Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Work, Responsibility, Authority

I love the ripple effect of ideas and information.

As I mentioned in my previous post, reading Joan Druett's In the Wake of Madness gave me a new perspective on the plot of Melville's novel, Moby-Dick.

Druett's non-fiction account of the murder that occurred on board the whaleship Sharon in 1842 examines the tenuousness of the community that exists among a sea-captain and his crew.  In December of 1842, the world was shocked and gripped by the story of the murder of Captain Howes Norris by several South Sea islanders who had become members of his crew.

Information about the incident was somewhat sketchy: the bulk of the crew had lowered the whaleboats and were in pursuit of a whale, when they received a distress signal indicating that the captain had been killed and several mutinous crew members had seized the ship.  The third mate swam back to the ship under cover of night and eventually retook it, more or less single-handedly.

Druett examines the back-story that was never told in 1842, when everyone assumed that the "natives" who had killed the (presumably innocent) captain were cannibals and thus prone to violence.

Independent journals kept by the third mate and the ship's cooper, however, reveal that Captain Howes Norris was in fact a disturbingly brutal man himself, prone to fits of rage and alcoholism. 

Earlier that year, on board the Sharon, Howes had repeatedly tortured and eventually beaten the ship's steward, a man named George Babcock (who may have been a runaway slave), to death.

During the weeks and months of Babcock's abuse, the members of the crew apparently looked on and did nothing to stop it.

After Babcock's death, indications are that Norris began drinking even more heavily and looking for a new victim.  When the Sharon put into port after Babcock's death, an unprecedented number of the crew abandoned ship, forcing Norris to enlist Pacific islanders.

The islanders left on board ship while the crew lowered in pursuit of a whale ultimately attacked Norris with the flensing tools typically used for skinning whales (shown here).

They basically hacked their captain in half.

Melville followed this story closely, and in many ways it resonates with the central theme of his famous novel: the arbitrary abuse of authority by a ship's captain who may or may not be insane.

I think Melville was fascinated by the interwoven ideas of responsibility and authority and the ways in which they intersected with American workers' self-definition.  Much of Moby-Dick is about work and identity--how each of the members of the whaling crew of the Pequod function in relation to the others, and what it means for them to do the work that they do.

Interestingly, Melville's father-in-law, Lemuel Shaw, was a prominent Massachusetts judge who, in 1842, ruled on one of the nation's most famous cases involving workplace injury and the issue of an employer's liability.

In Farwell v. The Boston and Worcester Railroad Corp (1842), Shaw argued in favor of what is known as the "fellow servant rule," a principle that would set the standard for rulings on employer liability in American industry for nearly 70 years, up until the advent of workmen's compensation.

According to the "fellow servant rule," an employer is not responsible for injuries to an employee if those injuries are incurred through the negligence of a fellow employee.

If this doesn't sound so bad, pause and think about it for a minute.  You're working a manual labor job in a high-risk industry with a co-worker who is clearly a nit-wit.  According to Shaw's ruling, you're responsible for your own safety, no matter how dangerous or dumb your co-worker is or might be, because you knowingly took the job.  Legally, it's not up to your employer to guarantee your safety.

Farwell was an engineer for The Boston and Worcester Railroad Company.  When his train derailed after the switchman improperly threw the switch,  Farwell lost his hand.  He attempted to recover damages from The Boston and Worcester Railroad, on the grounds that he and the switchman were not "fellow servants."

Because Farwell did not know the switchman personally (he had probably never even met him), because they served in different and distinct departments and because they did not fulfill the same kinds of duties, the attorneys for the plaintiff argued that they could not be legally considered "fellow servants."

Shaw disagreed, siding with the defense, which argued that one of the risks Farwell knowingly incurred in taking the job of engineer was "his liability to injury from the carelessness of others who were employed by the defendants."

Citing the18th-century British legal precedent established by William Blackstone, Shaw noted that "if a servant, by his negligence, does any damage to a stranger, the master shall be answerable for his neglect."  On this basis, the railroads were legally obligated to protect their passengers: if the switchman's action had injured a passenger, the passenger could recover damages from The Boston and Worcester Railroad.

Shaw argued, however, that "this does not apply to the case of a servant bringing his action against his own employer to recover damages for an injury arising in the course of that employment."  In such cases, Shaw argues, the guiding principle is "the express or implied contract" between "master" and "servant"--or, in this case, "employer" and "employee."

Shaw ruled that, according to the law, "he who engages in the employment of another for the performance of specified duties and services, for compensation, takes upon himself the natural and ordinary risks and perils incident to the performance of such services."

According to Shaw, "These are perils which the servant is as likely to know, and against which he can as effectually guard, as the master."

In the case of Farwell's injury, Shaw ruled that "the loss must be deemed to be the result of a pure accident, like those to which all men, in all employments, and at all times, are more or less exposed."  If he wished to recover damages, Shaw argued, Farwell should try to sue the switchman himself.

What I find most interesting about all of this is that it offers a new way to think about the interrelationship of the characters aboard the Pequod.  Melville's narrator Ishmael famously describes them as "isolatoes" or "islands" unto themselves. 

What I'm interested in exploring further is, to what extent could this characterization be said to stem from the historical circumstances of U.S. labor law and its practice in 19th-century America?  It seems to me that Melville's novel can be situated on the cusp of a changing sense of the interrelationship of work, identity and authority in American culture.

How, why and to what extent is a community responsible for the actions of its members, and what happens when those actions are intertwined with American business interests and a capitalist desire for profit? 

More broadly stated, what is the relationship between money, American democracy, and the law?  And how does that relationship affect the ways in which individuals define themselves and their labor?

No comments:

Post a Comment

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."