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Moby Dick: An American Archetype

by David Yeagley · May 14, 2012 · 36 Comments ·

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. 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.

Posted by David Yeagley · May 14, 2012 · 2:53 pm CT · ·

Tags: Arts · Bad Eagle Journal · Christianity · Conservatism · Liberalism · Paganism · Religion · Warriors · White Race

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36 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Maharishi of Mayhem // May 14, 2012 at 4:10 pm   

    Excellent! We have discussed your passion for this work at length.

    Again, Melville’s shorter, “Billy Budd,” is an extraordinary tale of a simple merchantmen impressed into the Royal Navy. “Billy” was a simple, yet profoundly kind and positive soul. This stood in contrast to the evil that surrounded him. In the end, Billy is hung for killing the Master at Arms in a rage-fueled bout of confusion.

    Melville is a master of conveying the twisting and often turning roads of the human heart.

    Great post!

  • 2 David Yeagley // May 14, 2012 at 4:51 pm   

    Aye, Captain! Arg! I should say.

    Strange and desperate human relations transpire aboard those lonely ships, those portable havens; a tiny refuge in the oceanic depth. Poe wrote most pitiably about cannibalism, stowaways, mutiny, and other horrors.

    I remember remarking in my thesis, “We are all on any number of Pequods.” Life is made up of groups of human relations, on a job, on a team, in a church. Something about the limitations, the forced relations.

    And so the innocent man is crucified. The innocent man even offends!

  • 3 Sioux // May 14, 2012 at 8:21 pm   


  • 4 David Yeagley // May 14, 2012 at 8:24 pm   

    Alto belle!

  • 5 Maharishi of Mayhem // May 14, 2012 at 8:33 pm   

    Billy Budd, an innocent man accused of mutiny by the cruel Master-at-Arms finally breaks.

    This is a great adaptation from Melville. Made in 1962. This is a good depiction of life at sea when “Iron Men” sailed on “Wooden Ships.”

  • 6 Maharishi of Mayhem // May 14, 2012 at 8:40 pm   

    Father Mapple (Gregory Peck), who played Ahab in original movie.

    Love that pulpit…the bow of a ship!

  • 7 Sioux // May 14, 2012 at 9:30 pm   

    The high seas scare the parcheesis out of me — I always go to any movie that has to do with the sea because it reminds me to never ever ever go on a cruise to anywhere. Sailing is definitely for men (and women pretending to be men).

  • 8 Sioux // May 14, 2012 at 9:33 pm   

    Sorry for the banal post – this is truly a man’s man subject. I never was any good at ciphering good literature, but I did get Poe a little better than Moby Dick back in high school.

  • 9 David Yeagley // May 15, 2012 at 7:20 am   

    I think you represent the greater majority on that literary response, Sioux. Poe is much more accessible, immediately. Sadness, fear, all on the surface. Teenagers can relate. They are changing from childhood to adulthood. There is inescapable sadness in that.

    Melville’s was a foreign tale, really. It was about an deep characteristic of American society which is long gone–the whaling industry, and all its loneliness, blood, and austerity.

    Seamen could be gone from home and family two, even three years at a time.

  • 10 whitetrash // May 15, 2012 at 9:20 am   

    Though they never developed technology or methods of organization remotely comparable to the early European sailors, the Polynesians rank a solid second behind the Europeans as seafarers. Something that always comes to mind when I consider Melville’s treatment of Queequeg. What they lacked in ingenuity they made up for in daring.

  • 11 David Yeagley // May 15, 2012 at 10:05 am   

    Funny, though, in my mind the behavioral characteristics of Queequeg always reminded me much more of an American Indian than a Polynesian. I have always suspected that Melville substituted an Iroquois, with which had had to have been infinitely more familiar, for an exotic Samoan or something. Interesting illusion.

    I’ve known Samoans. They are too warm and friendly to be Queequeg. Queequeg was an Indian!

  • 12 JollyGreen // May 15, 2012 at 10:33 am   

    I was sentenced to three years of what the navy calls “arduous” sea duty. I was on a ship that was never home. The ship was full of of misfits, criminals, liars, practitioners of buggery, and every evil act that violates the conscience of God. That was the officers, the crew was far worse.

    It was a time that will haunt me forever. No sleep, dizzying ritual and tradition, repetition of all things mundane, and of course fear.

