Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 434

Frank T. Bullen’s childhood was cruel. Like Charles Dickens, he lacked schooling and was a homeless waif and child laborer in London. He was adopted briefly by a kindly aunt and began to read Milton’s Paradise Lost at five years of age; but the aunt, his solitary childhood friend, died when Bullen was eight years old, and he was cast into the street. Alone in the world with “no-one caring a straw for me,” he trusted God and was signed on an English vessel when he was twelve years old. Bullen spent the next six years at sea. He landed in New Bedford, Massachusetts, when he was eighteen years old and secured a berth on a sailor’s nightmare, a whaler, in this case the “Cachalot,” a venerable tub “as leaky as a basket.”

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The Cruise of the Cachalot is a combined autobiographical/fictional narration, which gives an account of a South Sea whaler from a seaman’s standpoint. Bullen also described the methods employed, the dangers met, and the woes experienced by whalers, using a clear style in order not to weary the reader. He scorned padding, sought accuracy of detail, and penned a tersely thrilling story of a voyage around the world that lasted for years. Its many fascinating passages include a description of a cyclone off the remote Seychelles Islands, storms at sea, the vast face of the sea and the sky, a passage through the Sargasso Sea, labors, landings, harpoonings, beatings, and a brush with the Confederate raider “Alabama,” among other adventures. All this was done while pursuing cachalots, or sperm whales, which yielded by-products such as spermaceti and ambergris, mentioned by Shakespeare and Milton. The book’s minor inaccuracies are the inevitable ones produced by its fast pace and man-of-action approach.

Bullen was at first puzzled as to how to write The Cruise of the Cachalot but decided to write it as if he were simply spinning a yarn to a single friend. When this approach met with difficulties, he offered his rich materials to the famous Rudyard Kipling, assuming that the latter could do it literary justice. Kipling declined the material and encouraged Bullen to handle it by himself. After reading Bullen’s manuscript, Kipling wrote a foreword to it that has since been carried in every edition of The Cruise of the Cachalot. Kipling’s foreword describes the book as “immense” and unequaled in sea wonder and mystery. Praising the manner in which Bullen depicted whaling through fresh and realistic sea pictures, Kipling commented that Bullen must have discarded enough material to write five books.

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