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.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Beckett's 112th

Samuel Beckett, born on this day in 1906.

Ahab in Ch. 135; The Chase.—Third Day
Thinking is, or ought to be, a coolness and a calmness; and our poor hearts throb, and our poor brains beat too much for that. And yet, I've sometimes thought my brain was very calm—frozen calm, this old skull cracks so, like a glass in which the contents turned to ice, and shiver it. And still this hair is growing now; this moment growing, and heat must breed it; but no, it's like that sort of common grass that will grow anywhere, between the earthy clefts of Greenland ice or in Vesuvius lava.

It’s for the whole there seems to be no spell. Perhaps there is no whole, before you’re dead. [...] I hear from here the howl resolving all, even if it is not mine. Meanwhile there’s no use knowing you are gone, you are not, you are writhing yet, the hair is growing, the nails are growing, the entrails emptying, all the morticians are dead.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018


Noted on Hershel Parker's blog: The French Ministry of Education has added The Confidence-Man to the agrégation examination for English; specifically the Norton Critical Edition, 2nd edition, Hershel Parker and Mark Niemeyer, eds.

This Wikipedia entry explains the agrégation (I think).

Read these three posts for what this might mean to the world of Melville studies. Years ago, I read somewhere that the reason we study Prufrock is that it's what our profs were required to study. Could it be that in five years, The Confidence-Man will be more familiar to French readers than to (North) American readers?

H.M. on the Crew List

Here's an example of one source of information for the Whaling History database mentioned in previous posts (here and here): crew lists.

On February 28, 1803, Congress passed "An Act supplementary to the 'act concerning Consuls and Vice-Consuls, and for the further protection of American Seamen.'" This stipulated that any vessel bound on a foreign voyage must deliver a crew list "to the collector of the customs." (Read the text of the Act for a glimpse into the complexities of maritime law!)

The original crew list for Melville's voyage on the Acushnet, as filed in New Bedford by Captain Valentine Pearse on Dec. 31, 1840, is in the National Archives in Boston.

A photo of that document is online; click the image to see it full-size. Our man is sixth from the bottom, with his data:
Place of Birth
New York

Place of Residence

Of What Country Citizen
United States


5 feet, 7 1/2 inches



New Bedford Customs House
Side note: Here's an entertaining letter sent to President Thomas Jefferson a few months after this law was enacted. Calvin Chaddock complains that the customs collector of New Bedford, Edward Pope, is a "Sworn enemy to the present administration of the federal Government" because he claimed that crew lists (a.k.a. rôles d'équipage) were "totally unnecessary" ("besides a number of other pieces of misconduct..."). Also, since Chaddock is "on good terms as Neighbours, tho opposite in politics" with Pope, please "make use of my name no farther than necessary."
Plus ça change.

Marathoners will recognize the Customs House, across William Street from Freestone's.

Hat-tip to Slate.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Searchable 'Whaling History,' part 2

Following up on the last post. More fun with data...

While you're looking at Melville's details in the Crew List (Rank: Greenhand; Lay: 1-175), make a note of the VesselID, AS0819, which unambiguously identifies his ship. (There is second vessel Acushnet in the database.)

Now return to American Whaling Voyages > Voyages. (Wait for it to load.) Enter VesselID: AS0819.

You'll see the voyages of "Melville's" Acushnet, listed chronologically. Click each line to display the details of each voyage. Melville was on its maiden voyage, under Valentine Pease. It was rigged as a ship, and had a tonnage of 359. (Was that gross or net tonnage?)

Striking (pun intended) is the note: Vessel End  Stove by a whale, 1847; lost Aug 16, 1851.

Captain Pease's voyage ended "1845 May." Clicking the second voyage in the list we see the Acushnet sailing from Fairhaven about two months later, on "1845 Jul-16," under William B. Rogers. Rogers returned in "1848 Jun" with a notably smaller haul of sperm oil, whale oil, and whalebone. Captain Rogers' birthdate is listed, so we know that he was nearly 31 years old when he set out on this voyage. It was during this voyage that the Acushnet was "stove by a whale," but it must have been repaired because the voyage end was "1848 Jun."

The third and final voyage of this Acushnet began, again after about two months in port, on "1848 Aug-30," with Destination "N Pacific." It was "lost Aug 16, 1851." Note the Master ID, AM0569, of its captain at the time, "Bradley, Thomas C." Return to Voyages and enter that code for Master ID—this is Bradley's only whaling voyage in the database. Loading the Crew List, we find twenty-six men (Bradley is listed twice), captain included, aged 17 to 35 years. Their Rank and Lay are not given, except for Bradley who is listed with Rank "Master."

Searching the full crew lists data for some of the less common names on this voyage (Schimerhorn; Hutchinson, Henry; Donley, Frank; Durice; Duren), shows the Acushnet as their only whaling voyage. Did the Acushnet meet a sudden, tragic end?

Well, no. According to Alaska Shipwrecks: 1750 - 2010, the Acushnet "went ashore in a fog and sank in 10 fathoms [60 feet] of water at Saint Lawrence Island." Less than 20% of her cargo of 1300 barrels of whale oil was salvaged. One assumes that if 250 barrels of oil were saved, at least some of the crew made it to safety as well. Still, we can look at St. Lawrence Island and count our blessings.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Searchable 'Whaling History' !

The Whaling Museum's eNews e-mail (March 19, 2018) contained a significant announcement:

World's Most Comprehensive Whaling History Database Released

The New Bedford Whaling Museum and Mystic Seaport joined forces create the public website

You can read the Press Release for the story behind the database. Basically, it makes searchable info from "logbooks, journals, ship registers, newspapers, business papers, and custom house records" of "American" whaling voyages from the 1700's to the 1920's.