    Man has always attempted to conquer the sea, yet it cannot be conquered. For in attempting to conquer the sea, we are truly attempting to conquer God. God used the sea as a judgment against this world. It’s relentless power was unleashed upon all things living in a epoch flood which erased all human breath (save 8), from this sphere. From that time forward, I believe that all humankind has within its DNA an intuitive sense that the sea represents the judgment of God.

    We can build our ships. We can sail our navies. However, in the end, it is only by grace that any return. For it is by the tide of God’s omnipotent hand that they go out, and by the same hand that they return.

    Psalm 107:23-30 speaks of God’s presence in the sea…

    (23) “They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; (24) These see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep.
    (25) For he commandeth, and raiseth the stormy wind, which lifteth up the waves thereof.
    (26) They mount up to the heaven, they go down again to the depths: their soul is melted because of trouble. (27) They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man, and are at their wit’s end. (28) Then they cry unto the Lord in their trouble, and he bringeth them out of their distresses. (29) He maketh the storm a calm, so that the waves thereof are still. (30) Then are they glad because they be quiet; so he bringeth them unto their desired haven.”

    Men have long sung religious songs of about the sea, for it represents God’s mighty power. Dr. Yeagley himself, even indulged this for a time in his life.

    I will end by posting a video of the Hymn: “Eternal Father Strong to Save,” which is the official hymn of the U.S. Navy:

    May you all experience “Fair Winds and Following Seas.”

  • 13 Thrasymachus // May 15, 2012 at 11:09 am   

    “Teenagers can relate. They are changing from childhood to adulthood. There is inescapable sadness in that.” — Dr. Y

    Yes, one may sometimes experience very poignant sadness in this. It is one of the universal great challenges of life. For some people, the memory of childhood — perhaps even of a childhood missed out on — haunts them all their lives. Hence, the importance of Freud’s emphasis on theories of childhood development.

  • 14 whitetrash // May 15, 2012 at 1:43 pm   

    Good point, Doc. The Iroquois may indeed have been the model. If it was, it was not a stretch to my mind. The similarity between Polynesians and Indians might be greater than you think. I’ve seen Samoans rock and roll. They are not to be trifled with by any means. Don’t know about the Iroquois, but it’s my understanding those cats are no shade trees either.

  • 15 David Yeagley // May 15, 2012 at 1:52 pm   

    The Indian stereotype is stoic, few words, simple thoughts (bordering the philosophical).

    The Samoans I’ve known all played rugby, but were just too human to be Indian! Ha! Too congenial, friendly, personality-wise.

    Indians seem more “Sicilian,” or something… Generally quiet, suspicious. Indians always seem consciously superior, with no need to talk or otherwise demonstrate it.

    Well, I’m just talking stereotypes. I know I’ve lived with stereotypes.

  • 16 Maharishi of Mayhem // May 15, 2012 at 1:58 pm   

    Don’t cross a Samoan. They are a vicious and unreasoning people. Coconut n*****s, in my opinion. Self-indulgent brutes of the basest sort. They are thieves, malcontents, and unfit for civilized society. That is why they are at home in the NFL and in the U.S. Army (the largest welfare organization for discontent minorities ever assembled…thanks LBJ).

    I love stereo….and stereotypes. That is why I am a racist bigot.

  • 17 Maharishi of Mayhem // May 15, 2012 at 2:09 pm   

    Archie Bunker explains that force has always been the Christian way…starts at 3:30.

  • 18 David Yeagley // May 15, 2012 at 3:56 pm   

  • 19 David Yeagley // May 15, 2012 at 4:27 pm   

    I definitely don’t think Queequeg was Samoan.

    Queequeg, Melville tells us in the beginning of the story, was selling a New Zealand (shrunken) head. Melville (Ishmael) tells us that he thinks the tatooed (with black squares on his face) harpooner is some “abominable savage” of the South seas.

    Queequeg has a little black idol, as well as a “tomahawk.” This tomahawk is a curious bit. It was also a pipe.

    Queequeg was tatooed all over his visible body.
    This is not uncommon throughout the “dark” world. There were some New England American Indian tribes that practiced tatooing (scaring, staining).

  • 20 Quartermain // May 15, 2012 at 5:38 pm   

    I thought Queequeg was one of the Maori, the indigenous of New Zealand.

