My speech at the 2012 American Renaissance Conference was entitled, “The Fear or Dread of Whiteness.” I use a passage from Herman Melville’s famous 1851 novel, Moby Dick. His astute observations reveal his own stark apprehension of all things white. He was a northern liberal. Then I pointed out Edgar Allan Poe’s 1836 novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, in which Poe places the absolute fear of whiteness in the soul of the black man. Poe, of course, was a southern humorist (or so I concluded in my book, The End of the World in Poe, written at Harvard in 1983, published in 2007).
Herman Melville, 1819-1891.
One thing is for certain, Moby Dick, the great white whale, represents something profound about the American psyche. The whaling industry itself was a deep-seated phenomenon afloat in the collective conscious of American society. It was the largest industry in the 19th century. In 1828, Daniel Webster’s speech before the U.S. senate reflects directly the import of the sea-faring business:
Nantucket itself is a very striking and peculiar portion of the National interest. There is a population of eight or nine thousand persons, living here in the sea, adding largely every year to the National wealth by the boldness and most persevering industry.
Webster was appealing to Congress for a Nantucket breakwater.
Melville himself quotes the passage in his introductory “Extracts Supplied by a Sub-Sub-Librarian.” A dozen pages of such and miscellaneous references clearly touch on the magnitude of the whaling industry in the popular culture. While there may be no appropriate cognate today, the whaling industry supplied a larger volume and variety of products than any other. The only conceivable modern corollary would be oil. In fact, whale oil supplied the light of the nation, yea, of the world, before gas, or electricity.
But it was hunting, not drilling. It was a bloody battle, not a cold, calculated, mechanical effort. It was a thrilling dare. It was killer trade. It was a man’s trade, thoroughly. (Yet, whale vomit was made into the preservative base of the ladies’ perfumes!) Melville’s depiction of it is virtually incomparable. He notes the bewildering contrasts of grandeur and grace, of the mighty and the delicate–even in the personage and behavior of the animal itself.
If one is sufficiently interested in the American narrative, I would recommend two books to accompany Melville’s. The first is a bit rare, but in a 1989 Castle reprint of the 1877 text: History of the American Whale Fishery, by Alexander Starbuck. The first 179 pages are called, “Report of the Commissioner of Fish and Fisheries.” It is historical, a narrative of the business. The next 550 pages are logs of the actual whaling vessels, their owners, their captains, and the towns from which they launched. It is an incredible resource.
A second source, another must, is Gay Wilson Allen’s Melville and His World (Viking, 1971). This one is obviously more about the author, Herman Melville, than about the whaling industry. However, if gives unusual detail and insight into how the story of the white whale evolved from the personal life and experience of Melville.
There are many editions of the novel, Moby Dick. I personally used the Leon Howard edition (Random House, 1950), though the Alfred Kazin edition (Houghton Mifflin, 1956) is perhaps useful. Howard’s Introduction is definitive. At this point, editions of a work like Melville’s are distinguished solely by such introductions. Moby Dick was part of my master’s thesis at Emory University (1981). The thesis also included a work by Nathaniel Hawthorne and, originally, a large, unique essay on Edgar Allan Poe. The thesis was entitled, “The Use of Death in 19th Century American Literature.”
As a scholar (somewhat), I want to point out just how authentic Melville was in his novel, at least in his research. In the “Extracts,” he references an incident in which a sperm whale actually attacks and destroys a whaling ship, the Essex, as reported by survivor Owen Chace of Nantucket, First Mate of the crushed, sunk vessel, 1821. A complete account of the ferocious incident is reprinted by Alexander Starbuck, pp.116-119. Inasmuch as the ship was lost at sea (the south Pacific), no details of it are mentioned in the 1820 table of returning vessels of Nantucket. Instead, all designations are blank, save one, its type: “Sloop.” It was reported, however, on the same nameless tabulation, that the ship had garnered the oil of 100 sperm whales by last record. A great loss, indeed.
Another ship, the Ann Alexander (of New Bedford) was also attacked and destroyed (sunk) by an angry sperm whale, in 1851, the year Melville’s novel was published.
Melville’s “Extracts” mention a mutiny on a whaling vessel, the Globe (of Nantucket). According to Alexander Starbuck, the mutiny took place in 1824. A Mr. Lay and a Mr. Hussey survived by a neutral compliance and silence, and were rescued by a U.S. government vessel.
It is important to note that the whaling industry was not a military function, nor were whaling vessels armed. The high seas were the wild West on water. Mutiny, subterfuge, intrigue, were all lock, stock, and barrel. The industry was, as such, difficult to control.
Ah, but the grandeur of it all! The game–the sperm whale, was the largest, most vicious, and most profitable of all God’s creatures in the world. The hunt was the most violent, most dramatic, and most bloody of all man’s encounters with the wild (–other than with himself in said environment).
Whaling embodied the pith of the American spirit, the commerce, the competition, the blood, and the glory. High risk, high profit, and the great offering to humanity: whale oil. It was more valuable than gold. It was more precious than any other single product.
One unique element of Melville’s story is the dramatized internationalism. The crew of an average whaling ship comprised a staggering complex of “immigrants” from across the globe. Captains of such crews were a most somber and deadly force among men. Melville’s story is essentially true in every element. Moby Dick is a conglomerate of gigantic and pedantic realities. BadEagle.com began a chapter by chapter commentary, which is yet to be finished. The story is simply overwhelming.
Melville would be considered a liberal today, and yet he is groping with nearly incomprehensible social evolution in his day. At a time when fundamental Protestantism–the American version, was fast fading into an inefficient functionary containment, Melville found himself immersed, as it were, in internationalism of every grade. One of the main characters of the story is Quequeg, the dark, heathen islander, full of self-imposed scars and other barbaric macho-isms. This is the companion of the main character, a white, wandering, lost American protestant–Ishamel. Yes, the blood of the story is put in the hands of the harpooners–three non-white savages (including an American Indian), but the captain of the ship is the ultimate white man–with the gargantuan conscience–Ahab, the mighty, who would challenge Fate. Is he not great? The only survivor of the story is a non-committed, doubting soul, and his survival was essentially an accident. Nothing to live for, he survives. Ishmael is no warrior. Meaning is in death. To die for something, this is the impetus of life. The harpoon guides, if unto death. Observers live, meaninglessly.
Melville reports. You decide.