he calls on to deliver a “sermon” to the unruly and uninvited sharks who have joined him for his victory feast—links his claim to species difference to a parallel claim to racial mastery. Yet the scene insistently undermines both assumptions, first through Ishmael’s explicit analogy of sharks and sailors and second through the sermon Fleece delivers.

Fleece follows Ishmael in analogizing the shark to the human in general, but in uttering the last word of the chapter, he fixes this critique on Stubb in particular. Wishing that a “whale” would “eat him, ’stead of him” eating the whale, Fleece suggests that Stubb “is more of shark dan Massa Shark hisself” (333). Here Fleece identifies Stubb as a representative figure of both whaling and whiteness, linking these together through Stubb’s appetitive demands. Stubb calls for a whale steak for dinner and “Whale-balls for breakfast,” exhibiting a voraciousness that allows Fleece to address both mate and sharks as a single audience for his sermon (332). Like Stubb, the sharks “don’t hear one word” of the sermon, deafened as they are by their frenzied feeding. No match for the noise, Fleece laments that there is “no use a-preachin’ to such dam g’uttons . . . till dare bellies is full,” but as with Stubb and the “Nantucket market” he serves, the sharks’ “bellies is bottomless” (181, 330). In the end, Fleece surmises that the sharks—like the white culture and economy they symbolize—will literally consume themselves to death. In concluding his sermon, Fleece offers the sharks—and thus the white human—an ominous benediction: “fill your dam’ bellies ’till dey bust—and den die” (330).

If Fleece’s sermon challenges the structures of both anthropocentrism and white supremacy by highlighting the insatiable appetite of the white male human being, this structural challenge is reinforced by Ishmael’s subsequent consideration of the ethics of eating a “newly murdered thing of the sea” (335). On several occasions, Ishmael employs the term murder—typically applicable only to homicide—to signify the killing of nonhuman animals, and he elaborates on the unorthodox usage in his reflections on “The Whale as a Dish.”13 “No doubt,” Ishmael asserts, “the first man that ever murdered an ox was regarded as a murderer; perhaps he was hung; and if he had been put on his trial by oxen, he certainly would have been; and he certainly deserved it if any murderer does” (335). He then develops the equivalency by pivoting from the idea of murder to the viscera of meat:

Go to the meat-market of a Saturday night and see the crowds of live bipeds staring up at the long rows of dead quadrupeds. Does not that sight take a tooth out of the cannibal’s jaw? Cannibals? who is not a cannibal? I tell you it will be more tolerable for the Fejee that salted down a lean missionary in his cellar against a coming famine; it will be more tolerable for that provident Fejee, I say, in the day of judgment, than for thee, civilized and enlightened gourmand, who nailest geese to the ground and feastest on their bloated livers in thy paté-de-foie-gras. (335)

While this passage contributes to the novel’s interrogation of the conventional white supremacist oppositions of Christian and cannibal, civilization and savagery, it is also a striking rejection of human exceptionalism and the food culture that is its expression. That food culture rests on what Anne Anlin Cheng (2014, 73) calls “the arbitrary logic of what separates the edible from the nonedible,” and Melville’s comparison of the “provident Fejee” and the “enlightened gourmand” certainly confirms Cheng’s (71) observation that “the line between haute cuisine and savagery has always been teasingly tenuous.” As with the earlier triangulation of sharks, soldiers, and Stubb’s supper, Ishmael’s aim with the salted missionary is to reveal the visceral violence not only of empire and slavery but of the everyday culture of domestic consumption.

Through his attention to the visceral dimensions of these global and domestic economies, Ishmael identifies and challenges not only the “arbitrary logic” of edibility but also the overarching “law of value” Jason Moore (2015, 58) names as the “peculiar way of organizing life” that has predominated since the long sixteenth century. Ishmael is especially keen to show us the ways this law assigns differential value both to species and to the various parts of individual nonhuman bodies. The processes of “cutting in” and “trying out” inscribe this law within the body of the whale by separating value from waste at the level of tissue, removing the thick “blanket” of blubber, and distilling it into oil. Decapitated, stripped, and “desecrated,” what’s left of the whale’s body—which is most of it, all but the rendered blubber and the steak Stubb has consumed—is set adrift: “The peeled white body of the beheaded whale flashes like a marble sepulchre; though changed in hue, it has not perceptibly lost anything in bulk” (1851, 343–44). Every whale is a white whale after its encounter with the whaleship, and this white whale—like the Galapagos tortoise and the white whale himself—lives on as a “vengeful ghost,” haunting the human animal that produced it.