  • 21 David Yeagley // May 15, 2012 at 6:23 pm   

    Name not mentioned in the book. Nor is any specific religion. Just “cannibalism.” Probably, Melville was too wise to identify any specific tribe. Too much of a liberal!

  • 22 Sioux // May 15, 2012 at 7:38 pm   

    My grandfather sailed the Great Lakes as 1st Mate on commercial freighters and was gone from home a lot. He was on the Nimick sailing Lake Superior the same time of the year when the Edmund Fitzgerald went down, November 1919. He saved the small crew all except for the Captain, who went down with the ship. He died when my Dad was only a young boy – got hit in the head in an accident. My grandmother had to go thru holy hell to get the company to send his body home (during the Depression). She got nothing from the Company in survivor’s benefits. That’s how it was back then. Very rough times.

  • 23 Sioux // May 15, 2012 at 7:41 pm   

    Norman Lubff Choir – “Sonogs of the Sea” – anyone ever heard that album? Some of the songs were very haunting.

    Seems like many of the writers back then would be considered Libs. Can you be normal and write a good book???

  • 24 Sioux // May 15, 2012 at 7:41 pm   


  • 25 Sioux // May 15, 2012 at 7:41 pm   

    geez, this keyboard is dancing all over the place:
    Norman Luboff Choir – “Songs of the Sea”

  • 26 Sioux // May 15, 2012 at 7:47 pm   

    JollyGreen has hit on something I have been wondering about – Women on ships and in the muslim war zones. Wonder what the % of hetero women is in the military/navy. HOpe it is high enough to make it worthwhile to put them in harm’s way so that the men will stay away from each other and from the mus-women.

  • 27 JollyGreen // May 15, 2012 at 9:03 pm   

    “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” Yea, I remember that one. 1975?

    Sioux, when I was in, the navy had a prohibition on women serving on combat ships. The regulation prohibited them from serving a full cruise of six months duration (180 days). So they would let them serve for 179 days then pull them off. We had two female helicopter pilots who did this.

    Now, after our First Black President, Slick Willie took office, things started relaxing. Suddenly, women were allowed on ships that were combat oriented. During the first gulf war, one certain ship had so many pregnancies that it was termed “the love boat.” It had to return from a combat mission to await crew replacements. Pregnancy used to be an easy way to get out of sea duty for women. I think that they now have regulations that have changed things up on that.

    Honestly, my shipmates in my division were a little more educated and were less barbaric than the knuckle-dragging deck apes that served in the Deck or Engineering divisions. It’s not to say that we were saints. There was plenty of partying while on liberty, and an occasional sailor visited the friendly local whorehouse, but I knew of no buggery in my division. I did, however, have to investigate some criminal charges of faggotry in other divisions. It really blows my mind that buggery is now an option in the service.

    Most of the women that serve in the navy are real hags. Many of them are feminists. There is really nothing uglier than a macho feminist. They all suffer from urinal envy and want to one-up males.

    I guess I am old school. Old sailor lore suggests that it is bad luck to get “underway” with a woman on board. I guess the Irish in me wants to hold on to that superstition. I also refuse to give in to the dykery that is so pervasive in our sick society.

    As we used to say,

    Alpha Mike Foxtrot

  • 28 David Yeagley // May 15, 2012 at 9:36 pm   

    Come now, mates! Surely, ye have not forgotten the great women of the sea:

    She Captains by Joan Druett (2000).

    Have ye no thought of the likes of Alwilda the Dane, Mistress Cowtie, or Smuggler Jane?

    What ails ye? To say nothing of Abby Jane Morrell, or Rose de Freycinet…

    Come about, mates!

  • 29 JollyGreen // May 15, 2012 at 10:15 pm   

    Come now Bad Eagle,

    The only great women of the sea that I have seen have been on a bowsprit.

  • 30 David Yeagley // May 16, 2012 at 8:28 am   

    Abby Jane Morrell

    Rose de Freycinet

    Awilda the Dane (this one might have a bit of legend in it, but she is a historical figure. Not that her figure was historical, but, historically, she was a figure. Go figure.)

  • 31 David Yeagley // May 16, 2012 at 3:10 pm   

    I don’t know how to say is, or what it says, but, the 2010 DVF (Diane von Furstenberg) calendar features a golden DVF as a ship’s figurehead. It was more or less incredible.

