The New Bedford Whaling Museum's Moby-Dick Marathon is an annual non-stop reading of Herman Melville's literary masterpiece. The multi-day program of entertaining activities and events is presented every January. Admission to the Marathon is free.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Newspapers, a century ago

...stumbled on this post about turn-of-the-century newspaper production in NYC, containing some archival photos evocative of the city that Melville left in 1891.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Today in History

Our man, Herman Melville, died on this day in 1891, just over 72 years old.

According to his wife, he died "after two years of failing health, induced partly by severe attacks of erysipelas terminating finally in enlargement of the heart." [Parker, vol. 2, p.920]  A Dr. Warner signed the death certificate stating that Herman died on the 28th at 12:30 A.M. at his home at 104 East 26th St. in New York City. His funeral was held at the family home on September 30.

His obituary appeared on September 29 in the New York Times—a single paragraph, stating that "He was the author of 'Typee,' 'Omoo,' 'Mobie Dick,' [sic] and other sea-faring tales written in earlier years." (View the original obit here; Melville's notice is about four paragraphs from the end.)

Notices in other newspapers mentioned that he had "fallen into literary decline ... if the truth were known, even his own generation has long thought him dead..."; called Typee his best book; and described him as a "formerly well-known author." [Parker]

The Times famously printed an article memorializing "Hiram Melville" or "Harry Melville" (Oct. 6, 1891), the headline obliterated from the printing plate in an effort to correct it.

Aside from such faint praise, the Springfield Republican declared that " is probable that no work of imagination more powerful and often poetic has been written by an American than Melville's 'Moby Dick; or the Whale'..."

Herman Melville was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, final resting place of such notables as Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin, and F.W. Woolworth. (Road trip, Lemuel!)

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Ishmael's Rights, Part II

In my previous post, I talked about the legal recourse that 19th-century whalemen had against mistreatment by their captains.  As it happens, the law did not require seamen (outside the Navy, at least) to suffer every sort of indignity imposed by a superior.  If a seaman felt that he had been punished unjustly, he could sue his captain or the ship once they returned to port.

We have a number of fascinating, reported decisions by U.S. courts from the early 1800s dealing with these issues.  One common theme was whether a seaman's misconduct was sufficiently egregious to justify imprisonment on board or ejection from the ship in port, such that he lost some or all of his wages.  A captain was entitled to eject a seaman if his conduct warranted it, but the captain was supposed to reinstate the seaman if he demonstrated a good-faith willingness to return and behave himself.*

Take the case of Relf v. The Maria, decided in 1805 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Pennsylvania.  (There was only one federal judicial district in Pennsylvania then, as opposed to the three it has now.) The seaman Relf claimed that his captain had (1) wrongfully discharged him from his ship, The Maria, and (2) wrongfully refused "to receive him on board again."  We aren't told exactly what Relf did, but he seems to have been bad news: "Relf showed every sign of a continued, refractory, dangerous and mutinous temper[.]"  He also evidently impeded the administering of discipline by the ship's officers, since the court observes that "[s]eamen ought to know that it does not lay [sic] with them, to interfere between the officers of a ship and any mariner they (the officers or any of them in command) choose to confine, or punish for disorderly conduct."

The court ultimately ruled against Relf, finding that his bad behavior justified his being ejected and not received back (although he still received his wages earned up to that point).  Yet along the way, the court explains that there were limits on what captains could do to their crews.  If conditions passed a certain threshold, a seaman could desert the ship and still be entitled to all his wages: 
When any charge of a criminal nature is alleged, I am, and always have been, ready to examine into it, and pursue the proper measures.  The officers of ships are amenable for improper conduct .... I have been too frequently called on to protect seamen against their oppression.... [A] seaman is justifiable in leaving a ship, if obliged to do so, by continued cruelty and oppression.  I have, under the clear and direct injunctions of the maritime laws, ... often compelled the payment of wages for the voyage, when such circumstances were in proof.  But it does not apply in this case.

