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.

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.)

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