Charles Olson, Newman Shea and the Fishing Strike of 1917

Saturday, November 17

3:00 p.m.

Crewman on swordfisherman Doris M. Hawes. c1930. From Gardner Lamson Collection, Cape Ann Museum.
Crewman on swordfisherman Doris M. Hawes. c1930. From Gardner Lamson Collection, Cape Ann Museum.

In the third and final installment of his Gloucester Rediscovery Project, David Rich narrates the encounter between aspiring poet Charles Olson and Newman Shea, business agent for the Fishermen’s Union of the Atlantic, onboard the swordfish schoonerDoris M. Hawes. This program is free with admission.

In July of 1936 the poet Charles Olson, then a twenty-five year old academic in search of maritime adventure, signed on for a three-week sword fishing trip with Ben Pine's Atlantic Supply company. On board, Olson met a mysterious fisherman named Newman Shea whom Olson would later recall in both his influential essay on writing poetry, Projective Verse, and his verse masterpiece, The Maximus Poems.

By investigating the life of enigmatic Gloucester fisherman Newman Shea, David Rich was able to recover long-buried years of epic conflict on the Gloucester waterfront from 1917 to 1924, a time when Shea was the business agent of a short-lived and now-forgotten labor union, The Fishermen's Union of the Atlantic.

Under Shea, The Fishermen's Union of the Atlantic made public the arcane system by which fishermen got paid (they often wound up indebted to their employers despite a hold full of fish), developed minimum price tables for fish by species and, in a daring scheme, attempted to put into action a visionary plan for the cooperative marketing and selling of Gloucester fish; a plan that included cold-storage rail cars and warehouses around the country, cooperatively-owned retail stores nationwide and the scheduling of frozen fish to be brought to market in set intervals in order to regulate prices.

Although a later union with a similar name (The Atlantic Fishermen's Union) arose in 1936 and continued to be influential in Gloucester after World War II, the story of Newman Shea's earlier efforts with the Fishermen's Union of the Atlantic was lost. By analyzing clues left by Olson in the Maximus Poems, and by bringing to light newspaper articles almost a century old, David Rich follows Shea's attempts to make a newly-consolidated fishing industry more equitable, efficient and humane.

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