By chance, the Discovery Channel began the eighth season of its reality program Deadliest Catch just as my new book about a 19th-century man famous for nearly being eaten by a grizzly bear was set to come out. The luck of the timing gives me an opening to pay off an intellectual debt to the captains and crews of the Alaskan crab-fishing vessels featured on the show. Their labor helped me see my subject, and American history, anew. The festival of abuses on the boats—the Bering Sea abusing the men; the men abusing each other, as well as numerous baggies of controlled substances—got me thinking about the entertainment value of human suffering in the workplace.
With the possible exception of occupational-health-and-safety inspectors, Americans have long enjoyed watching people labor in hazardous conditions. Indeed, taking pleasure in other people's nasty jobs is as old as the republic itself. Hurt workers, especially men injured in remote and wild locales, helped establish the United States as a continental nation with a special destiny. Through their exertions, they wrung wealth from nature, and as they changed environments—chopped trees, killed animals, dug mines—they changed too. Their bodies accumulated scars as wayward axes and mule kicks remodeled their physiques. They suntanned their hides, while endless toil built up muscles and then wore them away. Those alterations naturalized laborers: Wilderness workers melded with the landscape in ways the growing legions of pasty clerks shuffling papers back in Philadelphia or Boston never could. Their ordeals grounded them in American soil, and their pain made them unwitting, and often unacknowledged, founding fodder.
The human chew toy at the center of my book ran into an irate grizzly in the summer of 1823 in the proximity of contemporary South Dakota while he was in the employ of a St. Louis fur-trading company. The bear ripped Hugh Glass from bow to stern, carving his scalp, puncturing his throat, and removing a hunk from his aft. Co-workers rushed to his aid and slew the bear, but his injuries mocked their medical abilities, and they arranged his funeral: Two men would stay behind to bury the body once Glass surely died, and the rest would move on. The grave tenders, however, feared an ambush; the more frightened they grew, the less enamored they were about sacrificing their lives for a certain goner. So they fled, taking Glass's gun, knife, and ammunition.
But instead of tumbling into the abyss, Glass clawed back. He woke, nibbled low-hanging buffalo berries, and sipped from a nearby stream. He soaked his wounds and cooled his fever. He grew stronger, rose to his knees, and began crawling toward Fort Kiowa, hundreds of miles to the east. Weeks inched by, his gashes congealed and his bones knit. He regained his feet, and as his speed picked up, so did his ire. Those colleagues who took his gear and left him to rot were going to die.
This may sound like the stuff of typical office politics. Who hasn't pilfered a client list or a parking space from a sure-to-be-fired cubicle buddy? Yet I didn't hear the echoes of vocational infighting when I first read about Hugh Glass. I interpreted his accident as an act of heroic wilderness survival.
When I initially met Glass, he brought to mind another reality TV program, Bear Grylls's Man vs. Wild on the Discovery Channel. Glass has persisted in 21st-century American culture as the godfather of a trendy and lucrative entertainment genre: trauma in the wilderness. In September 2004, Outside Magazine included his bear adventure among its "Top Wilderness Survival Tales." He shared the honor with pilots, policemen, skiers, and hikers who escaped crashes, broiling deserts, avalanches, and volcanic eruptions. His epic jaunt fit nicely with the stories of the Labrador retriever that soloed for months in the Alaskan backcountry and the fly fisherman who severed his own leg after being pinned by a rogue boulder. It seemed only natural to include Glass in that group of hard-core clingers to life.
Still, there is something queer about Grylls and the urine-swigging acolytes on his program. Survivalism is a very young idea. The term popped up in the 1970s to define a particular social type: wilderness kooks who stockpiled gold, canned goods, automatic weapons, and soldier-of-fortune magazines for the coming apocalypse. Not all survivors are survivalists. Survivors merit admiration for their grace under pressure and indomitable spirits. Survivalists invite a wide berth and perhaps an ATF raid on their compounds. Yet, for all their differences, survivors and survivalists inhabit similar imaginative environments. They both live in postcataclysmic dreamscapes where people under extreme duress unlock and contemplate the secrets of human existence. If the plane crashed, if the government collapsed, if the plague descended, who would survive? Individuals with the skills of Grylls and the guts of Glass.
But Hugh Glass had never heard of survivalism. He had never seen a Boy Scout or read the Scout motto, and he could scarcely imagine the existence of a character like Grylls. Glass and his colleagues didn't assume they could manage disasters or escape suffering. They didn't think they could overpower nature. They lived in a world without action heroes; instead of "survival techniques" and "extreme preparedness," they mouthed words like "endurance." They couldn't teach people how to avoid hazards because they were always walking smack into them.
With his high pain threshold and penchant for safety violations, Glass resembled the hands on the Deadliest Catch's crab boats more than the strapping survival guides. Watching men battle storms, sleeplessness, falling ice chunks, and 400-pound traps while keeping their cigarettes lit on heaving, slime-covered decks is the principal fun of Deadliest Catch. We tune in to witness masculine agony. The producers know their audience, so they focus on greenhorns and strung-out vets. The rookies bumble into trouble while the old-timers explore the dead-end of careers meant for younger bodies. The captains, cozy in their wheelhouses, philosophize for the cameras. They typically instruct their underlings to meet pain with stoicism. "You ain't a man," once spoke Captain Phil, "until you've pulled out a tooth with a pair of pliers."
Glass would have recognized, and no doubt agreed with, that wisdom. He worked with a guy who once asked to have his ear sewn back on with needle and thread after a grizzly bear jumped him. For the fur trappers, manhood and physical toughness were a package. And others sold that package too. Soon after his ordeal, Glass greeted readers in St. Louis newspapers and a Philadelphia literary journal as a national representative. Through his workplace accident, he modeled America.
It's harder to see for whom or what the crab fishermen on Deadliest Catch stand. The show nods toward all sorts of higher motivations—God, country, the eternal struggle against nature—yet the narrative conceit that drives the men hardest is the "crab count." They suffer to win a race, to fill their holds the quickest with the most pounds of ocean flesh. The weight transfers directly to the heft of their checks. Yet who pays for all that? In the end, the crews withstand physical torment so that you and I can stuff our holds at all-you-can-eat buffets. They bleed for seafood conglomerates and well-padded consumers.
Glass's workplace mishap didn't serve him all that well either. The public learned his name, but he died poor and alone. He never profited from his sojourn in the limelight. His adventure fed an aggressive nation engorging on its manifest destiny.
Workers who suffer for our entertainment deserve better compensation than D-list celebrity. Perhaps we can start by acknowledging the creepiness of our voyeurism. Risky jobs hurt people all the time, and the tragic consequences of industrial accidents usually play out before a small circle of family and friends instead of an international cable-television audience. The mere act of seeing a fisherman pull out his own tooth with a pair of pliers neither alleviates his misery nor elevates his suffering. The guy needs a union and a dental plan, not groupies.
Nevertheless, I'll rubberneck the new season of Deadliest Catch. Reality television survives on conflict; so much so that producers choose the most cantankerous stars they can find and place them in situations primed for flare-ups. The need for tension insures that no one person—captain, crew, or voice-over talent—monopolizes the storytelling. To keep the squabbling going, many voices have to enter the fray, and you never know what philosophies will get kicked up in the scrum. I learned from Hugh Glass that workers create culture alongside indoor types like artists, scholars, and television executives.
But to catch them at it, you must keep watching.