While “cutting in” and “trying out” separate value from waste in the singular body, what Ishmael calls “The Shark Massacre” reveals this separation at the level of species. In the twenty-first century, the whale and the tortoise have become iconic animals in the environmental imaginary, whereas the shark and the cod have not. Even in scholarship on Moby-Dick, these are among the most disregarded of what Dayan calls Melville’s “creatures.” Yet they offer the clearest picture of the instrumental ethos that underpins the economy of extinction. Whereas the shark has in our time become a source of value in its own right—like the cod and the tortoise, it makes a desirable soup—for nineteenth-century whalers the shark was pure waste. Containing no value of its own, the shark in Moby-Dick presents a threat to the value the whalers pursue and thus can be killed with impunity. With Stubb’s whale tied alongside and the crew unable to “cut in” until morning, two sailors are assigned the task of keeping up “an incessant murdering of the sharks” who “congregate” to feed on the corpse (337, 327). In defense of the valuable commodity, these men slaughter innumerable sharks in a single evening. In doing so, they make a distinction that reflects a biopolitical speciesism, determining which species will live or die based on their relative value within a given social or economic context. By orders of magnitude, more sharks are killed in this one-page chapter than all the whales in the rest of the novel. But beyond their status as symbols of human “ferocity”—as opposed to victims of it—these sharks have gone largely unremarked.

As a matter of ecocriticism, the description of this “incessant murdering” carried out to protect the profitable body of the “newly murdered” whale more or less speaks for itself, contributing to the larger critique of what Melville clearly and emphatically presents as a murderous economy. But sharks signify in Moby-Dick beyond this role in demonstrating the banal ecological evil of the fishery. By remaining “unharming” to Ishmael as he drifts on his coffin–life raft following the Pequod’s catastrophic end, they seem to facilitate Ishmael’s survival and thus the narrative’s very existence. The sharks “glided by as if with padlocks on their mouths,” just as “the savage sea-hawks sailed with sheathed beaks” above him (635). Entirely open to the elements, Ishmael here experiences the perfect inversion of the conventional relation of the human to the nonhuman world. Stripped of whatever mastery was supposed to attend his whiteness, his maleness, his humanness, Ishmael is exposed entirely to the sea and its inhabitants. Or we might say that this is not a reversal but a rearrangement. As a figure for geological time, the ocean here equalizes relations between human and nonhuman animals, much as Ishmael had earlier reduced them—in analogizing sharks and sailors, goose liver and missionary flesh—to their shared status as meat. But in the end, with Queequeg voluntarily vacating the coffin that will provide the life raft and sharks and sea hawks gliding by unharming, Ishmael finds himself at the center of a strange conspiracy of human and nonhuman to keep him afloat. This conspiracy will allow him, much later, haunted by the various ghosts the Pequod’s journey has produced, to take up what in the time of extinction will appear to have been his most pressing task—a task he shares with the “poor devil of a Sub-Sub” librarian who assembled the cetological “Extracts” that precede the narrative—which is that of the archivist. Attending carefully to nonhuman lives and addressing a human readership presupposed by the act of writing, Ishmael works away at his story despite the looming threats of apocalypse and extinction that like “birds of prey hover over it,” inscribing for the future an encyclopedic natural history of the world of life the histories of empire and capital have been erasing all along (Melville 1993, 206).14

