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Moby et moi! Grand Galerie, Paris


In this blog, I will conclude with Howard P. Vincent’s The Trying-Out of Moby-Dick, a scholarly study of whaling sources of Melville’s Moby-Dick. I found an annotated First Edition (1949, Houghton Mifflin) in the “Whalemen’s Shipping List” bookshop, located next to the Seamen’s Bethel in New Bedford, MA, during a whaling adventure last Spring.

 In Part II, Vincent examines the Cetological Center of Melville’s masterpiece, my favorite part! This is the reason I read, reread, and research this fascinating topic of Cachalots! (see Part I, The Narrative at this link)

In The Trying-Out, Vincent explores not only the evolution from Melville’s point of view, but also the rewriting of Moby-Dick before its publication. According to Vincent, Melville left no explanation of the meaning of Moby-Dick. He was too much the artist to ever to leave a key to his works (211).

In the Cetological Center, there is an abrupt change in Moby-Dick: according to Vincent, Melville “pulls in the sails” and moves from rapid narrative to detailed exposition (chapter 32). The chief actor in this section is the whale himself; therefore Melville supplied the graphic descriptions of materials and processes.

When this was written, in 1850, Americans were not familiar with whaling details, so Melville turned to Beale’s Natural History of the Sperm Whale which is still required reading for cetologists. The sperm whale is most ferocious of all marine animals, according to Beale.

He could have also used the foremost authority on whales, Baron Cuvier’s De l’histoire naturelle des cétaces, ou recueil et examen des faits dont se compose l’histoire naturelle de ces animaux « (Paris 1836), but Melville did not know French.

Vincent claims that Melville’s idea for Moby-Dick originated with the legend of  “Mocha Dick”, the “terror whale of the Pacific.” Mocha Dick was possibly born in 1820; about 80-100 feet in length (avr sperm whale 60 feet), his jaw measured 26 feet. He had a white spot on his back, exactly between the fins, as Melville would later describe his Moby-Dick.

The legend of Mocha Dick is vast. The first documented sighting was when he rammed the Essex head-on off the coast of Chile on island of Mocha.  Captain James Colnett in A Voyage to the Atlantic and Round Cape Horn wrote in his logs that Mocha “came towards the boar and hit it head on, destroyed it, swam beneath and then lifted it thirty feet in the air.”

Colnett claims that Mocha had an 80 foot scar across his head. There would be subsequent more sightings over the next decade by a Russian ship, a British ship off the coast of Falkland Islands, a whaler off the coast of Japan, and The Yankee whaler which Mocha  “lifted it up and chewed it as a horse chews oats.” This is very plausible as whales typically live 50-60 years.

Cuvier claims, “for not only does the cachalot constantly thirst for the blood of every fish in the sea, but actually possesses a relish for human flesh…which upset with their jaws, a boat which contained some seamen, whom they speedily devoured.” In fact, the Balaenoptera, the dolphin and shark are so terrified of the sperm whales that they conceal themselves in the sands and mud, “sometimes dash themselves against the rocks with such violence as to cause instantaneous death.”[166]

According to Vincent, this was Melville’s inspiration for his Moby-Dick, in which Ahab claims is the personification of Evil. Ahab had cherished a wild vindictiveness against the whale (177). “The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of men left living with half a heart and half a lung. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down.” [like Jesus on the cross]

Why did Melville devote a whole chapter to the “Whiteness of the Whale”? Vincent points out that Melville chose this theme for several reasons. White is the symbol of life itself. It is the final mystery which no man may know and which no man should pursue unrelentingly. Whiteness is a lack of color. It is fluxional.

Now, on to the physical aspects of the White Whale, which is why we are here! N’est-ce pas?

As the art of Daguerre’s new invention of photography was not well enough developed, cetologist had to rely on sketching’s and drawings of whales. Melville, however,  extenuates the errors of the inaccurate whale artists—the whale can never be captured, even by pencil or brush:

“The living whale in his full majesty and significance is only to be seen at sea in unfathomable waters; and afloat the vast bulk of him is out of sight, like a launched line-of-battle ship; and out of that element is a thing eternally impossible for mortal man to hoist him bodily into the air, so as to preserve all his might swells and undulations (217).”

Vincent demonstrates the True Pictures of Whaling Scenes : by Colnett, Huggins, Frederick Cuvier, and Beale. “Most scientific drawings have been taken from stranded fish–these are about as accurate as a drawing of a wrecked ship.”

The only known picture of “Moby Dick” drawn during Melville’s lifetime
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From Vincent’s “Trying-Out”


In Moby-Dick, Melville draws this conclusion on capturing the whale’s image :

“… the great Leviathan is that one creature in the world which must remain unpainted to the last. There is no earthly way of finding out precisely what the whale really looks like. And the only mode in which you can derive even a tolerable idea of his living contour, is by going a whaling yourself; but by so doing, you run no small risk of being eternally stove and sunk by him Wherefore, it seems to me you had best not be too fastidious in your curiosity touching this Leviathan.”

How sad that Melville could not witness the underwater videos of these creatures that are readily available today with just the click of a button.

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Beale’s rendering

Melville would have to rely on his own experience as a whaler along with the documented sources from cetologist to describe the physical characteristics of the Great White:

a) The White Whale’s head: “is the largest part of his body, but most buoyant part so that with ease he elevates it in the air for respiration through the blow-hole”;

b) The White Whale’s side fin “has the same number of bones as a hand (minus the thumb); four regular bone-fingers, the index, middle, ring and little finger; permanently lodged in fleshly covering, as if he were wearing mittens (219).”

