Thursday, June 17, 2010

Moby-Dick by Philip Hoare

It was here in Western Massachusetts, in the summer of 1850, away from 'the heat and dust of the babylonish brick-kiln of New York', that Herman Melville met a man who would change the course of his life. While staying with his aunt in Pittsfield, he read Nathaniel Hawthorne's Mosses from an Old Manse, and was besotted with its wistful evocation of old New England. By coincidence Hawthorne himself was living nearby, drawn to the sublime beauty of the Berkshires – countryside not unlike England's Lake District. It was a romantic setting in the purest sense of the word; and what happened next was a kind of epiphany.

At forty-six years old, Hawthorne was America's most famous writer. He to came from a sea-going family, that much he and Melville had in common. But where the sea was Melville's Harvard and Yale, Nathaniel had attended the grassy campus of Bowdoin College, Maine, before exchanging it for a gloomy house in Salem, where he spent twelve years sequestered in his attic, emerging only at night to walk the streets. 'I have made a captive of myself, and put me into a dungeon,' he confessed 'and now, I cannot find the key to let myself out.'

Hawthorne dwelt on morbid things, although the monsters he summoned were decidedly human - his Puritan ancestors with ' all the Puritanical traits, both good and evil'- a legacy the fictional world Hawthorne inhabited, and the real world he invented. He was, as the poet Mary Oliver would write, 'one of the great imaginers of evil'.

Hawthorne was filled with regret at the way the world had been, and the way it was becoming. 'Here and there and all around us,' he wrote in his story, 'Fire worship...the inventions of mankind are fast blotting the picturesque, the poetic, and the beautiful out of human life.' He once told his wife Sophia that he felt as if he were 'already in the grave, with only enough life to be chilled and benumbed.'

Hawthorne was, in his own words, ' a man not estranged from human life, yet enveloped in the midst of it, with a veil woven of intermingled gloom and brightness. He wrote artful allegories burdened with the weight of history, guilt and revenge, especially in the stories that Melville saw as Hawthorne's masterpieces, and which would influence his own work. In Young Goodman Brown a young man is summoned to the forest at night to find the entire town enslaved to the devil, even his young wife. In the futuristic Earth's Holocaust', a bonfire on the prairie incinerates every example of human excess, from tobacco to the works of literature. Yet one thing will not burn in this reforming pyre: the latent evil in every human heart. Sin, too, was the subject of his novel The Scarlet Letter and it was in the wake of its success that Hawthorne had escaped the clamour of fame by moving to Lenox in the Berkshires.

Hawthorne could not avoid society even in the country, and it was on 5 August he was persuaded to attend a picnic organized by David Dudley Field, a well-connected New York lawyer. The guests included distinguished literary figures: Evert Duyckinck, Oliver Wendell Holmes – coiner of the term, Boston Brahmin, 'several ladies' and Melville. The party set off for Monument Mountain, but before they could reach the summit a sudden shower sent them running for shelter under a rocky ledge, where they drank champagne from a silver mug.

As the sun reappeared, the picnickers struck out for the mountain top. Melville was in high spirits; perhaps the alcohol and the rarefied air had gone to his head. He clambered over a long rock which jutted out like a bowsprit, pretending to haul in an imaginary rigging, and made as if to harpoon a whale-shaped pond in the valley below. The young man's play-acting was a burst of energy in the dog-days of summer- an echo of the scenes in Typee in which the narrator and his fellow deserter Toby climb a tropical peak to escape the tyranny of their ship, and feel the intensity of their new -found freedom.

The headiness of the day, the sublimity of the landscape, and, perhaps, Melville's company, were infectious, and they roused Hawthorne to similar antics. That afternoon, as they wandered through the 'Gothic shades' of a gloomy spot known as the Icy Glen – it was said ice was found in its mossy recesses all year round- it was his turn to perform, shouting out in his rich voice, 'warnings of the inevitable destruction of the whole party.'

It was clear that Hawthorne – already an admirer of Typee – found Melville a magnetic figure... that day on the mountain marked an almost alchemical mix: of fire - -Hawthorne's prairie holocaust – and water Melville's whalish romance. Both were men of a brave new republic; both might have looked optimistically towards the future. But in time, the lively and mercurial Melville would descend into the gloom that Hawthorne inhabited, swapping the sun-baked summit for the drank dripping glen.

At Lenox, the two men would sit in the Hawthorne's parlor smoking cigars normally forbidden in the house, talking 'about time and eternity, things of this world and the next...and all possible and impossible matters, that lasted pretty deep into the night ( a phrase that Sophia inked out when editing her husband's journal for publication). They did not agree on all subjects: on slavery, for instance, for whose victims Hawthorne had not 'the slightest sympathy...or, at least, not half as much for the laboring whites, who, I believe, as a general thing, are ten times worse off.' For all Melville felt for Hawthorne, it seemed he wanted more than his friend could give.

Melville's book- which he had described to Evert Duyckinck as 'a romantic, fanciful & literal & most enjoyable presentment of the Whale Fishery'- was almost finished when he came to the Berkshires. Meeting Hawthorne changed all that. Now he was compelled to see the significance of his experiences, and as if to set them in context, he began to read rapaciously, as though he had never read before: A complete edition of Shakespeare's plays, Mary Shelly's Frankenstein, William Scoresby's An Account of the Arctic Regions, Robert Burton's eccentric and digressive Anatomy of Melancholy, essays by Emerson, Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus - imbued with dreams, daemonic possession and self-sacrificing love. It also seems clear that the eerie otherworld of Edgar Allen Poe's only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838), teetering between travelogue and science fiction, was the birthing-ground for Melville's monster. It is the source of the whiteness that appals Ishmael and on which he expands compendiously, if erratically, like a nineteenth century search engine.

