Melville’s New Bedford and Melville’s “Moby-Dick”

Melville’s New Bedford Melville’s Moby-Dick

Melville’s New Bedford
“The dearest place to live in, in all New England”

A civilized town
When Herman Melville arrived in December 1840, New Bedford was at the height of its prosperity. In his novel, Moby-Dick, Melville wrote that “. . . nowhere in all America will you find more patrician-like houses, parks and gardens more opulent, than in New Bedford. Whence came they?. . . Yes; all these brave houses and flowery gardens came from the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. One and all, they were harpooned and dragged up hither from the bottom of the sea.”

Whale profits for dowries
It was a city where a father might use profits from a whaling voyage for his daughter’s dowry and burn expensive spermaceti candles at her wedding. Long avenues were lined with mansions and magnificent elm trees. Near the waterfront, shipbuilders, bankers, brokers, merchants, blacksmiths, masons, oil refiners, and many other tradesmen connected with the whaling industry thrived.

“A cannibal on every corner”
The streets offered visitors frequent surprises. Melville wrote that, “. . . actual cannibals stand chatting at street corners; savages outright; many of whom yet carry on their bones unholy flesh.” Melville may have based the character of Queequeg, a harpooneer on the Pequod in Moby-Dick, on Pacific Islanders he saw in New Bedford. They often shipped out as hands on American whalers that stopped at their islands.

Seamans Bethel as seen through Whaling Museum window

Whaleman’s chapel
Melville visited the Seamen’s Bethel before shipping out on the whaleship Acushnet in January 1841. When Ishmael, narrator of Moby-Dick, enters the chapel, he notices black-bordered marble tablets set into walls on either side of the pulpit. These cenotaphs are memorials to men who died at sea. “It needs scarcely to be told, with what feelings, on the eve of a Nantucket voyage, I regarded those marble tablets, and by the murky light of that darkened, doleful day read the fate of the whalemen who had gone before me. Yes, Ishmael, the same fate may be thine,” Melville’s narrator thought.

Left: The Seamen’s Bethel, as seen here from the New Bedford Whaling Museum, is across the street and open to visitors.


Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick: the Greatest American Whaling Story

Herman Melville (1819-1891)
On December 30, 1840, at the age of 21 years, Herman Melville signed the shipping articles for a whaling voyage to the Pacific Ocean aboard the ship Acushnet of Fairhaven, MA, Valentine Pease, master. The vessel set sail down the Acushnet River estuary on January 3, 1841, past the great wharves of New Bedford, the then whaling capitol of the world, and out into the North Atlantic. This author of genius was being carried off on the voyage that would inspire one of the greatest works of literature in the American language.

He endured eighteen months at sea. He had little formal education but a background rich in adventure. As the character Ishmael says in Moby-Dick, “. . . a whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.” In writing his novel, Melville drew primarily on what he had learned at sea. While on the Acushnet, he met Owen Chase during a gam (exchange of visits between whaleships). Chase gave him a written account of his father’s experiences on the Ship Essex, which was sunk by a whale. “The reading of this wondrous story on the landless sea, and so close to the very latitude of the shipwreck, had a surprising effect upon me,” Melville later wrote.

The Book Itself: Moby-Dick
was first published in London under a different title before its publication in New York. The following bibliographic descriptions of the first editions are quoted directly from G. Thomas Tanselle, A Checklist of Editions of Moby-Dick, 1851-1976 (Evanston and Chicago, 1976), p. 8.

1. The Whale. London: Richard Bentley, 1851 3 vols. (viii, 312; iv, 303; iv, 328 pp.) Published October 18, 1851; at a guinea and a half, in an edition of 500 copies. Bentley, the foremost publisher of the “three-decker,” gave The Whale an unusually elaborate physical dress: deep-blue cloth covers, and white spines decorated with gold whales (unfortunately they were right whales, not sperm whales like Moby Dick). It is difficult to understand why he gave such lavish treatment to a work which was so different from typical three-decker fiction and for which he expected small sales. Probably about a third of the edition was bound this way, for Bentley later covered some sets with ordinary brown and purple cloth and still had sheets available in 1853 for his one-volume issue. All copies of the Bentley edition are thus from the same impression, but they can occur (1) in three volumes with blue and white cloth and gold-stamped whales on the spines, (2) in three volumes with brown or purple cloth and no whales on the spines, and (3) in one volume with red cloth and cancel title pages dated 1853.

2. Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1851. xxiii, 635 pages. Published probably on November 14, 1851, at $1.50, in an impression of 2, 915 copies. The Harpers presented the work as a single bulky volume, covered with various colors of cloth (red, blue, green, purple, brown or black) and bearing a blind-stamped life preserver device on the front and back covers. Although the Harper volumes were much less attractive than Bentley’s three-deckers, it is possible that Melville preferred them, for he believed that “books should be appropriatly apparelled” (as he said in his review of Cooper’s The Red Rover), and at least the reviewer of Moby-Dick for the New Bedford Daily Mercury thought that the Harper volumes were “in some respects ‘very like a whale’ even in outward appearance.” Some first impression sheets were later (about mid-1852) cased in cloth that was blind-stamped with an arabesque pattern on the front and back. A second printing (250 copies) appeared in 1855, a third (253 copies) in 1863, and a fourth (277 copies) in 1871, each with a dated title page.

All told Tanselle lists 115 editions of Moby-Dick.

American Whaling Literature
Before the publication of Moby-Dick, the subject of whaling had a limited but significant representation in American literature. The most famous early American accounts had more to do with sensations in the whale fishery such as Owen Chase Narrative of the most extraordinary and distressing shipwreck of the whale-ship Essex of Nantucket; which was attacked and finally destroyed by a large spermaceti-whale, in the Pacific Ocean… (New York 1821) and William Comstock The life of Samuel Comstock, the bloody mutineer (Boston, 1845) outlining the infamous mutiny on the ship Globe of Nantucket in 1824. Other such titles include William Lay and Cyrus Hussey’s account of the Globe mutiny, A Narrative of the mutiny on board the ship Globe, of Nantucket, in the Pacific Ocean, Jan. 1824 (New London, 1828) and Horace Holden, Narrative of the shipwreck, captivity, and sufferings of Horace Holden and Benj. H. Nute; who were cast away in the American ship Mentor, on the Pelew Islands, in the year 1832 (Boston, 1836). Previous to Moby-Dick there were three major American non-fiction works relating to the whale fishery. They were Francis Allyn Olmsted Incidents of a whaling voyage… (New York, 1841); J. Ross Browne Etchings of a whaling cruise…(New York, 1846) and the Reverend Henry Cheever, The whale and his captors… (New York, 1849). Additionally there were Herman Melville’s two other whaling related works of fiction, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life… (New York, 1846) and Omoo: A Narrative of Adventure in the South Seas… (New York, 1847). Although additional minor titles, such as Reuben Delano, Wanderings and Adventures of Reuben Delano, being a narrative of twelve years’ life in a whale ship (New York, Boston and Worcester, 1846) were published the above list represents the bulk of popular American writing on the subject before 1851. After 1851 a wide variety of works of fiction and non-fiction including dime novels, temperance pamphlets, reminiscences and additional primary accounts came increasingly into the public sphere.

Mocha Dick
Melville was also influenced by stories whalemen told about a ferocious white whale. Twelve years before Moby-Dick, a U.S. naval officer wrote an article, “Mocha Dick: The White Whale of the Pacific,” in which he described a great whale that was “white as wool.” When the Mocha Dick of this tale was captured, the crew found twenty harpoons in his body from previous attempts to kill him.

Captain Ahab and the Pequod
All these influences eventually inspired Melville’s tale of a mad captain and his doomed ship and crew, which was published in 1851. As the novel begins, Ishmael joins the crew of Captain Ahab, who is determined to find and kill the white sperm whale known to whalemen as Moby-Dick. Ahab had lost one of his legs in an earlier attempt to capture the great beast. In the final encounter, Captain Ahab, crew, and ship are destroyed. Only the narrator, Ishmael, survives to tell the story.

The world of the Yankee whaleman
Moby-Dick is a great, sprawling book that moves back and forth between the main story line and Melville’s digressions on whales, whalecraft, and other subjects. He vividly captures the environment of the Yankee whaler – a world of exciting chases and dangerous, violent work; years of boredom and loneliness; exotic ports, cannibal crewmen, and strange events; and, always, “the great shroud of the sea,” as Melville described it.

History’s Verdict
Moby-Dick is today considered one of the greatest of all American novels; although when it was first published the critics gave it mixed, sometimes scathing reviews.

The Moby Dick Marathon
Annually, on the first weekend after New Years Day, the New Bedford Whaling Museum sponsors a non-stop reading of Moby-Dick to mark the anniversary of Herman Melville’s departure on the Acushnet. Scores of people converge on the Museum and take turns reading, completing the novel in 25 hours.