January 3, 2011

Melville: All noble things are touched with that

On January 3, 1841, the Acushnet set sail from New Bedford, Massachusetts. It was the whaling vessel's maiden voyage. Also new to the whaling industry was 21-year old Herman Melville, who later said that his real life began that day.

Melville used many of his experiences as inspiration for his novel Moby-Dick (1851), though he changed the Acushnet to the Pequod. The novel's narrator, Ishmael, called it "a rare old craft... a ship of the old school, rather small if anything." The Pequod had seen many voyages, unlike the Acushnet, with "ancient decks" that were "worn and wrinkled." He concluded, "She was a thing of trophies... A noble craft, but somehow a most melancholy! All noble things are touched with that." As for the whaling town he is soon to depart from, Ishmael says:

In New Bedford, fathers, they say, give whales for dowers to their daughters, and portion off their nieces with a few porpoises a-piece. You must go to New Bedford to see a brilliant wedding; for, they say, they have reservoirs of oil in every house, and every night recklessly burn their lengths in spermaceti candles.

In summer time, the town is sweet to see; full of fine maples—long avenues of green and gold. And in April, high in air, the beautiful and bountiful horse-chestnuts, candelabra-wise, proffer the passer-by their tapering upright cones of congregated blossoms. So omnipotent is art; which in many a district of New Bedford has superinduced bright terraces of flowers upon the barren refuse rocks thrown aside at creation's final day.

And the women of New Bedford, they bloom like their own red roses. But roses only bloom in summer; whereas the fine carnation of their cheeks is perennial as sunlight in the seventh heavens.

Melville's own whaling experience ended very differently from Ishmael's; the novelist-to-be deserted in July 1842 (he then lived for a few weeks with the Typee natives in Polynesia). The New Bedford Whaling Museum has sponsored a weekend-long marathon reading of Moby-Dick; 2011 is their 15th annual marathon. For information, visit their news page.

*The above illustration is from an 1892 reprint of the novel, depicting Ishmael and Queequeg in search of where the Pequod is docked. Recommended reading: Herman Melville's Whaling Years by Wilson Heflin.

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