Dive in! Of course, we immediately go to American Whaling Voyages > Crew Lists, and enter Last name: Melville.

There's our man on the Acushnet, registered with the New Bedford Customs house, departing January 3, 1841. Click that line and his info appears below (Rank: Greenhand; Lay: 1-175).

Click the VoyageID and you'll get all the data (it could take a minute to load). The Acushnet returned in May, 1845 with 850 barrels of sperm oil, 1350 barrels of whale oil, and 13500 pounds of whalebone.

Click the link for Logbook data to view a map of this voyage.

Apparently the logbook for this voyage is incomplete. Click View logbook data to see the info behind the map. There is an entry for June 23, 1842, when the Acushnet reached the Marquesas Islands (dates from Hershel Parker, Herman Melville, A Biography, vol. 1). The next entry is July 11, two days after Melville and his friend Toby slipped away from their mates.

On August 9, Melville shipped on the Lucy Ann, a whaleship out of Australia, thus not in this database.

The next water-leg of Melville's adventure was on the Charles and Henry, out of Nantucket in December, 1840. This voyage is in the database (wait for it to load), but with no logbook data, so no map. Melville was discharged on May 2, 1843 on the island of Maui. On August 17, in Honolulu harbor, he boarded the USS United States (definitely not a whaler; not in the database).

Finally, on October 3, 1844, the United States returned to Charlestown Navy Yard, although Melville was not discharged until October 14.

This is just one brief "trip" through this database, and does not even touch on the other resources available on the site. You can even download the data to slice/dice/extend on your computer, and contribute your results to the site. Look under Projects for examples.

Friday, March 23, 2018

The Industrial Backdrop to Moby-Dick

The try pots on the Charles W. Morgan

[B]lubber is blubber you know; tho' you may get oil out of it, the poetry runs as hard as sap from a frozen maple tree[.] -- Melville to Richard H. Dana Jr., May 1, 1850

Who would have looked for philosophy in whales, or for poetry in blubber? -- review of The Whale in John Bull (London), October 25, 1851 (quoted in 2 Hershel Parker, Herman Melville: A Biography, 134 [2002])

*  *  *

To appreciate what Melville was doing in Moby-Dick, and to understand how the book might have struck most readers when it first appeared, it's important, I think, to keep in mind that Melville was writing about a then-thriving industry.  The age of sail, of course, was still very much alive, just as the "age of air travel" is today.  To the extent that whaling, before Moby-Dick, had anything of a romantic aura, it revolved mostly around the exotic locales that whalers visited, not the work that whalemen actually did. 

The work of whalemen was bloody, dirty, smelly, and in many ways repulsive, and whalemen themselves were generally coarse and uneducated.  In addition to being sailors and whale killers, they were butchers and processors of animal products.  The forecastle, where most of the men lived at sea, was dark, cramped, often ill-ventilated and malodorous, and bug-infested.  (In the whaling memoir Nimrod of the Sea [1874], pg. 284, William M. Davis recalls how, after a meal, "each fellow slips his plate into the netting over his berth, and the cockroaches see to it that his crockery is clean for next meal.")

I've often wondered what industry of today is viewed by modern readers in much the same way that 1850s book-buyers might have viewed whaling.  What work is ongoing, dangerous, and physical -- even in its most up-to-date form -- and, while not really new, still somewhat unfamiliar and intriguing to moderns?

I think a good candidate is offshore oil drilling in the North Sea.

Consider:  Oil drilling has been practiced for about 150 years.  In 1850, offshore whaling had been practiced for about 180 years (since the early eighteenth century).  Deep-sea oil drilling began in the mid-twentieth century, about 70 years ago.  Whaling in the south Pacific began in 1791, about 60 years before Moby-Dick.  And both jobs are hard and dangerous -- a good idea of the dangers involved in North Sea oil drilling can be obtained by watching the episode in the National Geographic series "Seconds from Disaster" on the 1988 Piper Alpha disaster, which took 167 lives.

Imagine the genius required to write not just a good novel, but a masterpiece for the ages, about oil men working on a drilling platform in the North Sea.

(The points about the history of whaling are based on Chapter 2 of In Pursuit of Leviathan [1997].)

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Melville and the Iron Duke

Wellington (detail), painted soon after Waterloo

The Duke of Wellington, who led the allied forces to victory over Napoleon at the battle of Waterloo, famously declared to his troops at the decisive moment, "Up, Guards, and at 'em!"  While historians have long doubted he actually said that (Wellington himself couldn't remember what he may have said), the command attributed to him seems to have been as familiar to nineteenth-century English speakers as "a date which will live in infamy" is to us today. 

A quick search on Google Books has turned up a pre-Moby-Dick reference to the saying in a New York periodical:  The June 1846 issue of The Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature, Science, and Art reprinted from Punch a humorous exchange of letters in which one Adolphus Carns tried to have the Duke settle a bet over whether he had said, "Up, Guards, and at 'em," or "Guards, up, and at 'em!"   Wellington declined to decide the dispute.

What does all this have to do with Melville?  Scholars have shown how Melville's writing in Moby-Dick echoes Shakespeare frequently and, less often, other authors he was reading at the time.  And something that sounds a lot like an echo of Wellington comes from the mouth of the Tahitian Sailor in "Midnight, Forecastle" (Ch. 40): "The blast! the blast! Up, spine, and meet it!"

Incidentally, in what might be called the battle-of-Waterloo section of Part I of Finnegans Wake, Joyce plays with the command attributed to Wellington (amid references to the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and who knows what else):  "This is the seeboy, madrashattaras, upjump and pumpim, cry to the Willingdone."