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.

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.

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.