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.

Molloy
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

L'Homme-Confiance?

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
Fairhaven

Of What Country Citizen
United States

Aged
21

Height
5 feet, 7 1/2 inches

Complexion
Dark

Hair
Brown


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 whalinghistory.org.

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."

Saturday, March 10, 2018

The Amazing Internet



In 1935, George Bernard Shaw remarked that thanks to the radio, he could hear more good music in a week than he could have heard "in ten years, if at all," back in the 1880s when he was writing music criticism in London.  Shaw's startling demonstration of the cultural impact of technology often recurs when I think about everything the Internet makes available today.

As recently as twenty years ago, you would have had to turn to the best university libraries if you wanted to consult the enormous mass of printed material you can now read, wherever you are (just about), with a few keyboard taps.  Earlier this week, while rereading the selection in the Norton Critical Edition 2nd from a 1992 paper by Geoffrey Sanborn, I wanted to take a look at the 1823 review essay by Sir Francis Palgrave, "Superstition and Knowledge," that Sanborn shows was one of the minor tributaries feeding into Melville's mind as he toiled over Moby-Dick.  After two or three minutes of searching, I found the very thing, starting at page 245 of this collection of Palgrave's writings.  Not only was it fast; I could save it as a searchable PDF for future reference.  And no scrounging for coins to feed into a smelly library copying machine.

I well remember how excited I was, in the early 1990s, to learn that the nearest state university library had a full set of Robert Southey's The Doctor, which is often mentioned as a possible inspiration (in form) for Moby-Dick.  But now Southey's work is at my fingertips, at any time and from time to time.

And just take a look at this, courtesy of Harvard and Mr. Google.  O brave new world, that has such resources in 't!

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Ahab, the Old Man

Herman Melville, around age 66

"God, God is against thee, old man; forbear!"

A persistent criticism of director John Huston's 1956 Moby Dick is that Gregory Peck was too young to play Captain Ahab.  Born in 1916, Peck was about 40 when the film was released -- more than ten years younger than Leo Genn, the actor who played Starbuck.  As some pointed out, it would have made more sense if Peck and Genn had switched roles.  Genn, however, while an accomplished British film actor with a splendid voice, had no star power.

A few remarks by Ahab in Chapter 132 ("The Symphony") enable the reader to pinpoint his age at the end of the novel's action as 58.  Ahab there tells Starbuck that he struck his first whale 40 years earlier, as "a boy-harpooneer of eighteen!"  But Ahab's all-around agedness is noted throughout the novel.  He is, among other things, a "scornful old man," "the queerest old man," a "monomaniac old man," an "ungodly old man," an "insane old man," a "wondrous old man," a "frantic old man," a "crazed old man."

(Others aboard the Pequod described as "old men" are the blacksmith, the cook, and most intriguingly, Fedallah (in Ch. 48).)

To Melville, who (mirabile dictu) was in his very early 30s while writing Moby-Dick, 58 must have seemed quite old.  To me, who hit 58 recently, it doesn't seem old at all.  Granted, I'm a landsman, "pent up in lath and plaster," not running around a ship on a peg leg and throwing lances at sperm whales.  Moreover, 58 was indeed old for a whaling captain.  The authors of In Pursuit of Leviathan gathered age data for 275 whaling voyages out of New Bedford between 1842 and 1858.  The oldest recorded man on any of those voyages was 62, and only 12 men were over 50.  (See the tables on pp. 94-96.)  As the authors point out (p. 90), "on 50 percent of the voyages for which we have [New Bedford] Port Society lists, the oldest man aboard was thirty-five or younger."  (Emphasis added.)

The significance of Ahab's being an old man has been much discussed.  From a purely practical standpoint, it helps make more believable that Ahab could bend the entire crew to his will, notwithstanding repeated bad omens and his occasionally dotty behavior.  The reader has to be willing to accept that even the intrepid whale-hunter Starbuck could not withstand the "spiritual terrors" that menaced him "from the concentrating brow" of the "enraged and mighty man."  (Ch. 26.)

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Moby-Dick: The World's First Imperial-Gothic Novel?


Illustration from H. Rider Haggard's The Ivory Child (1916).

