Q: "Nantucket coach"?

Joel S. Berson Berson at ATT.NET
Sun Dec 9 17:59:39 UTC 2012

(Comments interspersed.)

At 12/9/2012 02:05 AM, Douglas G. Wilson wrote:
>On 12/8/2012 11:15 PM, Joel S. Berson wrote:
>>In his 1824-1827 story "Peter Rugg, the Missing Man," William Austin
>>writes "The chair in which Rugg sat was very capacious, evidently
>>made for service and calculated to last for ages. The timber would
>>supply material for three modern carriages. This chair, like a
>>Nantucket coach, would answer for everything that ever went on wheels."
>>What is a "Nantucket coach"?  I have not found any explanation, or
>>even instances, not counting Austin's tale and various coaches of
>>Nantucket sports teams.  Except for one -- Alain Geoffroy claims,
>>referring to Austin's use, that it is "a local expression used to
>>designate a whaleboat tugged by the whale once the harpoon has been
>>stuck into the animal."
>>Geoffroy's source is -- 'Zimbalatti refers to the phrase as a
>>"Nantucketism." "A Nantucket coach is not a type of stagecoach, but a
>>reference to a whale. . . . Nantucket whalers referred to the upper
>>jaw of a whale as both a 'coach' and a 'sleigh.' . . . Austin merely
>>substitutes the synonymous term 'coach' for 'sleigh'
>>(127).'  Zimbalatti = Zimbalatti, Joseph A.. Anti-Calvinist Allegory:
>>A Critical Edition of William Austin's "Peter Rugg, the Missing Man,"
>>Ph.D., (Fordham University, N.Y., 1992).  I don't know what
>>Zimbalatti's authority is. ....
>I speculate that Zimbalatti or somebody is just speculating here ...
>more wildly than well, maybe.

Probably.  Geoffroy is certainly very speculative.  He asserts that
Peter Rugg, the character, is modeled on Paul Revere -- although his
evidence is both that Rugg's history is similar to Revere's and that
it is the opposite of Revere's, making Rugg a symbol of both a
Patriot and a Loyalist.  Perhaps, if one admits a great deal of
ambiguity in the character and tale.  Geoffroy drags in every
possible connection.

One amusing error, by I assume a non-native-English speaker, is
Geoffroy's speculation about Austin's sentence "The old mansion house
had become powder post, and been blown away." [Rugg's home, which he
has been trying unsuccessfully for years to return to.] Geoffroy sees
a parallel with the (gun)powder stores at Concord, which the British
went out to destroy; the house's destruction is retribution for
Rugg's/Revere's failure to reach Concord and protect the powder.  (To
illustrate the stretched speculation, Rugg did reach Concord; Revere
did not.)  But in the tale the context of the reference to the "old
mansion house" is Rugg's very belated (50 years delayed) return home,
when "time, which destroys and renews all things, has dilapidated
[his] house" and, "for want of heirs", his estate is being sold at
public auction.  Thus the notion is decay, not explosion.  Austin's
"powder post" is of course the "powder of worm-eaten wood" (OED),
left by the powder-post beetle.

>Why should the expression have anything to do with whales?

I am skeptical too.  There is certainly nothing connected with
whaling in Austin's story.  On the other hand, see below.

The story is on-line at
in a very close transcription from the original magazine publication.

>"Nantucket sleigh-ride" is in DARE and elsewhere, but I don't see any
>evidence of a variant such as "Nantucket coach-ride".
>The Austin text says (as I read it) that Rugg's vehicle, "like a
>Nantucket coach," was a non-specialized conveyance which could serve in
>various capacities.
>Apparently it was customary in Nantucket to use a simple cart as a
>passenger carriage, and I think that can naturally explain the reference.
>1841: <<Scarcely any sound is heard in most of its streets, by day or
>night, excepting the shrill voices of the juvenile venders of vegetables
>and fruit, as they thread the mazy avenues in the well-known vehicle of
>the island. / This vehicle (a small, green cart, with high sides, and
>generally without springs or mounting step) is dignified by the cognomen
>of _calash_, and is in almost universal use, for the various purposes of
>carrying produce, merchandise, or parties of pleasure; and maintains its
>respectability among the inhabitants generally, although the chaise is
>not unfrequently seen, and the caryall, barouche, and coach even, are
>known there.>>
>1844: <<There is one species of carriage peculiar to Nantucket, which
>were generally crowded with children, or whole families we might suppose
>were the occupants. These were what we should call horse-carts, some
>upon two, and others upon four wheels. The old fashion was to have them
>without springs, and there were many of this description: but an
>improvement was noticed on the greater part, in their being hung upon
>elliptical steel springs. These we found upon trial to be a most
>comfortable carriage. A few chairs are set in them for the elderly part
>of the family, while the younger members stand up. In one of these
>literal _carry-alls_, we counted _twentynine_ children ....>>
>And other such references can be found.
>So I think "Nantucket coach" probably just means "all-purpose cart used
>as a coach in/on Nantucket".

 From Austin's descriptions I don't get a picture of this "Nantucket
coach", even though he calls it "very capacious" and with "timber
[that] would supply material for three modern carriages".   (I don't
think Austin describes "chair" any more than in the following
sentence; nor does the OED.)

Austin writes, "Presently, a man with a child beside him, with a
large black horse, and a weather-beaten chair once built for a chaise
body, passed in great haste, apparently at the rate of twelve miles an hour."

Later, Rugg's horse is described as very fast, overtaking, while
pulling the chair, two champion Richmond (Virginia) race-horses
(which were not pulling carriages, but rather had mounted riders).

These descriptions don't sound like a presumably-plodding
"all-purpose cart used as a coach in/on Nantucket".  Perhaps Austin
was envisioning a Nantucket sleighride after all.


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