The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King
(2012) is a work of nonfiction by Rich Cohen. Nominated for the Society of Midland Authors Award, the book tells the true story of a forgotten icon in America’s commercial history. A well-established New York Times
bestselling nonfiction writer, he has worked alongside household names such as Terence Winter, Mick Jagger, and Martin Scorsese, and written for Vanity Fair
and Rolling Stone
. Critics claim that Cohen is one of the most significant cultural and social historians writing in post-war twentieth-century America.The Fish That Ate the Whale
is the story of Samuel “The Banana Man” Zemurray. When the book begins, he is a poor Jewish immigrant struggling to feed himself. He arrives in America in 1891 without a dollar to his name. By the time he dies in New Orleans sixty-nine years later, he is one of the most influential men in the world. The book chronicles his rise from poverty to corporate domination. According to Cohen, Zemurray embodies the American Dream.
Although Zemurray succeeds in building a commercial empire for himself, Cohen reminds readers that this success comes at a cost. As Zemurray fights for every opportunity he gets, his actions negatively affect others around him. Zemurray exploits individuals, business practices, and even politics to achieve his goals, his story highlighting the dark side of the American Dream—aspiration often breeds exploitation and corruption.
Zemurray understands that no one owes him anything in life. The world doesn’t owe him success. If he wants to achieve his dream of becoming rich, he must work his way up from the bottom of the ladder. Cohen observes that Zemurray has no personal connections, qualifications, or leads when he arrives in the United States. Everything Zemurray achieves is through his own merit, not networking.
To demonstrate Zemurray’s work ethic, The Fish That Ate the Whale
begins Zemurray’s journey from his first step onto American soil. He wants to make money in the highly competitive banana business. The biggest importer of bananas into the U.S., the United Fruit Company is very picky about the bananas they sell.
The company discards many crates of bananas deemed too ripe for sale. In these bananas, Zemurray identifies an opportunity. He simply takes the abandoned bananas and sells them. Everything he makes is a profit because he didn’t pay anything for the fruit, and someone is always willing to buy cheap bananas. Soon, he is making enough money to look after himself.
Now that he is making money, Zemurray buys land in Honduras. He buys a cheap plot and bribes his way out of import and export taxes. He will grow his own fruit here and export it to the U.S., undercutting the United Fruit Company. Although his actions cause other people to go out of business, Zemurray only cares about making his own profits.
Cohen asserts Zemurray is so successful because he learns everything there is to know about the banana business. He works on the plantation, supervises the docks, makes deals, and generally ensures that everything works profitably and efficiently. Zemurray understands exactly what is going on at every stage in the process, separating him from the managers at the United Fruit Company, who are so alienated from the ground workers that they’ve forgotten who works for them.The Fish That Ate the Whale
is the story of one man’s struggle against the odds. Zemurray exhausts himself physically, mentally, and emotionally on his quest to become a banana tycoon. Although he succeeds in his endeavor, his success comes at a cost—he is lonely, he never marries, and he has nothing else in his life but this company. Cohen argues that, since the business is all Zemurray had to lose, he would do everything and anything to protect it.
Although The Fish That Ate the Whale
is Zemurray’s story, it also highlights the problems with early twentieth-century Central America. Corruption, embezzlement, bribery, and crime are rife in Honduras, a haven for criminals hiding from the U.S. authorities. Zemurray’s work ethic, determination, and passion for his business ensure that he survives such hostile and volatile territory.
Zemurray learns everything he needs to know about politics in Honduras, from whom he must bribe to who else is powerful enough to destroy him. In a relatively short space of time, Zemurray secures powerful allies, mercenaries, and political influencers who help him catapult his business from a fledgling start-up to a multi-million-dollar company snatching profits from the United Fruit Company.
Less concerned with the morality of Zemurray’s decision-making, The Fish That Ate the Whale
focuses on what entrepreneurs and casual readers can learn from the banana tycoon. It is possible for the little fish to devour the largest one if it works hard enough, works smart enough, and perseveres even when the odds seem stacked against it.