Today it's no great revelation that Melville uses a number of typically Gothic elements in Moby-Dick.  There's even a Yahoo! Answers answer on the subject.  Back in 1949, Newton Arvin -- a far greater authority than any of us anonymous Internet wayfarers -- wrote a highly readable article on Melville's Gothic touches, "Melville and the Gothic Novel" (New England Quarterly, vol. 22, no. 1, 33-48 [available at JSTOR with free registration]). As Arvin observed, Melville's imagination was "profoundly Romantic, in one of the largest senses of the word, ... and to say so is to say, especially for an English or American writer, that the Gothic or Radcliffean was almost certain to be a minor ingredient in its complex totality."

Consider, for instance, the (usually female) protagonist who slowly begins to realize, with ever increasing dread, that she has become caught in the power of a man both tyrannical and malevolent.  For post-Moby-Dick examples, think of Laura Fairlie in The Woman in White (1859) or Maud Ruthyn in Uncle Silas (1864) or Jonathan Harker in the first four chapters of Dracula (1897).  In Moby-Dick, Ishmael's misgivings about the voyage and about Captain Ahab in particular slowly accumulate as he considers the "wicked king" who bore Ahab's name, the dark hints from Elijah, and other red flags.  By the time Ishmael's fears are confirmed in "The Quarter-Deck" (Ch. 36), he has effectively no escape from Ahab's grasp.

(Critics have noted the overall passivity of Jonathan Harker -- a male narrator filling the Gothic role of the young maidenly heroine around whom older, stronger figures are spinning their webs.  In one of Dracula's most memorable scenes, Harker lies supine at the mercy of three predatory females, fearing and desiring their kisses/bites.  Interestingly, the passivity of the mild-mannered Ishmael, another male narrator in the role of the Gothic heroine, becomes explicit in his relations with Queequeg. Awaking in bed with the thoroughly masculine Queequeg's arm around him, Ishmael acquiesces in the embrace, and later he figuratively becomes Queequeg's wife.  And in both narrators, their passivity is abetted by the vulnerability of their positions as employees -- Harker the young solicitor who wants to please a rich client, Ishmael the lowly greenhand put upon by mates and captain.)

While Moby-Dick carried forward much of the Gothic machinery developed in the previous century by Ann Radcliffe and others, it also paved the way for what is sometimes termed Imperial Gothic.  Imperial Gothic is a sub-genre that flourished around the end of the nineteenth century.  It is best exemplified by the lost-world fantasy-adventures of Conan Doyle and H. Rider Haggard, in which intrepid explorers venture beyond the farthest reaches of the English Empire, into such as-yet-unexplored regions as central Africa, and there confront "the Other" in the form of prehistoric peoples, dinosaurs, giant crabs, witches, and supernaturally vicious elephants and apes.

A modern example of the Imperial Gothic form that will be more familiar than Conan Doyle's and Rider Haggard's ripping late-Victorian yarns is the 1933 film King Kong.  Following the standard structure, the film uses the trip to a distant, uncharted location to instill in the audience Gothic terror -- i.e., the fear of the unknown, of an evil that is sensed but cannot (yet) be fully articulated.  From the start, we are given hints that the protagonists are on their way toward something horrifying: movie director Carl Denham, famous for wildlife films made at great personal risk, is outfitting for his greatest undertaking yet; he's been having trouble finding any actress willing to appear in the film; the ship he's chartered is loaded with enough explosives and ammunition to blow up New York harbor; the island he's headed for is not shown on any map, its only inhabited portion cut off from the rest by a gigantic wall built centuries ago by a people far more civilized than the current natives -- evidently to "keep something out."

Melville did much the same thing 80 years earlier.  The United States at the time did not have an empire strictly speaking, but whalemen were the pioneers of its commercial empire in the Pacific, as Ishmael explains in "The Advocate" (Ch. 24).  The Pequod travels to the farthest ocean wastes to encounter Moby-Dick, the unnatural, the monster, the Gothic horror.  Like the scriptwriters for King Kong, Melville builds up in his audience a fear of the approaching unknown.  The monstrous painting in the entry of the Spouter-Inn, the cenotaphs in the Seamen's Bethel, the backstory of Ahab's disfigurement and ensuing delirium, the spirit-spout, all the sidebars about the great size and strength of the sperm whale and the dangers involved in hunting it -- these are just a handful of ways in which Melville creates dread in the reader as the Pequod sails farther from the safe world of civilized America and closer to the deadly clash with Moby-Dick.