Eating in the Time of Extinction

Like Ishmael’s natural history, Mark Kurlansky’s Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World (1998) can be read as a requiem for a dying species, but it also serves as a historical cookbook. Kurlansky traces the human love of the cod as both commodity and food from early Norse excursions across the Atlantic to the collapse of Canadian fisheries at the end of the twentieth century. The opening chapter includes a vivid description of a meal the author shared with a group of Newfoundland fishermen. Barred from fishing by a moratorium aimed at saving depleted local cod stocks, the fishermen had taken up working for the government—tagging, measuring, and monitoring the fish they used to catch for a living. Having killed a cod by accident in the process of tagging, the men eagerly turn it into a pot of fisherman’s brewis, a concoction not unlike the chowder Ishmael and Queequeg enjoy at the Try Pots Inn. The dish is savory, though essentially “monochromatic, with off-white pork fat and off-white potatoes,” but what really stands out “is the stark whiteness of the thick flakes of fresh cod” (1998, 11).

By contrast, as Ishmael reports, the “wild fishermen” of the whale trade do not typically consume the animals they catch (1851, 326). There’s something exotic, even “outlandish,” about eating the whale, such that Ishmael feels compelled to elaborate “the history and the philosophy of it” (333). But the ensuing elaboration provides no firm basis for the general abstention from the whale, culminating instead in the discomfiting comparison of salted missionary to pâté de foie gras. According to the “arbitrary logic” of Ishmael’s moment, the whale is not a dish but “the creature that feeds his lamp,” harvested exclusively for its oil (333). For Ishmael, the whale simply isn’t considered food, but this has not always and everywhere been the case. There is a long history of whale eating in northern Europe and Japan, as well as among indigenous people in Greenland, Russia, and the United States, and from the late nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, whale oil was a major resource for the global production of margarine (Shoemaker 2005; Fosså 1995, 78–102; Tønnessen and Johnsen 1982, 367–70; Greenberg 2010, 226–27). And even in Ishmael’s day, there were still some of those “Nantucketers” with “a genuine relish” for the whale (1851, 326).

Such Nantucketers, as Ishmael tells us, had a particular fondness for the “part of the Sperm Whale designated by Stubb”: “the small,” toward “the tapering extremity of the body” (326). The meat of this part, known in Japan as onomi, is “streaked with fat, like prime beef,” and is typically served raw as sashimi (Fosså 1995, 92). In 2010, the chefs and owners of the fashionable Hump sushi restaurant in Santa Monica, California, were indicted for violations of the Marine Mammal Protection Act for serving onomi, along with other cuts of the endangered sei whale, off-menu to their customers. These individuals and the company were all later fined and sentenced to probation, and the restaurant eventually went out of business (Steinhauer 2010; Ceasar 2015). Echoing Ishmael’s view on the question of the propriety of eating the whale, though couched in the terms of contemporary conservationism, the US attorney in the case declared the outcome a victory for the cause of the environment, righteously asserting that no one should “be able to walk into a restaurant and order a plate of an endangered species” (Steinhauer 2010).

The violations at Hump were initially exposed by an investigative team led by the filmmaker Louie Psihoyos, who later included footage of the sting in his documentary feature Racing Extinction (2015). The initial revelation prompted vociferous protests, and the film shows picketers walking a circle outside the restaurant, holding signs condemning the sale of “illegal whale meat” and demanding the restaurant’s closure. Among the protesters, Psihoyos highlights the efforts of Ady Gil, a well-known Hollywood video projectionist and animal rights activist. Gil returned to the restaurant night after night, projecting images of whales and other endangered species on a large screen until the restaurant shuttered its operation. Psihoyos frames Gil’s intervention as a model in miniature for the project of Racing Extinction as a whole, which aims to raise awareness of mass extinction through compelling images of endangered charismatic animals such as the whale. But in framing it this way, Psihoyos makes a critical elision with respect to Gil’s projections. While Gil does prominently feature whales, equally visible on his screen are numerous striking images of bluefin tuna, the most prized fish in the global sushi market. The bluefin is as endangered as the whale, and in the very first frame in which Gil appears in Psihoyos’s film, the text on his screen refers not to the off-menu onomi but to “the BLUE FIN TUNA on your menu,” which “will soon be extinct.”15 What Gil’s projections highlight, the US attorney notwithstanding, is that anyone can walk into a restaurant and order a plate of endangered species, so long as that species falls on the right side of the arbitrary logic of edibility (Barclay 2015). By emphasizing Gil’s images of whales over those of tuna, Racing Extinction reproduces that arbitrary logic, reinforcing the distinction between wildlife and wild food.16