If Moby-Dick owed its metaphysics to Nathaniel Hawthorne, then it owed its facts to Thomas Beale. Entire passages in Melville's book are filched directly- one might say almost brazenly – from Beale's. The Natural History of the Sperm Whale was the archetype for Moby-Dick, not only in its cetological details, but in its other preoccupations, too: the whale's role in the human chain of consumption (see comment), its slavery. Beale criticized the respected French naturalist Baron Cuvier, for instance, for claiming that that the whale struck fear into all the inhabitants of the deep. To Beale this was just so much hogwash; 'for not only does the sperm whale in reality happen to be the most timid and inoffensive animal...readily endeavoring to escape from the slightest thing which bears an unusual appearance, but is also quite incapable of being guilty of the acts of which he is so strongly accused.”

In 1845 and 1846 J.M.W. Turner, the greatest artist of his age, exhibited four scenes of whaling at the Royal Academy, along with a catalogue attribution: “Whalers. Vide Beale's Voyage, p. 175'. They portray the heroic hunt for the whale in luminous, almost abstract forms; the whales themselves are the merest, ghostly suggestions. “ Turner's pictures were suggested by this book” Melville wrote on the title page of his copy of Voyage, and the influence of Turner's sublime vistas, numinous with storms and shadows, emerges in Moby-Dick from the first. The romantic vision that Turner realized in paint, Melville attempted in words.

But Melville would also fill his own book with earthy asides and euphemisms; jokes about chowder and bar-room quips with which Ishmael wryly undermines his creators high-flown words, declaring a one point that he regards the whole dangerous voyage of the Pequod – and life itself – as a 'vast practical joke'.

Something fused into one headlong effort, as great as his quarry, as great as the industry it commemorated. With sprawling ambition and an utter lack of convention, Melville crossed latitudes of time and space, blurring them as he did so, constantly reiterating, 'All this is not without its meaning', laying meaning upon meaning, drawing himself on, writing and rewriting obsessively, creating a kind of exclusion zone to which his own wife could only gain admittance by knocking incessantly on his door until he deigned to answer. He created the conditions on board ship inside his study and in his mind, and in the process Moby-Dick changed from a romance to a fearful, fated work. Parts of the book seem to be written automatically, as if possessed by the spirit of the White Whale, the Shaker God incarnate.

Melville almost dared not to write his book, even as he advised a female friend not to read it. 'Don't you buy it – don't you read it, when it comes out,' he warned her, 'It is not a piece of fine Spitalfields silk – but it is of the horrible texture of a fabric that should be woven of ships' cables and hausers. A Polar wind blows through it, & birds of prey hover over it.' With Mary Shelley's man-made monster at the back of his head, he conjured images of Ahab's ship ploughing through stormy seas as 'the ivory-tusked Pequod sharply bowed to the blast, and gored the dark waves in her madness'. Only half-jokingly, he spoke of his work as though it were some transgression of natural law which ought not to have appeared at all. What began as an exercise in propaganda for the American whaling industry ended up as a warning to all mankind of its own evil.

Ah the world, oh the whale.


  1. “As I read illicit American comics under my bedclothes in the early sixties”, writes the author,” fantasizing about a world of sleek-suited super-heroes, new processes – sulphurization, saponification, distillation- extended and rationalized the use of whales in lubricants, paint, varnish, ink, detergent, leather and food: hydrogenaton made whale oil palatable, sanitizing its taste. Efficiency ruled, in place of the early whaler's waste.

    Whale liver yielded vitamin A, and whale glands were used to make insulin for diabetics and corticotrophin to treat arthritis. Nineteenth-century trains had run on whale oil; now streamlined cars with sleek chrome fins used brake fluid made from the same stuff. Victorian New Englanders had relished donuts fried in whale oil; now children with crew-cuts and stripy T-shirts licked ice cream made from it. Their bright shiny faces were washed with whale soap, and having tied their shoelaces of whale skin, they marched off to school, past gardens nurtured on whale fertilizer, to draw with whale crayons while Mum sewed their clothes on a machine lubricated with whale oil, and fed the family cat on whale meat. In her office, big sister transcribed memos on typewriter ribbon charged with whale ink, pausing to apply her whale lipstick. Later that afternoon, she would play a game of tennis with a whale-strung racquet. Back home, Daddy lined up the family to take their photograph on film glazed with whale gelatin.

    Whales imprinted with the image of the age.

    It was not until 1973, when I was a teenager, that Britain began to ban whale products, even then allowing import exceptions- for lubricants (especially for fine watches) , wax and leather softening - amounting to two thousand tons a month.”

    Hunted to near extinction, whales now face ever increasing dangers from pollution, ecological disruptions on their mating and feeding grounds, disorientation of their navigation systems by sonar, heavy traffic on their migratory routes and species memory loss.

  2. The Whale; In Search of the Giants of the Sea by Philip Hoare; HarperCollins; 2010

  3. For a formal review of the book see

  4. "Puny man, lodged in his mortal frame, crawls on the surface of the globe of the earth, which floats like dust spinning round the gigantic machinery of the universe. The very size of creation and the complexity of its structure should be enough to strike a deafening blow of consternation to the presumptuous mind of man, whose knowledge of his environment is far inferior in quality to that the frog in the well possesses in regard to the ocean's expanse."

    Something Melville might of written in Moby-Dick, which details the first saga of America's quest for oil, slaughtering "the most inoffensive, profound and devout creature in all the world to light the gay bridals and merry-makings of men and to illuminate solemn churches that preach unconditional inoffensiveness to all."