Saturday, February 10, 2018

Norton Critical Editions of Moby-Dick x3

Norton Critical 1st, 2nd, and 3rd -- Collect 'em all.

I just got the "Third Norton Critical Edition" of Moby-Dick (NCE3).  I had to order it through a third-party seller on Amazon, and it shipped from Europe.  At the moment, it doesn't appear to be available at all on Amazon, whether from Mr. Bezos himself or a third-party seller.  Oddly, even the publisher's website shows only the second edition right now.  A number of sellers at ABE Books (which has become an affiliate of Amazon) are offering it, however. 

First, let me say how surprised, pleased, and honored I am to see Gansevoort's (mainly) and my humble efforts mentioned on page 687, in Mary K. Bercaw Edwards and Wyn Kelley's essay (written specially for NCE3), "Melville and the Spoken Word."  The essay digs deep below the surface of the Moby-Dick Marathon phenomenon, which is more extensive than even I had realized.  Of all the books that could have inspired so mighty a sound, why Moby-Dick?

Second, I am surprised and pleased to see that, while NCE3 does not have an apparatus as extensive as that of NCE1, the editor, Hershel "Mr. Melville" Parker, has provided a convenient list of emendations, something that was entirely absent from NCE2.  (This is the first Norton Critical Moby-Dick not to be co-edited by Harrison Hayford, who died in 2001, shortly before NCE2 came out.)

Between NCE1 and NCE2, the explanatory footnotes to the text itself were greatly and usefully expanded.  As far as I could tell from a quick spot-check, the footnotes in NCE3 have not changed from those in NCE2 (although a few have been split into multiple notes).  That's all to the good, as far as I'm concerned -- the quantity of footnotes in NCE2 was just right.

This is a new edition because the assortment of goodies at the end of the volume has been switched up, just as with NCE2.   Among the newcomers are Prof. Parker's "Glimpses of Melville as Performer" and six essays under the heading "Moby-Dick in the Twenty-First Century" (where Mary K. Bercaw Edwards and Wyn Kelley's entry appears). 

But this is only a glimpse of how NCE3's critical caboose differs from that of NCE2.  Though my opinion is not entirely disinterested, all three editions are well worth having.

Norton Critical Editions Moby Dick




Thursday, February 8, 2018

Sunday: Frederick Douglass Community Read-A-Thon

The 18th Annual Frederick Douglass Community Read-A-Thon is Sunday, Feb. 11.


This is a great event—a marathon-style reading of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. It is particularly significant this year, the 200th anniversary of the birth of Douglass.

Simply put: you will not regret attending. Check our reports from the 2014 and 2012 Read-A-Thons.

For details, see the New Bedford Historical Society site.


Sunday, February 4, 2018

The Whaleman's Lay



Who ain't a slave?  Tell me that.

When Ishmael describes (in Chapter XVI) how he came to choose the Pequod for his and Queequeg's voyage, he explains that whalemen were customarily compensated by means of an oddly denominated profit-sharing scheme:
I was already aware that in the whaling business they paid no wages; but all hands, including the captain, received certain shares of the profits called lays, and that these lays were proportioned to the degree of importance pertaining to the respective duties of the ship’s company. I was also aware that being a green hand at whaling, my own lay would not be very large; but considering that I was used to the sea, could steer a ship, splice a rope, and all that, I made no doubt that from all I had heard I should be offered at least the 275th lay—that is, the 275th part of the clear net proceeds of the voyage, whatever that might eventually amount to. And though the 275th lay was what they call a rather long lay, yet it was better than nothing; and if we had a lucky voyage, might pretty nearly pay for the clothing I would wear out on it, not to speak of my three years’ beef and board, for which I would not have to pay one stiver.
Ishmael doesn't tell us a whole lot more about how lays worked; there was no need to for purposes of the story.  But fortunately for the curious, the system is very well explicated in a scholarly, highly detailed study of the nineteenth-century whaling industry, In Pursuit of Leviathan, by Lance E. Davis, Robert E. Gallman, and Karin Gleiter, published in 1997 by the University of Chicago as part of the National Bureau of Economic Research Series on Long-Term Factors in Economic Development.