By maintaining this distinction, Psihoyos’s film also draws attention to the threat of extinction facing a single category of charismatic animal, while obscuring the larger issue of a global system of food production that is itself a major driver of mass extinction on a planetary scale.17 Underpinning this productive system is an ideological one that figures the ocean—as Smith and Morton made explicit in early New England—as a mine from which to extract and accumulate capital resources. Melville’s work attests to the ascendancy of this ideology in his own time, and he traces its origins—as he had the origins of slavery in “Benito Cereno”—back to the arrival of Columbus. Ishmael draws together these productive and ideological systems into what he calls a “fast-fish and loose-fish” economy, one that divides the planet and its resources into the categories “fast” and “loose,” things already claimed and commodified, and those waiting to be so. For Ishmael, this is an apt and easy way to understand both the extinction-producing business of whaling and the course of Euro-American empire. As he rhetorically asks, “What was America in 1492 but a Loose-Fish, in which Columbus struck the Spanish standard by way of waifing it for his royal master and mistress?” (1851, 444). Planting a “waif” in a whale is the same as planting a flag in a territory, both signifying that the “waifing” party had, as Columbus ([1493] 2003) would write back to his royal masters, “taken possession.”

A “fast-fish and loose-fish” economy divides the world into fish that are caught and fish waiting to be caught. Under this system, there is no such thing as a free fish, exempted from the hunt and left to flourish in its form of life, and at the level of species there are no fish safe from the threat of extinction. Early North American colonialism was driven and constituted by this orientation toward the cod fisheries of the North Atlantic, as European fishermen moved into new grounds to replace the populations they had already exhausted (Kurlansky 1998, 48–75; Bolster 2012, 34). These fisheries, once they were “fast” to the world economy, would then supply the “cheap food” that Moore (2015, 241) has identified as “a recurrent condition for the revival of accumulation in successive eras of capitalism,” from the forced labor camps of the Caribbean colonies to the frozen food sections and fast-food restaurants of the United States today. As a result, four hundred years after Smith’s reports of unimaginable abundance, the Atlantic cod of New England—like the bluefin tuna and all the other fast fish on the market—has been driven to the point of “collapse” (Pershing et al. 2015; Meng, Oremus, and Gaines 2016).

A striking rendering of this state of collapse—and of its implications for the wider web of human and nonhuman life—can be found in The Last Supper, one of Jason deCaires Taylor’s iconic underwater sculptures. Situated within the Museo Subacuático de Arte, a sculpture garden on the seafloor off the coast of Cancún, The Last Supper is a dinner table from which the human diners have departed. In the center of the table sits a bowl of apples and hand grenades, while plates at either end contain the stripped bones of devoured fish (see figure 2). Just as Moby-Dick drew an equivalence between the tryworks and the Try Pots Inn, Taylor’s juxtaposition of high explosives and animal food reveals the spectacular violence of a common domestic practice. By viewing The Last Supper together with other sculptures within the underwater museum, the point becomes all the more clear. The nearby Inertia consists of an overweight man in front of a television, seated with a burger and fries on a plate in his lap, while elsewhere The Bankers is an array of men in business attire literally burying their heads in the sand.18 All together, these sculptures narrate the end of the story of cheap food and animal commodification that began with John Smith and his contemporaries—the story the Abenaki poet Cheryl Savageau (2006, 33) has tightly condensed in her poem about “the tender white flesh” of the cod, “the gold / of the sea / that will / fill their bellies / and their / pockets.” But as an artificial reef, designed to foster coral growth over a concrete surface—and thus depicting humans and their activities slowly consumed by nonhuman biotic processes—these sculptures call us back to Fleece’s prophetic vision in Moby-Dick.19 Fleece imagines the sharks, which he has figured as white male human beings, eating themselves into oblivion, filling their “dam’ bellies ’till dey bust.” Having ignored the wisdom of the sermon on governing their voraciousness and having finally filled their “bottomless” bellies, the sharks sink to the bottom of the sea and fall asleep on the coral, to “hear” from then on “not’ing at all, no more, for eber and eber” (1851, 330).

