Visualizing Melville

“…they did not a little correspond to the central gateway opening into some vast walled empire: and considering the inexhaustible wealth of spices, and silks, and jewels, and gold, and ivory, which the thousand islands of that oriental sea are enriched…”

(Moby-Dick, Chapter 87)

Herman Melville (1819-1891) was a major American author whose life and work coincided with the rise and fortunes of the port of New Bedford. His experiences, while on a whaling voyage from Fairhaven bound to the Pacific in 1841, formed the basis for the writings that placed him among the greatest in the American language. Solidly grounded in his time, his use of the language, while often arcane to the modern reader, remains timeless.

Two such examples of his use of language, found in his classic novel Moby-Dick, demonstrate both the time, and the timeless nature, of his prose: “Meditation and water are wedded forever,” and, “…they are Quakers with a vengeance.” The first seems a statement for the ages while the second is a personal observation based upon his experience in a 19th century Massachusetts whaling port. This exhibition attempted to illustrate his language.

Anonymous, Chinese, Houqua’s Garden, ca. 1850. Oil on canvas mounted on masonite, New Bedford Whaling Museum, #1977.46

Given the vast resources of the collection of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, matching Melville’s language to objects and pictures was easily accomplished in some cases but, at the same time, was exceptionally challenging in others. Facts are easily supported but ideas demand the judgment of an intervener – a translator, in this case the museum curator who crafted this exhibit. Portraits of Quaker sea captains and examples of “monstrous clubs and spears” are facts while a meditative seascape is an interpretive idea. None of the art and objects selected for this exhibition were directly indicated by Herman Melville, all however, conveyed meaning contemporaneous to his perception.