First, to clear up one misconception, the lays were not sequentially numbered from the largest share to the smallest.  In other words, the system didn't involve person A getting a 10th, B getting an 11th, C getting a 12th, and so on, until every last investor and sailor was accounted for.  For one thing, such a system would never work mathematically -- you would exceed 100% by the time you got to the 26th share.

Instead, the numbers of the lays jumped.  For example, in the November 1843 voyage of the Abigail of New Bedford, the "shortest" lay (i.e., the largest share in compensation) was, unsurprisingly, the captain's, at 16 -- meaning one sixteenth (or 0.0625) of the profits, assuming there were any.   The first mate's lay was 29, the second mate's 50, the third mate's 72.  The cooper -- typically, one of the most important artisans on a whale ship -- got the 55th lay.  Each of the harpooneers (a/k/a "boatsteerers") got the 95th lay.  All the remaining lays were well above 100.  Added up, the lays totaled about three tenths, which left about seven tenths for the "owners," who could probably be more accurately referred to as partners.

According to In Pursuit, a 70-30 split of the profits between the owners/partners, on one hand, and the captain and crew, on the other, was typical.  In addition, looking at data from over a thousand whaling voyages out of New Bedford, the authors of In Pursuit found that the distribution of lays followed a pattern: captains tended to get lays in the mid-teens, first mates in the 20s, second mates in the 30s or 40s, third mates in the 50s or 60s, etc.  

One thing the data make clear is that Melville is having a bit of fun in Ishmael's long-lay episode.  Ishmael says that he hoped to get 275.  Captain Bildad offered him 777, and Captain Peleg, after remonstrating with Bildad, then settled on 300.  As he does so often in Moby-Dick, Melville is here exaggerating Ishmael's socio-economic insignificance.  Even Ishmael's aspirational lay of 275 was absurdly long -- no one in the In Pursuit data had a longer lay than 202,with unskilled seamen (or "greenhands") usually in the 175-190 range.  

How much a whaleman's lay actually turned out to be worth depended, of course, on how successful the voyage was.  The incentives built into the lay system were meant to encourage the men to work their hardest to fill the hold with oil.  If the voyage was truly disastrous (spoiler alert: like the Pequod's), the whalemen never returned at all.  An "average" voyage in the 1830s apparently brought back oil and baleen worth about $21,000 (in 1830s dollars) (see page 120 of In Pursuit).  After subtracting about $6,000 for expenses, you were left with about $15,000 to be divided among the owners/partners and crew.  Let's say that, realistically, someone in Ishmael's shoes would have had the 175th lay, which is what Melville in fact was assigned when he sailed aboard the Acushnet.  One 175th of $15,000 is $85.71.  If we plug that into the invaluable Purchasing Power calculator at Measuring Worth, we get $2,280 in today's dollars based on changes in the consumer price index.  If the voyage lasted exactly three years, that works out to $63 per month, plus "three years’ beef and board," for which Ishmael "would not have to pay one stiver."

Ishmael spoke the truth when he observed that "this was a poor way to accumulate a princely fortune ... a very poor way indeed."  But, he goes on with philosophic equanimity, he is "quite content if the world is ready to board and lodge [him], while [he is] putting up at this grim sign of the Thunder Cloud.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Moby-Dick Written in the Style of White-Jacket

White-Jacket; or, The World in a Man-of War is, needless to say, Melville's fifth book and the one that immediately preceded Moby-Dick.  Some critic somewhere (Newton Arvin perhaps?) characterized White-Jacket as not fiction, but journalism.  Whoever said that, it's a fair characterization -- the book is, at least on its surface, a straightforward account of Melville's experiences serving on the USS United States in 1843-44, lightly dramatized and padded out with stories he'd picked up from other sailors and with some editorializing about the U.S. Navy (including his celebrated condemnation of flogging).

Only a year after White-Jacket's appearance (in 1850), Melville gave the world Moby-Dick.  I'm sure no one interested in the New Bedford MDM has to be told that the two books are as different as night and day. Or maybe distant thunder vs. lightning just outside your window would be a truer contrast.

It is widely believed, I think, that Moby-Dick started out as another White-Jacket, this time set on a whaler and with a bit more excitement to improve sales.  But along the way -- as happened with Mardi (1849) and Pierre (1852) -- something in Melville took over, and the work was transformed.

