From the Dawn of America to a Midnight of the Soul
Written by Linda Whitney
It’s been 390 years since King James I signed the charter for Gloucester, Massachusetts, making it one of the first English settlements on the American continent. A small seaport with a huge history, Gloucester’s character is unique in America for its breadth and depth of experience and challenges posed by the sea.
Jared Diamond’s recent book on the social practices of traditional peoples, The World Until Yesterday, describes a practice employed by the !Kung people. (Yes, that’s how it’s spelled. The Pulitzer Prize winner who wrote Guns, Germs and Steel would get that right. The exclamation point is a click sound.) The !Kung are Bushaman who live in the Kalahari Desert in Nambia, Botswana, and Angola, and are compelled by scarce resources to be persnickety, when outsiders from other bands show up, and are traditionally expected to fight them to the death. However, they’ve evolved a survival strategy: they sit down with the new guy they’ve bumped into on the path and discuss who knows whom. It’s a life-saving game of name dropping, and the goal is to find at least one common ancestor, relative or friend. A match up is more likely than not, given the braided family lines of the region. Once that’s settled, they shake hands and move on.
There’s a parallel custom in the region of Gloucester, Massachusetts, and it’s a recurring element in the Blue Collar plays of Israel Horovitz, of which Gloucester Blue is the newest. Characters, strange to each other, will roundly interrogate each other to sort out family and neighborhood names they may know of or have in common. It’s an ice breaker that defines biographical and territorial histories by the family lines drawn across one’s experience. It’s the sort of thing that really only happens in small and very old cities and towns. And although it’s to be hoped that no one’s life is on the line, there is latent challenge fueling the questions “Who do you know? Who are you related to?” or, in the local vernacular, “You born local?”
In 2023 Gloucester, Massachusetts will celebrate its 400th birthday. While this is nothing compared to, say, Taos Pueblo, New Mexico, with native roots going back 1,000 years, Gloucester’s founding date ranks 11th among settlements in the American Colonies. King James I signed its charter in 1623, long before the British realized what a problem the colonies would turn out to be. Gloucester ranks right above New York City (1625)—New Amsterdam while the Dutch owned it—but half a century below St. Augustine, Florida (1565).
Early Colony life was short and harsh, but the original Gloucester settlers survived by clearing land about two miles inland where they successfully farmed until the mid 18th century when they took up fishing on an industrial level. From the mid-seventeenth to the early twentieth century, more two-masted fishing schooners were built in neighboring Essex than any other place in the world. Gloucester emerged as the fish basket to the colonies, and the burgeoning industry offered promise to immigrants, as well as to the descendants of the English founders. The fishing savvy Portuguese and Italians arrived by the literal boatload in the late 19th century.
The fishing fortunes of Gloucester were founded on The Grand Banks, a group of underwater plateaus beneath the Atlantic on the North American continental shelf. Atlantic cod, swordfish, haddock, capelin, scallop and lobster had been thriving there for millennia, but within 200 years the region was fished out. By 1994 various restrictions were put in place and 5000 miles of Georges Bank were closed to fishing. This act left only three fish processors in Gloucester and brought on an economic downturn that would manifest itself in all the ways with which we have become entirely too familiar. After a long and hard won honor in the tradition of hard work, sacrifice, and loyalty to an ocean going livelihood that had swallowed more than 10,000 lives over several centuries, Gloucester descended into poverty, crime and decay. Predatory and opportunistic professionals in the practice of drug trafficking gave fishermen a new avenue of income but destroyed people, families, and neighborhoods on the practice.
It is in this miasma of seething frustration, moral dilemma and crime that we find Latham in Gloucester Blue. He is a man at odds with his circumstances, though seemingly easy-going and happy for a short term job painting a remodel for a contractor on a deadline. He’s content to let Arrowsmith blast until forced to engage in conversation with his boss, and then the whiff of smoke from burned bridges coils up through his chitchat. His family line palaver is opaque and evasive, but he appears to know his place as a bottom feeder. Then a rich young woman walks into the room, and an ancient wound in Latham begins to ooze venom. Many paths cross in small old towns and they are often bordered by thorns and not roses.
In 1925, The Gloucester Tercentenary Permanent Memorial Association installed an eight foot tall bronze statue on South Stacy Boulevard. The most famous work of English sculptor Leonard Craske (1880-1950), it is known as “Man at the Wheel”, and no Gloucester visitor can resist snapping a picture of the flinty fisherman bracing his ship’s wheel against a raging storm. He looks out over Gloucester Harbor, and a small plaque at the base reads, “Memorial to the Gloucester Fishermen.” On the monument’s facing side a larger inscription reads: “They That Go Down To The Sea In Ships --1623-1923”. It is a the opening line of Psalm 107:23, as it appears in the English translation commissioned by King James in 1611--the same King James who signed Gloucester’s charter in 1623. The gist of the entire passage is that if you are going to go to sea for a living, you’d best have God and all his angels on your side.
Gloucester continues to reinvent itself in the 21st century. Sustainable fishing practices have begun to reopen the industry and provide a modicum of employment. It is also a tourist destination with a grand history, legend, art and romantic scenery. It boasts the oldest working art colony in the country, The Rocky Neck Art Colony. Gloucester’s astonishing views have been luring artists, photographers, and writers there for more than 150 years.
Israel Horovitz founded the Gloucester Stage Company not far from the Colony in 1979 and he keeps a home in Gloucester. He continues to explore the character of the region in rich, dark, funny, bloody and unvarnished detail. Not intended as historical documents, his Blue Collar Plays are founded on historical textures and impulses and reveal the interior histories of men and women shaped by tidal currents on implacable shorelines where character is fate and to hold the wheel, come hell or safe harbor, is the one true and timeless employment.