*Another interesting background rule, noted in Justice Story's annotations to Abbott on Merchant Ships and Seamen (discussed in my previous post), was that if a seaman absented himself from his ship for more than 48 hours, he forfeited his entire wages "and all his goods and chattels on board the ship[.]"  This law actually serves as a plot point in Melville's Redburn

Friday, September 16, 2011

Spotted in a cemetery

Strait is the gate and narrow the way...
Spotted in Bridgetown, Nova Scotia — what I assume to be a visual reference to the "wicket gate" mentioned by Lemuel in his post of 5/30/11.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

It's official, MDM16 is Jan. 7

The Whaling Museum has made its official announcement: MDM16 will begin Jan. 7, 2012.

Get hold of a Northwestern-Newberry text and book a room for the night of Jan. 8 (so as not to imperil your health).

If you can make the 10 AM "Stump the Scholars" talk (Jan. 7), you won't be disappointed (if it's  like last year's, inaugural STS).  The Friday night buffet/lecture also will be worthwhile.

See you there.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Ishmael's Rights

One of the challenges Melville faced in writing Moby-Dick was making the reader believe that Captain Ahab had the ability to enlist the crew in his "vengeful errand."  Whalemen, as Melville shows us, were a bunch of rowdy roughnecks.  They could be suddenly violent -- as in the fight between Daggoo and the "Spanish sailor" in Chapter XL -- and they could be needlessly cruel -- as when Flask wants to "prick" a giant abscess in the dying whale in Chapter LXXXI. 

Yet Ahab managed to persuade them to join enthusiastically in his profitless hunt for the white whale and to keep at it for months. 

Modern readers, I think, tend to underappreciate Melville's artistry in this regard, because we project onto nineteenth-century whaleships the discipline we're familiar with from stories about the navy.  Books and movies such as The Caine Mutiny and Mutiny on the Bounty (not to mention Melville's own Billy Budd) have accustomed us to the navy's iron rules against resisting officers.  We just assume that the same rules governed merchantmen and whalers.  And thus Ahab's feat of leadership seems not so wonderful to us.

Captains in the merchant service and the fishery, however, were not entitled to the same kind of unquestioning obedience that naval commanders could expect.  A seaman aboard a merchant ship or whaler was not bound to take whatever the captain dished out, on pain of flogging and ultimately death.  On the contrary, seamen could lawfully resist unreasonable acts by their superiors, and they could, and sometimes did, successfully sue violent or crazed captains for damages.

I have beside me a copy of the "third American edition" of Charles Abbott's Treatise on the Law Relative to Merchant Ships and Seamen, published in 1822, "with the copious annotations of Joseph Story, One of the Judges of the Supreme Court of the United States."  Abbott's Chapter Four, "Of the Behaviour of the Master and Mariners," is particularly instructive as regards Moby-Dick.  As Justice Story explains in his copious annotations, for any substantial ship involved in the merchant service, the coasting trade, or the fisheries, U.S. law required that "a contract for service ... be made in writing or in print by the master with the mariners."  We see Ishmael and Queequeg sign such an agreement in Chapters XVI and XVIII.

More importantly for present purposes, Mr. Abbott informs us that "the master [i.e., captain] has authority over all the mariners on board the ship, and it is their duty to obey his commands in all lawful matters relating to the navigation of the ship, and the preservation of good order.... In case of disobedience or disorderly conduct, he may lawfully correct them in a reasonable manner; his authority in this respect being analogous to that of a parent over his child, or of a master over his apprentice or scholar." 

"But," lawyer Abbott goes on to warn his readers, "it behoves the master to be very careful in the exercise of it [his authority], and not to make his parental power a pretext for cruelty and oppression."  In administering discipline, the captain is advised to consult with "the persons next below him in authority, as well to prevent the operation of passion in his own breast, as to secure witnesses to the propriety of his conduct." 

The law as outlined by Mr. Abbott had more than mere moral suasion behind it.  A captain's use of unlawful force could subject him to liability:  "For the master, on his return to this country may be called upon by action at law, to answer to a mariner, who has been beaten or imprisoned by him, or by his order, in the course of a voyage; and for the justification of his conduct, he should be able to shew not only that there was a sufficient cause for chastisement, but also that the chastisement itself was reasonable and moderate, otherwise the mariner may recover damages proportionate to the injury received."

Now, in referring to the master's "return to this country," Mr. Abbott was referring to England, he being a barrister at law and a member of the Inner Temple.  But Justice Story's learned annotations show us that the same law obtained in the United States, and was exemplified by cases decided in the U.S. courts, as I shall show in my next post.