Yet what if Melville had been able to stick to the White-Jacket formula?  What would a "journalistic" Moby-Dick be like?  You can get a rough idea by reading Nimrod of the Sea; or, The American Whaleman.  Published in 1874 and now readily available on the Internet, Nimrod is a memoir by William M. Davis (1815-91) of his voyage on the whaler Chelsea in 1834-38.   It is based on a journal Davis kept intermittently during the voyage, but (as he explains) he fleshes that out with "the experiences and adventures of others, such as I have been enabled to pick up in the form of yarns on board the Chelsea," incorporating "the experiences of a quarter of a century."


Nimrod describes countless details of the work that whale hunting and processing involved (many of which will be familiar to Moby-Dick fans) and aspects of the whaleman's life in the Pacific that Moby-Dick doesn't touch (such as stopping at the Galapagos Islands for tortoises that would later be killed for fresh meat at sea, and dealing with the "land sharks" who inhabited barely civilized ports on the west coast of South America).  And Davis recounts the conclusion of the hunt, the demolition of the try-works (when its bricks were joyously thrown overboard), and the return home -- topics that Moby-Dick doesn't get into, for obvious reasons.

While Davis doesn't mention Moby-Dick or Melville anywhere in his memoir, he has a few passages so reminiscent of the earlier work that it's hard to imagine he hadn't read it.  One example is the semi-erotic "spermaceti bath," when Davis and his mates use their bodies to process the material from the "case" in the sperm whale's head:
With our hands blistered yesterday by the oar, and all on fire to-day by the harsh friction of the handspike, it was luxurious to wade deep in the try-pots filled with this odorous unguent, in order to squeeze and strain out the fibres, which, if allowed to remain, would char with the heat, and darken the oil. No king of earth, even Solomon in all his glory, could command such a bath. I almost fell in love with the touch of my own poor legs, as I stroked the precious ointment from the skin.
Another example is the cautious, halting way in which the mates go to dine with the captain:
The steward comes up the companion-way, and touching his greasy Scotch cap, announces, "Captain B----, dinner is on." "All right;" and the captain takes a turn by the binnacle, if we are running a course, and peeps at the compass. Then in the companion-way, on his way down he stops, takes a long look at the sails, and, as it were, a last farewell of the light of heaven. "Mr. F----, dinner is on." "Ay, ay, sir," says the mate, as he strolls to weather-deck. Now Mr. F---- takes a shorter peep at the compass, and, pausing in the companion, he, too, takes his upward survey. The two other mates go through precisely the same performance, only according to their respective ranks they take yet shorter peeps at the compass and glance heavenward. They then arrive simultaneously at the table, to find the captain and Mr. F---- leisurely in their second plateful. Now, the misery of the arrangement is in this: the officers must come up in reversed order -- third, second, first mate, and lastly the captain. A third mate has thus only about seven and a half moments to dispose of his grub. The old man last of all appears on deck, picking his satisfied teeth in the most tantalizing manner, and the four boat-steerers next make a dash for the table, and make clean sweep of the remnants.
Don't those descriptions sound familiar! 

Unlike Moby-Dick, Nimrod doesn't involve a white whale or a stove ship (although Davis does provide a yarn about the sinking of the Nantucket whaler Union after being rammed by a whale).  Also unlike Moby-Dick, Nimrod does include illustrations -- quite a few, and quite detailed.  If some of them look familiar, it's probably because you've seen them in the commentary at the end of the Norton Critical Edition of Moby-Dick (with appropriate credit, of course).

(For the details on William Davis, thanks to Honore Forster's annotated bibliography on 19th-century whaling in the Pacific, The South Sea Whaler, published in 1985 by the Kendall Whaling Museum, Sharon, Mass., and Edward J. Lefkowicz, Inc., Fairhaven, Mass.)

