Saturday, January 24, 2015

Wesley Marx on Scammon's Leatherbound Journal

From Wesley Marx's 1960 American Heritage magazine article, which gets at the strange split in Scammon's dual identity as both whaler and biologist:

"At the same time he had been ordering his harpooners to bomb the whales and his flensers to strip the blubber, Scammon was also measuring the girth of dead whales, inspecting the contents of their stomachs, and executing precise drawings of their conformations. The Captain jotted down his detailed observations alongside log entries that recorded the number of whales struck and barrels filled."

And that, as much as The Melville Society's interest in Scammon-as-Ishmael, is what bedevils me about Scammon:  He is a man engaged in the tightly-focused capitalist drive for oil, who doesn't just maintain the idealistic curiosity of the naturalist, but acts on it. 

It's as if he is two totally different men.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015


How do you explain a really exciting find?  And what if you make... three really exciting finds in one day going through Bancroft's Charles Melville Scammon papers?

The big thing, the holy grail, the "rosebud" of Scammon's later literary and scientific life, this is what I pulled out of a file envelope yesterday.

The seed of the great man's landmark work: the little three-inch by five-inch leather-bound, water-blood-and-oil-stained book of perfectly recorded measurements of whales, seals and dolphins collected in the torrent of bloody commercial slaughter that was our demand for whale oil.

Just to hold it in your hands and to think of what it took to make!  To think that Scammon, who, while commanding so many men and so many whaleboats through so much bloody chaos and fatigue, had the presence of mind to take these perfectly ordered notes.  Notes which no scientist had endeavored to collect, and which no whaler would ever conceive of collecting. 

And to synthesize, more than a decade later, those notes into a book that would change the way we looked at mammalian studies? 

I felt less elation than a sense of awe. Followed by the dreadful realization that a man with less than a high school education had managed what no modern Harvard grad, currently engaged in tweeting "pix" of his free lunch at the Google or Facebook corporate campuses, would even conceive of trying. We are not better men today, I am sorry to say. 

The other two finds were in many ways just as interesting, but more on that later. 

Saturday, January 17, 2015

And you think YOU have problems...

Another perfect day at the Bancroft Library perusing Captain Charles Melville Scammon's papers.  The Bancroft librarians were kind enough to provide the actual letters to me today, which are far easier to read than the microfilm.  The letters also really beautiful in and of themselves, especially in this era of digitized everything.

Among all the telling ephemera surrounding the great man's life, this letter caught my eye - it's a nausea-inducing letter from Scammon's publisher, John H. Carmany, regarding the total lack of profitability of Scammon's (posthumously successful) landmark study, "The Marine Mammals of the Northwestern Coast of North America".  It was sent May 29, 1877, nearly 138 years ago.

You can imagine Scammon - growing frail from an undiagnosable ailment and tormented by money troubles - going slightly mad when he opened the letter. Scammon was an enormously talented man, and it appears from his early correspondence that he was a model captain. But in his later career, there are multiple accounts of his losing his temper when he ran into yet another stumbling block, and his outbursts typically only made things worse.

These accounts of his temper appear not when he is a young captain, before his whaling days, but afterward, during the really interesting, thrilling and difficult parts of his career.  I've often wondered if the additional time on the crowded whaling ships may have exposed him to some sort of bacterial infection or virus that affected his brain chemistry, and therefore, possibly, his behavior.  Or maybe he just became ill-tempered as his accomplishments grew greater, and his money troubles grew.

Carmany's letter is provocative.  He starts by claiming that Scammon was in town but declined to see him: "Having see you in town, it strikes me as rather strange that you did not call on me. As apologies are usually looked at as excuses for wrong doing, I certainly need not make any in matters between us, simply relying on facts." Nice intro. 

Carmany goes on: "All attempts to sell your book have failed me, even with the copyright included, and of course I have the 500 copies in sheets on hand, which I will gladly hand over to any person - copyright included - who will liquidate the balance of indebtedness due on publication account."

That's it - no recognition of what a great work Scammon's book was, and no understanding that it would, sometime soon, be recognized as the landmark study in marine mammalogy. (The book also set a precociously modern standard for biological studies in general by focusing as much, if not more, on observation of animals in their natural habitat, rather than relying largely on specimens and skeletons.)

Scammon's own take on the letter is written in pencil, and signed by him, in the space left over on the second page.  You can almost sense Scammon's onset of decrepitude by the worsening script.  In a later letter to Carmany, Scammon's penmanship was so poor that Scammon chose not to mail it, as if he were too proud to reveal how decrepit his condition had become.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Russell on Scammon

There really is no end to the surprising twists in the story of Captain Charles Melville Scammon.  His participation as "enforcer" during the Farallon Egg Wars being perhaps the least interesting of all his myriad adventures.

How Captain Scammon, the greatest and most ruthlessly efficient hunter of gray whales - practically their exterminator! - went on to became the greatest and most loving chronicler of the natural life of the same whales remains a mystery.

Through the boxes of Scammon letters at UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library, I hope to uncover, however partially, that mystery. And to shed light on Scammon's possible relationship to the work of Herman Melville, with whom he shares a nam (Per the learned men of The Melville Society, Charles Melville Scammon is "the very personification of Melville's Ishmael in Moby-Dick", who also goes through a transformation from a killer of whales to a great appreciator.)

In the meantime, there is this revealing tidbit from Dick Russell's 2001 opus, The Eye of the Whale, which is one of only three books I know of that discuss Scammon at any length. After giving some brief mention to Scammon's over-achieving older brothers (including heroic service in the Union army during the Civil War, founding of the Dearborn Observatory and of Chicago's first bank, and enough other accomplishments as to drive the notion of sibling inferiority complex to dizzying levels), Russell mentions that three of the six Scammon brothers were followers of an 18th-century Swedish scientist-turned-mystic, Emanuel Swedenborg.

That the three brothers, with all their scientific curiosity and prowess, would have any interest in mysticism is, frankly, mystifying. But as Russell puts it: "One of Swedenborg's most comprehensive works was The Economy of the Animal Kingdom, in which he described all of life as a marvelous unity, tautly structured according to a grand design."  (Akin to Darwin's larger theory as well as the humanistic ideals on which Darwin's theories were grounded.)

"Certain animals seem to have prudence and cunning," Swedenborg wrote, "connubial love, friendship and seeming charity, probity and benevolence, in a word, a morality the same as with men."

So perhaps it was through Swedenborg's mystical connection with the animal world that Scammon did force himself to wade through the killing bays of his own design, to lovingly measure the whales he had slaughtered, taking the first ever notes on whale anatomy - notes which hold up to today's scientific standards.

Bear in mind, when we judge this terribly flawed man, what the options were for sea captains in 1850's America. Transporting slaves? Transporting food to slave colonies? If you were a humanist, slaughtering whales to bring light to lamps was probably one of the kinder tasks you could be engaged in.

Cruel choice, it was!  But Scammon, it seems to me, was someone who toiled at his own redemption. How many of us in the modern world can claim to be doing the same?