Smile Politely

Energy and culture: An interview with Jamie L. Jones

a book yellow book cover with oil spilling down the cover. Rendered Obsolete is written in yellow and white letters and a yellow whale is pictured beneath.
Jamie L. Jones

Jamie L. Jones is an assistant professor at the University of Illinois and is a researcher in the fields of the environmental humanities and U.S. literature. This summer, her first book Rendered Obsolete: Energy Culture and the Afterlife of U.S. Whaling was published. Jones was kind enough to answer some questions about her work and how she connects the study of human culture to the whaling industry.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Smile Politely: Can you tell me a little bit about you and the work that you do? 

Jamie L. Jones: I’m an assistant professor in the English Department at the University of Illinois, and I am a researcher in the fields of the environmental humanities and U.S. literature. Working in both of these fields means I am always asking questions like these: What can literature tell us about the way people understand the environment? How can we apply methods drawn from the humanities — methods like literary analysis and historical research — to research the origins and consequences of big environmental issues like climate change and energy transition? How can literature and art help us imagine more just and caring ways of living with each other and the natural world?

University of Illinois English professor Jamie L. Jones stands in front of a bookcase in a blue blazer and black shirt. She is a white woman with medium length brown hair.
Michelle Hassel

SP: What brought you to Illinois and what keeps you here?

Jones: That’s easy: I got a great job at the University of Illinois. Many academics don’t typically get to choose where we live; we go where the great jobs are. And I stay here because I have an amazing community on and off campus. My colleagues in the humanities here at the U of I are brilliant, productive, supportive, and imaginative. The university is an especially great place to do environmental humanities research: many of us are in constant conversation, sharing ideas and resources. We have a wide community of colleagues and friends in environmental studies across campus in the sciences and social sciences, too. And I love living in Champaign-Urbana, where I get to experience world-class public lectures, music, and art, and where I can walk almost everywhere I want to go.

SP: Your background is in American Studies. What drew you to this topic? 

Jones: Rather than focusing in one discipline like literature or history, American Studies offers an interdisciplinary approach to studying U.S. culture. I appreciated the opportunity to train in multiple disciplines (history, literature, and art history), and to think from an early stage in my career about how to combine these approaches in studying U.S. culture.

A hand drawn image of whales in formal ware at a party celebrating In an 1861 Vanity Fair cartoon, whales celebrate the advent of oil drilling, which replaced whaling as a source of fuel oil.
Jamie L. Jones

SP: At first glance it would seem like the whaling industry and humanities have very little to do with each other, but your research says otherwise. Can you talk a bit about that?  

Jones: First, I’ll cover a few facts about the whaling industry. The U.S. had an active and powerful whaling industry in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. U.S ships sailed mainly from ports in New England, and they sailed all around the world hunting whales. People working in the whaling industry rendered whale bodies to produce mainly whale oil; they produced other products like whalebone and ambergris, too, but whale oil was the big commodity in the 19th century because it was used as a light source and as an oil to lubricate machines. Whale oil, used in this way, became largely obsolete after petroleum products entered the marketplace after the first oil booms of the 1860s and 1870s. Rock oil (petro + oleum = rock oil) replaced whale oil and many other early energy sources. This story is one of many such stories that describe the massive energy transitions of the 19th century, when U.S. society at large shifted from using organic energy sources to using fossil fuels like oil, coal, and natural gas.

We need the humanities — the study of human culture like literature, history, art, music — to understand whaling and other energy resources because people made art and told stories about whaling. Smile Politely’s readers have definitely heard of Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick, which is all about the U.S. whaling industry, but U.S. literature, art, and journalism was absolutely chock full of stories about the whaling industry before and after its obsolescence. Those stories help us understand how the very concept of energy came to be, in those early decades of the fossil fuel age. Stories about whaling shaped the way that laborers, investors, journalists, and consumers used fossil fuels – and stories about fossil fuels will shape the way we use future (hopefully sustainable) energy resources. Of course society needs scientists, engineers, and policymakers to produce new energy technologies and infrastructures, but we need scholars of the humanities just as much because we think about the reasons that people use energy resources and the personal and public histories that inform those choices. You can’t separate out the culture from the technology or policy of energy; they shape and are shaped by each other.

