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Susquehanna University Press

     

 

Caught in Irons
Author: Michael Wayne Santos

On Wednesday morning, October 25, 1922, Captain Clayton Morrissey of the fishing schooner Henry Ford paced the deck of his vessel as it sat tied to the wharf at Gloucester, Massachusetts, his mind filled with conflicting emotions and impulses. "Come ashore, Clayton," his wife pleaded. "Let someone {else} sail her…Let's get rid of this miserable business." The miserable business to which she was referring was the international fishermen's races that captured popular imagination in the United States and Canada during the 1920s and 1930s.

Morrissey was captaining the American challenger in a best two out of three series with the famed Canadian schooner Bluenose. A devoted family man, Morrissey wanted to heed his wife's plea, yet he felt compelled to race because of all that was at stake, specifically, patriotism, community pride, and the interests of those men who had built his schooner to race. After a long time, Morrissey sadly shook his head and escorted his wife to the rail. Tenderly placing his hand on her shoulder, he told her, "I must go, they've got me.

This incident captured the reality confronting North Atlantic fishermen in the last days of sail. Auxiliary power and beam trawling was making their skills irrelevant. Gloucester's reputation as the premiere fishing port in North America, meanwhile, was in decline.

Had William Dennis off Nova Scotia not initiated international fishing racing in 1920, the story would likely have turned out like so many others, where the local industry underwent dramatic change. Working-class culture would have been replaced by a more homogenous mass culture. For Gloucester and her fishermen, the international fishermen's races provided a unique opportunity to turn the process on its head. What other industry town and its workers got the chance to successfully resist the ravages of industrial capitalism while being lionized in the popular press for perpetuating a working-class alternative to mass culture? The problem was that international racing was ultimately a product of that culture. As Clayt Morrissey found out, that often made the price of staving off the future high.

This book uses the fishermen's races as a window into the changing economic and social realities that redefined the North Atlantic fisheries, and for that matter, the society as a whole, in the first decades of the twentieth century. By placing the fishermen's races in the context of broader working-class and popular culture, Santos has bridged the artificial gap between maritime and labor history and created a coherent interpretation of working-class life among the fishermen in the last days of sail. As one reader put it, the result "is an extremely readable and well-informed account, written by a scholar who both loves a good story and knows how to tell one.