I would like to thank Elizabeth Duquette, Elizabeth Renker, Andrew Kopec, and Justine Murison for generous and insightful feedback on earlier drafts of this essay.

1 On “commercial extinction,” see McCauley et al. 2015, 2. Because of local depletion, the US cod market is now largely supplied by northern European fisheries.

2 On the distinction between wildlife and “wild food,” see Greenberg 2010, 189–241.

3 On the mass extinction event currently unfolding, see Dirzo et al. 2014, Kolbert 2014, Ceballos et al. 2015, and Dawson 2016.

4 The centrality of commodification and profit to colonial and imperial resource extraction results in what Longo, Clausen, and Clark (2015) have called the “tragedy of the commodity.” They offer this as a corrective to Garrett Hardin’s theory of the “tragedy of the commons.” As they argue, it is not common use for the purposes of subsistence but, rather, commodification for purposes of profit that produces the tragic outcome.

5 On the mastodon’s importance to both US history and extinction discourse, see Barrow 2009, 15–46, and Kolbert 2014, 23–46.

6 On extinction discourse in relation to conquest and genocide, see Dimock 1989, 115–16, and Brantlinger 2003.

7 The cod shipped to the Caribbean was called “refuse,” selling for significantly less than the premium product sent to the European market (Kurlansky 1998, 80–81; Stavely and Fitzgerald 2004, 72–73). On the centrality of “cheap food” to capitalist development, see Moore 2015, 241–90.

8 On the Columbian exchange as a point of origin for our ecological emergency, see Lewis and Maslin 2015 and Luciano 2015.

9 On the “banality” of ecological evil, see Bendik-Keymer and Haufe 2016.

10 On invasive species as drivers of extinction, see Kolbert 2014, 193–216, and Roberts 2012, 181–97.

11 Elizabeth Schultz (2000) was the first to note this suggestive pipe-smoking relationship and Melville’s correlation of “the extinction of whales with the extinction of humanity” (109).

12 Tompkins here draws on hooks 1992, 21–39.

13 It is perhaps worth noting that Benjamin Franklin (1848, 59), at one point in his Autobiography, describes cod fishing as “a kind of unprovoked Murder.”

14 In this regard, the novel anticipates the intersection of the elegiac mode with the impulse to catalog that Ursula Heise (2016) has identified in contemporary fiction about extinction. In Roy Scranton’s (2015, 109) terms, Moby-Dick might constitute (or be included within) one of the “arks” that those in the arts and humanities “must build” in order to “carry forward endangered wisdom” in light of the impending catastrophe of climate change. On Queequeg’s influence on Ishmael’s writing, articulated via the suggestive relations among coffin, lifebuoy, and text, see Rasmussen 2012, 136–38.

15 On the plight of the bluefin tuna, see Greenberg 2010, 189–241, and Longo, Clausen, and Clark 2015, 63–105.

16 This emphasis affirms Shoemaker’s (2005, 272) argument that the ease with which the whale has been adopted as an American environmental icon is directly related to the fact that Americans never developed a taste for it. It also reveals—as did Psihoyos’s earlier film, The Cove (2009)—a problematic ethnocentrism that frequently attends Euro-American animal rights and species conservation advocacy.

17 This is especially true of meat production. See Henning 2011 and Machovina, Feeley, and Ripple 2015.

18 More images are available at the artist’s website, www.underwatersculpture.com.

19 Elizabeth DeLoughrey (2017, 40, 36) describes these processes as “multispecies collaborations” that perform a kind of “anticipatory mourning” for “the multispecies lives of the future of the Anthropocene.”

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