Chapter 6: The Street

As my wife wades through an exceptionally long book about Reconstruction, I have heard a good deal over meals about nineteenth century idealizing of free labor and mercantilism. While struggling to make sense of “The Street,” I decided to use those principles as a lens: the chapter is a hyperbolized, satirical vision of the benefits of free labor, touting New Bedford as a marvel of race- and class-shattering opportunity. In New Bedford, whaling enterprises bring together not only sailors of the wide world, but inland dwellers as well, “who have felled forests, and now seek to drop the axe and snatch the whale-lance.” We also see absurdly foppish country dandies, overdressed for the work to come, having romanticized the sea into notions of easy money. Ishmael presents New Bedford as a land of plenty, not fertile for crops, but fertile for business, transforming a “bony” and “howling” landscape into a paradise of civilization.

It’s all a little over-the-top, and I’m left with a sense that although free market ideals were in some ways liberal, democratizing concepts at the time, forward thinkers saw in these ideals the seeds of exploitation and fraud that have come to plague our world ever since. In the end, only the few live in New Bedford’s “patrician-like houses” or enjoy New Bedford’s “opulent” gardens, and the rest simply exist in a pleasure dome of smoke and mirrors — dangerous cannibals, fancy clothes, endless oil, manly posturing, and musky women. A whaler’s life for me!

Chapter 6: The Street

Freaks and dudes
Are finally intermingling!
Freaks and dudes
From agitating sea!
Shadows cast,
A flame in every window.
Pallid sheen
In the beacon of dreams.

Bloomed from the crags,
Terrific altarpiece of meticulous fiends.
Shade joining hands
With every gift of creation
From negotiable light.

How now,
A yet unrealized prerogative
Of nations
Professed to welcome the world,
How now,
A yet unrealized prerogative
Is here,
On the outpost of time.

Freaks and dudes
Together on the corner!
Freaks and dudes
Embracing one another!
From the rocks
A flower of gentility
Blooms beside
Every sibilant tide.

How now,
A yet unrealized prerogative
Of nations
Professed to welcome the world,
How now,
A yet unrealized prerogative
Is here,
On the outpost of time.

(c) and (p) 2008 Patrick Shea
Words and music written by Patrick Shea August 27, 2008
All parts performed, arranged, and recorded by Patrick Shea June 8, 2009

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