Friday, January 19, 2018

A Very Early Posthumous Assessment of Melville

William Gilmore Simms

Every Melville fan has a basic idea of the arc of his career and the critical reception of his work. It goes something like this: Melville achieved early fame with his first book, Typee (1846), after which he entered upon a slow, steady, life-long decline into obscurity. By the time of his death, he was barely a footnote even in the minds of professional critics. His greatest work, Moby-Dick, was little appreciated when it was published and for some 70 years thereafter. But then, in the late 1910s, Moby-Dick was rediscovered and finally began to be recognized as the masterwork it is. The low point of Melville's literary standing can easily be exaggerated, however. This struck me recently when I was reading an old biography of the South Carolina novelist, poet, playwright, controversialist, and mad Secessionist William Gilmore Simms (1806-1870). The biography, by William P. Trent (an English professor at Columbia), was published by Houghton, Mifflin in 1892 -- the year after Melville's death. In a work of that vintage, I never expected to come across a reference to Melville. But there it was, in Trent's closing evaluation of Simms's output. Trent asks (at pg. 329) whether Edgar Allan Poe was right "when he ranked Simms above the herd of American romancers, just after [James Fenimore] Cooper and [Charles] Brockden Brown." In Trent's opinion, Poe was right:
With regard to romancers like Dr. [Robert Montgomery] Bird, [John Pendleton] Kennedy, and [James K.] Paulding, to say nothing of writers like Miss [Catherine] Sedgwick or Dr. [William Starbuck] Mayo or Melville, Poe would appear to have stated Simms's position correctly. Both with regard to quantity as well as quality of work [Simms] is their superior. His style at its best is not inferior to theirs, and with none of them is it safe to make much question of style. He was more frequently slipshod than they, but that is all that can be said in their favor. In imaginative vigor, in power of description, in the faculty of giving movement to his stories, he leaves them behind. He strikes one as being a born writer, a professional; their works read like those of amateurs.
When I first read this passage, I thought Trent couldn't possibly mean our Melville. Who spared a thought for Melville in 1892? But the book's index confirms that, yes, he means Herman Melville. And I'll take Melville's amateurism over Simms's professionalism any day.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

MDM on NPR

Tonight's All Things Considered on Boston-area station WGBH had a short piece about the New Bedford MDM (length: 3:24). Wyn Kelley and Robert Wallace, from the annual Stump the Scholars, are quoted.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Virtual Stump the Scholars


Lucretius?


A couple of years ago, I came up with what I thought would be a great question for the annual Stump the Scholars session at the MDM. Because that question never was used (and probably is too long to ever be used), I'll post it here for anyone who might care to take a shot at it:

This question relates to an image employed by Melville to capture the appearance of sunlight.

In their critical edition of On the Nature of Things (De Rerum Natura) by the Roman poet Lucretius, the classical scholars William Ellery Leonard (who was himself a poet) and Stanley Barney Smith compared an image used by Lucretius to similar images in a poem by Rudyard Kipling, a poem by A. E. Housman, and Moby-Dick. I will provide below a translation of what Lucretius wrote and then the comparable lines from Kipling and Housman, and my question will be, What metaphor did Melville use in Moby-Dick to describe something similar?

First, this is Lucretius:

Neither the spokes of the sun nor the shining spears of day
can dispel the fearful shadows from our soul,
but only the face and law of Nature.

The image that Leonard and Smith focused on is "the shining spears of day." They compared it to these lines by Kipling:

Far to Southward they wheel and glance,
The million molten spears of morn

And they also compared it to these lines by Housman:

And where the light in lances
Across the mead was laid

The question is: What metaphor did Melville use that is comparable to "the shining spears of day," "the million molten spears of morn," and "the light in lances"? Extra credit if you know what chapter it's in.

One hint: It's not "harpoons." That would be way too easy. But it is an edged weapon.

Another hint: He uses the same metaphor once to describe the spouts of a herd of sperm whales.


Friday, January 12, 2018

MDM22 "post-mortemising"

It's the most fun I've ever had without laughing.
                                                        - Alvy Singer
This year's MDM felt self-possessed—calm and assured, like a virtuoso taking the stage after twenty-one rehearsals. It was great to be back, to take refuge from the tempestuous political/cultural world "outside."
Message to He Shan-Jun, owner of Japanese ship Dan He Wan,
translates roughly to Have Compassion for All Mankind.
Plaque, ca. 1880. NBWM, 00.169.26
Credit for the apparent effortlessness of the proceedings goes to the museum staff and volunteers. Most were familiar from past years, though I know only a few by name. Sarah Rose, VP of Education & Programs, seemed to be everywhere at all hours. Michael Lapides, Dir. of Digital Initiatives, got very little sleep due to a video-streaming gizmo that apparently was not designed to run non-stop for twenty-five hours.

