Captain Biddle’s ‘coolness’ commandeers a sperm whale tooth

Larnerd, Joseph
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University of Delaware
A portrait engraved in a sperm whale tooth circa 1830-1860 presents Captain James Biddle’s “coolness,” his “perseverance and self possession in difficult emergencies”: a dramatic gash splits the tooth-sitter’s chin. The mark evokes his U.S.S. Hornet’s engagement with the H.M.S. Penguin in March 1815. After the latter’s surrender, a British sailor fired a musket ball that “struck Captain Biddle’s chin.” Though wounded with “blood flow[ing] profusely,” he quelled his crew’s blood thirst and secured surrender. Biddle’s wound on the tooth and the other artifactual peculiarities it elicits foreground his lauded “co olness” in combat in ways postwar portrayals by Thomas Gimbrede, Charles Willson Peale, and Moritz Furst cannot. Floating churches, lighthouses, and Peale’s The Artist in His Museum (1822) value a self-possession similar to that the tooth extols. These shared significations reveal a network of affect that formal categorizations and object hierarchies may obscure. Working with a variety of historical sources and theories of material culture, I argue that the tooth-portrait provides more than an untutored appropriation of a fine art print; it is a complex representational artifact that partakes in and contributes to a nineteenth-century trope of “coolness.”