GLOUCESTER. A port city on the Cape Ann peninsula in northeastern
Massachusetts, Gloucester has been noted for its fishing enterprise since the
first English fishermen settled there in 1623 and for the hardiness and courage of its fishermen, more than 10,000 of whom have perished at sea. Although it rose to become one of the most productive fishing ports of the
world by the end of the nineteenth century, more than a century later, with
fish stocks depleted, its fishing industry is in serious decline.
Accounts of experiences along the Cape Ann coast have inspired poetical
re-creations. Among the earliest narratives, Francis Higginson’s NewEnglands Plantation (1630) notes the abundance of mackerel as his vessel
approaches Cape Ann on its voyage from England. Higginson’s description,
filled with expressions of wonder at the bounty and beauty around him,
prompted Ann Stanford to re-create the experience in her poem “The Rev.
Higginson’s Voyage” (1981). Prominent, but perilous, features of the Cape Ann coastline bear the names of two families caught in a furious storm in
1635 in a coastal voyage from Newbury to Marblehead. Thacher’s Island is
named after Anthony Thacher, who lost his four children in the shipwreck.*
Thacher’s account was first published in Increase Mather’s Essay for the Illustrious Recording of Providence (1684). Avery’s Rock, where the vessel
struck, memorializes the minister John Avery and his family of ten, who
perished in the disaster. John Greenleaf Whittier’s* “The Swan Song of
Parson Avery” (1860) draws on the text of Thacher’s description of Avery’s
conviction that spiritual deliverance awaits him in the aftermath of his inevitable death. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow,* Whittier’s contemporary,
drew loosely on several newspaper reports of storms in December 1839 for
details in perhaps the best-known Gloucester poem, “The Wreck of the
Hesperus” (1839), which Longfellow situates on a reef in Gloucester’s outer
harbor called Norman’s Woe.
Fictional recitals of Gloucester’s fishing activities abound. One of the earliest, J. Reynolds’ Peter Gott, the Cape Ann Fisherman (1856), claims historical accuracy but presents an idealized portrait of the work life of a typical
Gloucester fisherman. The most famous Gloucester work of fiction is Rudyard Kipling’s Captains Courageous* (1897), the story of Harvey Cheyne,
a boy who comes of age through the challenges of working on a Gloucester
James Brendan Connolly—who saw action in Cuba in the SpanishAmerican War, served briefly in the American navy, and fished in his early
years with the Gloucester, North Sea, and Baltic fleets, as well as in the
Arctic*—remains the most admired of Gloucester’s fictional chroniclers.
The author of twenty-five books, most of them about the sea, Connolly
vividly portrays swaggering seamen defiant of the dangers of their trade,
appealing to a reading public recently enchanted by the virile fiction of Jack
London.* His publications include Out of Gloucester (1902), a collection of
five tales, and The Seiners (1904), a novel on mackerel fishing. Gloucester
stories continued to appear throughout his writing career, including the
novella The Trawler (1914). Gloucestermen. Stories of the Fishing Fleet
(1930) is a collection of twenty-seven of those stories. The Book of the
Gloucester Fishermen (1927) laments the decline of the all-sail fishing fleet.
The Port of Gloucester (1940) tells the story of Gloucester’s connections to
the sea from the first settlements to the last sailing schooners.
Edmund Gilligan authored nine novels centered on various aspects of the
Gloucester fisheries, including White Sails Crowding (1939), a story of winter halibut fishing and shipwreck on the Grand Banks; The Gaunt Woman
(1943), in which the Gloucester halibut vessel Daniel Webster engages a
square-rigger serving as a weapons supply ship for German U-boats; and
Voyage of the Golden Hind (1945), a tale of intrigue and treachery on a
Grand Banks dory schooner.
Raymond McFarland presents a firsthand account of the labor of the mackerel fishery in The Masts of Gloucester (1937) and celebrates the heroic
qualities of the “high-liners,” the elite seamen whose reputations for courage
and competence were legendary in the community. A teacher and scholar,
McFarland also wrote A History of the New England Fisheries (1911), a
survey of the development of the fishing industry from the early seventeenth
to the late nineteenth centuries, with emphasis on the herring, shellfish, cod,
and mackerel fisheries and with an account of the evolution of the New
England fishing schooner. Sterling Hayden’s* autobiography, Wanderer
(1963), includes, among numerous other seagoing experiences, an account
of working in his youth as a deckhand on Gloucester schooners. Joseph
Garland’s Lone Voyager (1978) is a tribute to Gloucester’s most famous dory
fisherman, Howard Blackburn, who survived savage wintry seas for three
days when lost in the fog by freezing his hands to the oars of his dory and
rowing ashore. A noted local historian, Garland has also written a history
of the coastal section of Gloucester known as Eastern Point (1973) and
Down to the Sea: The Fishing Schooners of Gloucester (1983), an illustrated
history of the men and schooners of the period between 1870 and 1930,
commonly known as “Gloucestermen.”
Notable among early American poets associated with the Gloucester area
are Richard Henry Dana Sr.,* author of a well-known sea poem, “The Buccaneer” (1827); Epes Sargent,* the son of a Gloucester sea captain whose
Songs of the Sea with Other Poems (1847) includes the popular song “A Life
on the Ocean Wave”; and Lucy Larcom,* whose Wild Roses of Cape Ann,
and Other Poems (1880) contains a nine-poem cluster devoted to the sea
and the fishing fleet. James Davis Pleasant Water: A Song of the Sea and
Shore (1877) is a long, narrative portrait idealizing Gloucester fishermen.
Clarence Manning Falt presents a more realistic picture of the Gloucester
fisherman’s activities, often in the vernacular, in Gloucester in Song (1894)
and Wharf and Fleet: Ballads of the Fishermen of Gloucester (1902). T. S.
Eliot’s* “Cape Ann” (1936), “Marina” (1930), and “The Dry Salvages”
(1941) reflect the influence of the summers he spent on Cape Ann in his
More recently, Vincent Ferrini* uses Italian American dialect in his poetry
to remind his contemporaries of Gloucester’s immigrant maritime heritage
in a period when the city seems to be losing its seagoing identity. In Know
Fish (1979), Ferrini chides Gloucester’s political and commercial powers for
undermining the way of life of the city’s working-class “fisherfolk.” Inspired
by Ferrini, Charles Olson* takes up the theme of Gloucester’s changing
maritime destiny in The Maximus Poems (1983). More literary and less proletarian than Ferrini’s poetry, Olson’s verse epic surveys Gloucester’s past
and present in the context of an American history removed from its communal and spiritual roots.
In his plays of working-class life, especially North Shore Fish and Henry
Lumper (Gloucester Plays, 1992), Israel Horovitz captures the economic and moral decline that Ferrini had predicted. Horovitz’s Captains and Courage
(1997), a centennial adaptation of Captains Courageous, interweaves the
destinies of Rudyard Kipling’s principal characters with their struggling descendants 100 years later: Ben Cheyne, one of the last Gloucester fishermen;
Roland Troop, whose sense of impending doom makes him a reluctant crew
member; and Manny Shimma, a neglected, abused, homeless juvenile.
Troop’s portentous mood may have been influenced by the enormously
popular retelling of the actual sinking in 1991 of a Gloucester swordfishing
vessel, the Andrea Gail, in Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm* (1997).