The MDM attendees also deserve credit. They are respectful toward the text and toward each other, and they are interesting folks. High-school teacher Dallas, came from St. Paul, Minnesota (to gather motivation for his students?). British artist Caroline Hack spent most of a week in the museum, gleaning grist for her creative mill. Dutch couple Tjitske and Tonnie returned for their eighth consecutive MDM. Ed Camara read for his twenty-first time, the record!

The number of attendees is always weather-dependent. The ice-sheeted roads and sidewalks of New Bedford seemed to keep the numbers "manageable." A few of us all-nighters were stymied by the new ban on backpacks. (My guess is that backpack wearers underestimate their rearward dimension, and collide with exhibits behind them; hence the ban.) The all-night snack & coffee stand was moved to the outer room at the back of the Harbor View Gallery, claiming what used to be a sleeping area. Most sleepers crashed in the brightly lit area behind the podia.

A quick recap of the 2018 Moby-Dick Marathon

Note that the museum's Facebook page has photos, video clips, and links to media coverage of MDM22; Twitter hashtags for the event are #mdm22 and #MDM2018; video of the reading is archived here.

Saturday morning started with Stump the Scholars of course!
Emcee Michael Dyer (Curator of Maritime History) gave another in his series of imaginative, witty introductions to two teams from the Melville Society:
  • Fast Fish—Mary K. Bercaw Edwards (Mystic Seaport, Univ. of Connecticut), Jennifer Baker (N.Y.U.), Tim Marr (Univ. of North Carolina)
  • Loose Fish—Robert Wallace (Univ. of Kentucky), Wyn Kelley (M.I.T), Chris Sten (George Washington U.)
This "competition" is always a great demonstration of these scholars' detailed knowledge of Melville's works (e.g. How long does it take Stubb to behead a whale?), as well as their broad understanding of the historical context and critical analyses of his works. Some of the questions generated as much discussion among audience members as among the panelists.

How fortunate we are to have these scholars, the entire Melville Society Cultural Project committee, on-hand for the MDM weekend year after year! What would the MDM be like without them!?

One memorable question stumped everyone: What rock-and-roll legend owned a first-edition Moby-Dick?
Answer: Jim Morrison. His copy still may be for sale online, for $39,900 (plus $10 shipping).
. . .

11:30 AM - "Stump" concluded, we are in the Lagoda Room for the opening six chapters.
5:00 PM - Seamen's Bethel and Lagoda Room sit vacant.
The Maratona em Português has ended. The full reading continues in the Harbor View Gallery.
5:30 PM - While the reading continues, chowder and beer (nice!) are served in the Jacobs Family Gallery.
Midnight - Chapter 58.
In the Harbor View Gallery, the crowd thins.
Midnight - The Lagoda Room is quiet, but too chilly to nap there.
2 AM - Chapter 73.
In the heart of the Graveyard Shift—readers stand a good chance of getting a second turn at the podium.
9 AM - Chapter 112.
The crowd swells.
9:25 AM - Tjitske reads in Dutch.
11 AM - The Chat with Melville Scholars adjourns.
Both Saturday's and Sunday's "Chats" were lively and well attended.
12:44 PM - Michael Dyer leaves the podium after reading the Epilogue.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Get Ready (again)!

If you're planning your first Moby-Dick Marathon, you'll find some practical advice in this post from 2011 and in the "Essentials" section at the right of this page.

For stay-at-homes, a live video stream will commence at 11:30 A.M. on Saturday, January 6.

Follow #MDM22 on Twitter.

Salute to James Russell

James Russell, who served as the President and CEO of the NBWM for nine years, has left to head the Nantucket Whaling Museum.
On his watch, both Stump the Scholars and Chat with Melville Scholars (my two favorite parts of any MDM) were added to the marathon.
My abiding memory of Mr. Russell comes from MDM20. At about 6 A.M. that Sunday he slipped into the back of the gallery, and quietly set about gathering abandoned coffee cups and water bottles, the night's jetsam. His dedication to the museum, the MDM, and us marathoners was that real.
Thanks for some great MDMs and good voyage to you, Mr. Russell!