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Galerie d’Evolution, note the four fingers on the fin! March 2019


c) The White Whale’s skin :“It does seem to me that herein we see the rare virtue of a strong individual vitality, and the rare virtue of thick walls… Oh man! Admire and model thyself after the whale! Do thou, too, remain warm among ice. Do thou, too, live in this world without being of it. Be cool at the equator; keep thy blood fluid at the Pole. Like the great dome of St. Peter’s and like the great whale, retain, O man! in all seasons a temperature of thine own (240).” [I love this!]

 d) The White Whale’s Spout and Tail: “The Spout (The Fountain!): Cuvier believed that the whale constantly ejected water with his breath. Beale said he had never observed a whale spouting water out of his nostrils. The column that spouts like a jet of water.

** I have been close enough to observe the whale spouting water out of his blow-hole (286)!”


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Sperm Whale blow-hole mist, Cape Cod, May 2018

Of the purpose of the blow-holes, Melville, suggests that all the heads of “ponderous profound beings such as Plate, Pyrrho, the Devil, Jupiter and Dante, there always goes up a certain semi-visible steam, while in the act of thinking deep thoughts (293).”

Hey, Moby! Cape Cod, March 2018

e) The Tail of the White Whale: [294] : it undulates a Titanism of power. Has 5 purposes: 1) a fin for progression 2) a mace in battle, 3) in sweeping 4) in lobtailing 5) in peaking flukes.

Contrary to lobsters, the Cachalot swim forward by striking with their fluke in the contrary direction; the fin being brought beneath the body by an oblique and unresisting movement, whil the act of springing it back and straightening the tail, propels the animal ahead, with an undulating or leaping gait. When employed offensively, as in striking at a boat, the tail is curved in a direction contrary to that of the object aimed at; and the blow is inflicted by the force of the recoil (297).”

  1. f) Lob-tailing of the White Whale: when lying at the surface, the whale appears to amuse itself by violently beating the water with its tail. Called “white water” by a whaler (297).

According to Melville, sometimes the whales throw themselves into a perpendicular posture, with their heads downward, and rearing their tails on high in the air, beat the water with awful violence. This is heard at a great distance, the concentric waves are communicated abroad. Sometimes the whale shakes its tremendous tail in the air, which cracks like a whip.

When it retires from the surface, it first lifts its head, then plunging it under water, elevates its back like the segment of a sphere, deliberately rounds it away towards the extremity, throws its tail out of water and then quietly disappears.

Great White! [Photo credit: Sapphire Coast Hero Images]

Annihilated antichronical Leviathians! Melville also drew from his personal experiences of seeing fossil bones from whales during an exhibition in New York to distinguish the physical characteristics.

In 1839, an English paleontologist examined fossil bones found in Alabama. He concluded these bones came from a “Zeuglodon”, a prehistoric sea-going mammal. Apparently, these bones were later displayed in the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences. Melville witnessed this monstrous skeleton of 114 feet in length, 7500 lbs. in New York on display. Melville, in his chapter in Moby-Dick on the fossil whale, states:

“When I stand among these mighty Leviathan skeletons, skulls, tusks, jaws, ribs, and vertebrae, I am by a flood, borne back to that wondrous period…Who can shoulder a pedigree like Leviathan?

Then, the whole world was the whale’s!

 I am horror struck at this antemosaic, unsourced existence of the unspeakable terrors of the whale, which having been before all time, must needs exist after all humane ages are over.”

I had a similar experience upon witnessing the fossils of whales at the Galerie d’Evolution in the Jardin Des Plantes, Paris

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 Les Baleines du Grand Galerie d’Evolution, Paris, Feb 2016


[Vincent claims that this fossil display in New York was later to be proven a hoax. However, Vincent argues that “If passages like this are merely rhetorical fancy intended only to carry along a whaling story” then this was a successful, elaborate allegorical construction (351). ]

To conclude this chapter on the physical characteristics, the cetological center, we see Ahab resigning to never catch the whale with these sardonic words:

Dissect him how I may, then, I but go skin deep. I know him not, and never will. But if I know not even the tail of this whale, how understand his head? Much more, how comprehend his face, when face he has none…But I cannot completely make out his back parts; and hint what he will about his face, I say again he has no face.

Vincent reminds us that this is one of the profoundest themes in Moby-Dick– the inability of man to know the final truths of life—Ahab’s final inability to capture the White Whale.

Vincent concludes the “Trying-Out” with a narrative conclusion:

“Melville’s marvelous closing pages were not written through pure unconscious inspiration; they come from a mind actively at work in out-of-the-way books. In Melville’s masterpiece of style, sound and sense come together as only in the best poetry. The long streaming clauses rise and fall with the swell of the ocean waves themselves, stirring the sensibilities of the reader to the breaking point as he mounts to the measureless crush and crash of the climax (389).”

D.H. Lawrence concludes:

So ends one of the strangest and most wonderful books in the world…It is an epic of the sea such as no man has equaled…it is a great book, the greatest book of the sea ever written. It moves one in the soul.”

Brava, Melville!

Copyright 2019 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (

Work Cited

Howard P. Vincent. The Trying-Out of Moby-Dick. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin. 1949