“While the sperm whale has been quietly searching the ocean depths for his food…as the most savage and ferocious of all marine animals…the cachalot constantly thirsts for the blood of every fish in the sea and possesses a relish for human flesh”.
(Beale, Natural History of the Sperm Whale)
We recently celebrated our anniversary with an incredible trip to Boston and New England. We chose this destination for two reasons: for David to revisit American History on the Freedom Trail and for me to visit the home of my Red Sox and to find Moby Dick.
I have always loved whales. As a young aquaphile, I spent many hours underwater, in somersaults and dives, descending to the deepest point in the pool as my lungs allowed, eventually competing on my high school swim team just to be near water. In some ways, I longed to imitate these Cetacea mammals in a world of movement and silence.
This love of all-things-whales led me to Melville’s experiences as a New England Whaler in his novel Moby-Dick. I first read the abridged version in high school; but, most recently, returned to this 1,946-page tome with a new appreciation and verve a few years ago. I even formed a Moby-Dick Reading Club on Facebook (I would love to invite fellow Moby-Dick readers to join us!)
In 1841, Herman Melville set out on a sailing adventure in the South Seas and searched the Pacific Ocean for spermaceti whales. Nine years later, Melville transformed his adventures of sailing on the Acushnet into the whaling classic Moby-Dick. The book is written from point of view of the main character, Ishmael, and the obsessive quest of Ahab, the captain of the whaling ship, the Pequod to find this monster of the sea that had possessed his life.
Melville adapted many details from travel books to insure accuracy for Moby-Dick. He also studied, quite extensively, Thomas Beale’s famous Natural History of the Sperm Whale which gives the chapters on whaling (most of the book!) authenticity. Most importantly, Melville writes about what really interests him. According to Howard P. Vincent in The Trying-Out of Moby-Dick, “In order to be true to external nature, a poet must first of all be true to his own nature…be it fashionable or unfashionable, great or small, virtuous or venal” (Spender, 28). Even though Moby-Dick was a commercial failure, it soon became a “Great American Novel” and William Faulkner confessed that he wished he had written the book himself!
As this is not an actual book review, I will leave the themes and nuances of Moby-Dick for another blog. However, when in New England…
Now, on with my quest for Moby Dick.
I started, naturally, with a Whale Watching tour out of Provence, MA, (see link) on the North side of Cape Cod in order to see first-hand the great sperm whales that Melville writes about. I was not disappointed! Apparently, we were there at the right time to see many whales as they were feeding before swimming south to have their young.
I stood on the bow of the boat for 4 hours, hardly moving, in awe, watching sperm whales, fin whales (or baleen) and humpback whales swimming with their calves near our boat. As the whales swam to the water surface to breathe, they would forcefully expel air through their blowhole. It was easy to anticipate where they would surface as you could first hear the water being expelled in a loud spray.
I tried to imagine what Melville experienced in watching these massive, 90,000 lb leviathan, commanding respect then vanishing to the abyss propelled by their powerful tails in their quotidian habits. It amazed me how close they came to the boat, the calves swimming back and forth playing with us. Truly an experience which I will replay in my mind, over and over again, throughout my life!
(These are my actual photos to show how close we were able to get to the whales.)
The second part of my whaling adventure was to visit the town where this adventure began in New Bedford, MA, on January 3, 1841. At the time, this was the whaling capital of the world. Thus, New Bedford hosts the largest whaling museum. If you love to sail, fish or see first-hand the whaling tools and vessels that Melville describes in Moby-Dick, then I highly recommend this museum. If you are looking for anything relating to Melville or Moby-Dick, then you will be disappointed. The only thing they have in this museum related is a room called “Herman Melville” and some books by Melville in the library (for special patrons only). However, there is a “Moby-Dick Marathon” at the Whaling Museum (see link) every January where scholars from all over the world come and celebrate this novel.
Next to the museum is the Seamen’s Bethel (see link) where Father Mapple delivered his rousing sermon (Chapter 9) on Jonah. In this chapel, the actual pew where Melville sat for many Sunday’s is marked with a plaque. Also of interest is that the pulpit is designed as the bow of a ship after the movie in which Orson Welles portrayed Father Mapple (this is my favorite Moby-Dick movie, 1956 with Gregory Peck, directed by John Huston). According to the curator, the museum had to recreate the pulpit like the one in this movie as to not disappoint visitors who requested to see it.
The last treasure of my Moby Dick quest came from the “Whalemen’s Shipping List” bookshop next to the museum (see link). I found a first edition of The Trying-out of Moby-Dick by Howard P. Vincent (1949, Houghton Mifflin) a scholarly study of the sources, composition, interpretation and meaning of Melville’s Moby-Dick. In addition to Melville’s many voyages on whaling ships, Vincent states that Melville sought most of his documentary evidence of the sperm whale from two sources: Beale’s Natural History of the Sperm Whale and Cuvier’s De l’histoire naturelle des cetaces, ou recueil et examen des faits don’t se compse l’histoire naturelle de ces animaux, (Paris 1836).
Melville’s conception of Moby Dick was pieced from evidence of a sperm whale known to whalers as “Mocha Dick” who had been destroying whaling boats for many years. Cuvier says of Mocha Dick, “the terrible arms, the powerful numerous teeth render it a terrific adversary to all the inhabitants of the deep. So terrified are all at the sight of the cachalot”(166). Mocha Dick, at 85 feet in length, is credited with the sinking of the Essex, a whaling ship which sank in 1820. The tyrant wreaked havoc on many other sailing vessels and was last seen off the coast of Brazil in 1859 and possibly killed by a Swedish whaler. (Vincent’s retelling of the battle between Mocha Dick and the Essex is fascinating, pp. 166-176). An outgrowth of this widespread whaling legend would be shortly recorded by Melville as his whale, Moby Dick!.
I love my third treasure, The Trying-Out of Moby-Dick. What a find! It is beautifully illustrated with vellum pages and sketches which Melville referenced when writing his novel.
This will be a great companion guide to my next reading of Moby-Dick, which will be the final leg of my quest! I’m so excited!!!
Copyright 2018 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)
Howard P. Vincent. The Trying-Out of Moby-Dick. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin. 1949