SP: What was it that made you decide to write a book?

Jones: Writing and publishing a book is, in some ways, a requirement of my job. Scholars in the humanities at top research universities like the U of I are often required to publish a book in order to pass through promotion to tenure. (In addition to publishing a book, we also need to publish articles, teach well, and contribute to the university governance.) I wrote a book because I love my job and want to keep it! I was drawn to this career path because I wanted to write. I have always been a writer; in the past I’ve written newspaper and magazine articles, travel guides, and reviews. This job lets me fulfill a long dream of mine, which was to undertake long-term research and write books.

a book yellow book cover with oil spilling down the cover. Rendered Obsolete is written in yellow and white letters and a yellow whale is pictured beneath.
Jamie L. Jones

SP: What was the publishing experience like? 

Jones: The publishing experience was longer and had many more stages than I imagined before I went through it myself. Even after I wrote and revised the book, there was still so much to do: image permissions, copyedits, proofreading, make decisions about design. But I’m really grateful to my fabulous editor and press, Lucas Church at the University of North Carolina Press, for shepherding my book through this complicated process and advocating for it at every step.

SP: Has your approach to writing changed at all since publishing a book? 

Jones: Yes! Before writing this book, I knew (but didn’t really know) that writing was a process — that writing is the way you figure out what you think. I know that now, and I’m much more willing than I was before to write messy first (and second, and third…) drafts. Now I know that I have to write a lot before I know what I really want the final work to be.

SP: Do you plan to write more books on this topic? 

Jones: Yes, absolutely. I plan to write more books on energy, oceans, and climate change in U.S. literature and culture. Having the opportunity and resources to write is one of the great privileges of my job, and I look forward to writing more.

SP: What is something surprising your research has taught you? 

Jones: Researching my first book gave me a surprisingly simple insight about energy transition: we turn to the energy resources of the past to understand the energy resources of the present and future. This is what happened with early fossil fuel culture in the 19th century, and I suspect it’s what will happen as we work to relinquish fossil fuels and find more just and sustainable ways of living on the planet. Our task is to be conscious of the way that fossil fuels have shaped our lives, and make deliberate choices about how to live in new ways.

A black and white images of The whaling ship Progress  exhibited at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The boat is docked and a few people are walking on the grounds in front of it.
Jamie L. Jones

SP: What do you hope people will take away from your book? 

Jones: I hope people take away the lesson I described above and think hard about the way that they experience energy resources. I also hope my readers learn a few new ways to think about how our cultural attitudes about energy are embedded in literature, art, museums, tourism, and even graphic design. I also hope my readers take away a handful of good stories: I tell the story of a group of sideshow promoters who toured the dead body of a whale throughout the Midwest for two years in the 1880s, and another strange, funny story of a whaling ship that sailed from the Atlantic Ocean across canals and the Great Lakes all the way to Chicago. The ship was exhibited at the Chicago Columbian Exposition in 1893 — after sinking in the Chicago River. And I tell my own story about what it was like to sail on a restored 19th century whaling ship, the Charles W. Morgan, which is a museum ship at the Mystic Seaport Museum.

SP: What does your perfect day in Champaign-Urbana look like? 

Jones: My perfect day always involves a long walk at Meadowbrook Park, my favorite place in town. And it’s always a great day when I can get some friends together and hear music at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, Rose Bowl, or any number of the great venues around town. And the day wouldn’t be truly perfect without some tacos from Maize.

Rendered Obsolete: Energy Culture and the Afterlife of U.S. Whaling is available through the University of North Carolina Press, or order it from local bookstores.

Culture Editor

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