    I can’t find any picture of it right now, but, I have the large calendar poster.

  • 32 Sioux // May 16, 2012 at 6:33 pm   

    Yes, women as exceptions, but never the rule in what should be a Man’s world. I firmly believe that all these changes, which actually started under Bush 1 (maybe even Reagan), are the bureaucrats way of destroying America. Cheney listens to his daughters and Bush 2 as well. Pussy whipped, the lot of them. The real men are all in hiding it seems.

  • 33 David Yeagley // May 16, 2012 at 9:34 pm   

    Maybe they forgot how to be real men. Is that possible? Should women have been allowed to vote? I mean, we don’t want to be Muslims, do we? Where is the middle of the road on this matter?

  • 34 Bonus Gift // May 17, 2012 at 1:39 am   

    Firstly, I’d just like to say I enjoy your Website’s articles. Please keep up the fight and your good work.
    Secondly, and although maybe only obliquely related to the thread on Moby Dick and going to sea; I am descended from a few sailors and captains (on both sides). On my father’s side was a captain that used to run a boat around Cape Horn going to and from Europe to the coast of California (just after statehood). Legend has it that he was not the nicest person on the planet to his crew and one could almost guarantee a mutiny around the Horn (I don’t recall which direction but you can be assured in the direction when the wind was going against you). Once the expected mutiny instigator was identified he would kill the leader (or if the mutiny was underway he’d grab the first person within striking distance) in some horrible way with whatever was at hand. For example, I recall a rigging hook and disembowelment was used on at least one occasion, otherwise just bare hands would do. Essentially, it wasn’t just to kill but to set an example. Yes, in those days the captain was judge, jury, and executioner and truly god of his domain. We American men have indeed become shadows of our former selves.
    Thirdly, do yourselves a favor and read (i.e., if you haven’t already) “Two Years before the Mast” by Richard Dana. That is one heck of a book and accurately describes life aboard a sailing vessel in the times we are discussing (California prior to statehood and back to Massachusetts). My father (his nickname was “old sailor” when he was about 12; later to be given names like “nails” and “captain”) recommended it to me before he died and I really enjoyed it.
    Fourthly, and finally on point to the topic at hand, I agree with some of the commenters that suggest Melville was a bit of a one worlder in Moby Dick. Also, I agree and disagree with Mr. Yeagley concerning the Samoan vs. American Indian character. On the agreement side, I would say that it would have been more likely to see an American Indian on a whaling boat at that time and that place than a Samoan (a Hawaiian would have been more normal in the Pacific – but even more likely that most of the crewmen would have been say Irish). But ignoring that statistical point, I would venture to guess that the character’s racial group was more motivated by what Melville was trying to do with the character (i.e., the character’s characteristics, in this case being a Samoan, drove the decision to make him a Samoan vs. American Indian). Anyway, it’s clearly debatable.
    Finally, I like your choice of topic and wish you all the best of luck. Also, as my father would say, “you haven’t lived until you have been out in the open ocean in a boat that is smaller than the waves.” He was crazy about the ocean, and waves of that size always frightened me and still do. The key is not to let the fear stop you; and Mr. Yeagley don’t let the cultural Marxists ever stop you.

  • 35 David Yeagley // May 17, 2012 at 8:00 am   

    Ha! Fine post there, Mr. BG. Sailing was horrific–that’s my impression. Mainly because it involves a group of aggressive men, “imprisoned” with each other on a vessel, over an extended period of time, in a naturally imperiled environment. A bunch of scared rats, so to speak. The captain has to use personal terror to keep things in order. Survival depended on obedience. The level of discipline required was abnormal. It just wasn’t a healthy environment, I don’t think.

    It was a profoundly challenging environment, shall we say.

    Melville was definitely a New England liberal. By the mid-19th century, most northerners were.

    I thank you for your contribution, BG. Truly a gift!

  • 36 Sioux // May 17, 2012 at 5:11 pm   

    Should women be allowed the vote? I think only taxpaying property owners should be allowed the vote. As an unmarried taxpaying property owner, I don’t think like the bulk of the women I know. I think I should be allowed to vote. However, because I am in the vast minority, I would be willing to sacrifice my vote for the Greater Good. Women ruin the world when they are in charge – how’s that for a sweeping Generalization…another one of my huge faults. ;o)

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