“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.”
I’m time traveling in my head and thinking about Herman Melville again.
I have imagined him at his interesting little writing desk. Today I am seeing this day 174 years ago as Melville, age 21, sets sail aboard the whaling vessel Acushnet from the port of New Bedford, Massachusetts, bound for the Pacific Ocean.
He had no experience as a whaler, and not much experience at sea. He had sailed to and from Liverpool, England as a cabin boy on a merchant ship, but he loved it.
Whaling is now a rightfully despised business, but then it was still big business as whale oil from blubber was the most widely available fuel for artificial lights, powering household lamps, streetlights, and even lighthouses. It was also one of the most popular lubricants, used in factory machines, sewing machines, and clocks.
Melville’s seafaring career certainly provided him inspiration for a shelf of books, most being written before Moby-Dick and those earlier ones (fiction and non-fiction) being more successful in his lifetime than his masterwork.
By June 1841, the Acushnet‘s boatsteerer jumped ship and was replaced by Melville. They arrived in Nuka Hiva, Marquesas and he was quite dissatisfied with French imperialism there. We don’t often think about economics in reading a book like Moby-Dick, but the economic recession caused tension on the Acushnet and on July 9th, 1842, Melville and shipmate Richard Greene (who is the character Toby in Typee) decided to desert the Acushnet. They were soon captured by cannibals (the Taipis) but escaped in August.
Melville quickly signed on to the Australian ship, Lucy Ann. Further adding good experiences for his firts books, Melville aligns himself with the rest of the mutinous crew. They mutiny fails and he spends a month jailed in Tahiti. for mutiny
In November 1842, he sets sail for a 4-month voyage on the Nantucket whaler, Charles and Henry, and again became boatsteerer. The following February, he sails to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) and finds the islands colonized by British. In Honolulu, Melville joins frigate USS United States as a seaman and then finally returns to Massachusetts on board the USS United States.
Melville learned the ins and outs of whaling during his years at sea. In his role, he was not directly involved (though he writes that he helped) with harpooning the whales, harvesting them, and the processing their oil aboard the ship.
One thing we know is that he heard many tales from his fellow whalers. The story that gets the most attention in Melville study is of a legendary white sperm whale called Mocha Dick.
Knickerbocker Magazine described the whale in 1939: as a”renowned monster, who had come off victorious in a hundred fights with his pursuers, an old bull whale, of prodigious size and strength. From the effect of age, or more probably from a freak of nature, … he was white as wool … Numerous boats are known to have been shattered by his immense flukes, or ground to pieces in the crush of his powerful jaws.”
Melville also met the son of Owen Chase, who had survived a whale attack on the Essex 21 years earlier, and he read Chase’s account which was source material for Moby-Dick.
There are many ways to read Moby-Dick, which is why I have been able to reread it more than a few times. It’s not my favorite novel, but it is a touchstone novel. Some readers get frustrated with the inter-chapters about whales and whaling. You could skip them and read the main story. It’s a different book, of course, but another experience. You could read just the inter-chapters.
In a review written by John McCurria, he reads the novel as a geopolitical representation of British imperialism through the practice of whaling. He writes, “Aboard the ship named after an exterminated Native American tribe [also a river and city in Massachusetts] are 30 men of African, European, Native American, Pacific Island and Asian descent, equal to the number of states in the federal union. All were enslaved under Ahab’s proclaimed quest for freedom registered in his mad obsession with whiteness”
This view of Ahab as a slaveholder to all of the men on board the vessel, and symbolic of Native American genocide, transatlantic slave labor, and cultural imperialism is pretty radical. I’m not convinced that Melville intended that as the main point of the book, but he was quite troubled by the imperialism he found on the islands he visited, and unhappy enough with shipboard politics to join a mutiny.
I had a much more Romantic view of setting sail when I read Melville in high school and college. I now take a much more Realistic, old-man view of the journeys.
I discovered this past week that I could buy Melville’s complete works with analysis and historical background for the Kindle of $1.99. I still prefer books on paper to a screen, but I don’t own all of Melville’s books any more, so I made the purchase. (By the way, you don’t need a Kindle to read Kindle books. I use my iPad with the Kindle app and you can use other devices or even your computer.)
I plan to spend some winter hours reading the books I didn’t attempt or couldn’t handle in my youth. For example, Pierre; or, The Ambiguities, a novel, his seventh book, published in 1852. It is not about the sea but rather Gothic. It was his follow-up to Moby-Dick, which was not well received, and probably an attempt to go in another direction. it is described as a psychological, sexual, tale about family tensions between Pierre, his widowed mother, his cousin Lucy and his fiancée Isabel who (spoiler alert) is revealed to be his half-sister. Talk about setting sail in a new direction.
Sadly, Pierre was a critical and financial disaster. It was condemned for its morals and its style. After this, Melville the only novels he would are Israel Potter (unread by me) and the experimental novel, The Confidence-Man, which I was assigned to read in college and really enjoyed. I wonder how it would fare on a rereading.
Luckily, he did continue to write poetry and stories, including the wonderful “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and “Benito Cereno,” But the end of Melville’s life seems so sad to me.
His writing didn’t pay bills and didn’t get a good reception. In 1866, Melville’s wife and her relatives used their influence to obtain a position for him as customs inspector for the City of New York. That must have been humbling, but it was a adequately-paying appointment. He held that post for 19 years and won the reputation of being the only honest employee in a notoriously corrupt institution.
In 1867 his oldest son Malcolm shot himself, perhaps accidentally, and died at home. Melville suffered from alcoholism and depression. His wife managed to wean him off alcohol and his depression improved, but recurred after the death of his second son.
Melville devoted years to “his autumnal masterpiece” an 18,000-line epic poem (among the longest single poems in American literature) entitled “Clarel: A Poem and a Pilgrimage” which was inspired by his 1856 trip to the Holy Land. Like Melville, he travels to Jerusalem to renew his faith. One of the central characters, Rolfe, is similar to Melville in his younger days, a seeker and adventurer. Scholars also agree that the reclusive Vine is based on Hawthorne, a friend and fellow writer who had died twelve years before. It was only published because his uncle left a bequest to pay for the publication. It is about a student’s spiritual pilgrimage and was obscure in his own time and still today. The initial printing was only 350 copies, but unsold copies were burned because Melville was unable to afford to buy them at cost. The critic Lewis Mumford found a copy of the poem in the New York Public Library in 1925 “with its pages uncut”—in other words, it had sat there unread for 50 years.
I have visited the Custom House in NYC where Melville worked and seen his grave in the Bronx, NY on my own Melville pilgrimages.
Like Billy Pilgrim, I have come to believe that there is no such thing as time. What has happened and what will happen is part of an all-encompassing present. I can “time travel” (the simplest term for it) but not actually travel from one time to another. It is a matter of being aware at different points in the continuing motion of it. My awareness moves, especially to different points in my lifetime, as it is continuously happening. Quite Tralfamadorian.
So it goes.
“Methinks we have hugely mistaken this matter of Life and Death. Methinks that what they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance. Methinks that in looking at things spiritual, we are too much like oysters observing the sun through the water, and thinking that thick water the thinnest of air. Me thinks my body is but the lees of my better being. In fact take my body who will, take it I say, it is not me.” Moby-Dick; or, The Whale
“We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men; and among those fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects.”
“I try all things, I achieve what I can.” Moby-Dick; or, The Whale