The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea - Philip Hoare (2010)

Chapter 2. The Passage Out

There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs–commerce surrounds it with her surf. Right and left, the streets take you waterward. Its extreme down-town is the Battery, where that noble mole is washed by waves, and cooled by breezes, which a few hours previous were out of sight of land. Look at the crowds of water-gazers there.

Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon…What do you see?–Posted like silent sentinels around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries…Nothing will content them but the extremest limit of the land…Tellme, does the magnetic virtue of the needles of the compasses of all those ships attract them thither?

Loomings, Moby-Dick

Nowadays Pearl Street is covered with asphalt, but once it was strewn with oyster shells, like the glistening white paths you can still see on Cape Cod. On 1 August 1819, when Herman Melville was born here, this thoroughfare marked the lower limits of Manhattan. And if it is hard now to imagine what New York looked like without its towers, rising to the sky in an insatiable search for space, then it was a notion familiar to Melville, for the city changed utterly within his own lifetime.

In 1819 much of Manhattan was still farmland; Central Park had yet to be born out of the common ground where freed slaves and the last Native Americans lived. Most New Yorkers were British or Dutch by descent; this was not the polyglot city it would become by the century’s end. The shallows in which the oysters grew were yet to be clawed back from the sea, and at the end of Pearl Street was the Battery, a promenade where citizens could take the sea air. Its Castle Clinton was still an island, although it would later become the home of the New York Aquarium where, in 1913, Charles H. Townsend exhibited a live porpoise.

The house in which Melville was born was demolished long ago. Set into a wall nearby is a memorial bust of the author, covered by perspex like a square porthole and overshadowed by an office block. Across the road, the river ferries spill out their early morning commuters from Jersey, in the shadow of the moored, anachronistic masts of South Street Seaport.

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The sun shines through the cables of Brooklyn Bridge; a down-and-out stirs from a riverside bench. This is still a fluid place, accustomed to reshaping itself in its own image and leaving its history behind. Yet the past remains imprinted in these streets, and in the memory of the people who once walked them.

They were what we would call middle class. Herman’s father, Allan Melvill–the ‘e’ was added later as a claim on their noble Scottish ancestry–was an importer of fancy goods. A dandified figure with his brushed-forward hair, he had made many trips to Europe, bringing back French antiques and engravings over which his children pored on a Saturday afternoon. ‘Above all there was a picture of a great whale, as big as a ship, stuck full of harpoons, and three boats sailing after it as fast as they could fly.’ Such images left his young son with ‘a vague prophetic thought, that I was fated, one day or other, to be a great voyager’.

On both sides Melville sprang from heroes. His paternal grandfather, Major Thomas Melvill, was one of the ‘Indian’ raiders who tipped tea into Boston harbour in protest at British taxes; the family kept a phial of the tea leaves in his honour. His other grandfather, General Peter Gansevoort, after whom his brother was named, had held Fort Stanwix in the 1777 siege against the British and the Indians; Herman would call his own son Stanwix in memory of this famous victory. The sea was in the family blood, too. One uncle, Captain John D’Wolf II, had sailed from the Kamchatka Peninsula and onto the back of a whale. ‘It was like striking a rock, and brought us to a complete standstill,’ he recorded. ‘The monster soon showed himself, gave a spout, “kicked” his flukes and went down. He did not appear to be hurt, nor were we hurt, but most confoundedly frightened.’ A fine, handsome man with white hair and a florid face, D’Wolf was the first captain young Herman had ever met. He was later lost at sea.

With their growing family, the Melvills moved steadily uptown in a succession of grander houses until they reached 675 Broadway–a neighbourhood known as Bond Street whose gentility has long since been swept away by the waves of commerce and cheap denim. Here Herman and his brothers and sisters were taught by a governess, although a bout of scarlet fever damaged his eyesight and made it difficult to read. Life seemed stable enough, but in 1830 their father was declared bankrupt. The family were forced to move to Albany, the state capital up the Hudson River. Two years later, aged forty-eight, Allan died in a maniacal fever, leaving his wife Maria with only debt and eight children in her care.

At the most formative point in his life, twelve-year-old Herman was cast adrift, losing all sense of security when he most needed it. He would later claim that his mother, a strict Calvinist, hated him. He left school to work in a bank, but could not settle, and after a spell teaching and working on his uncle’s farm, he went west, hoping to become a surveyor on one of the new canals that were opening up the American interior. He got as far as the frontier, St Louis, Missouri, before returning to New York, where he was declined employment as a lawyer’s clerk because his handwriting was so bad. ‘There is no misanthrope like a boy disappointed, and such was I, with the warm soul of me flogged out by adversity.’ Rejected by the land, the young man sought a new life at sea.

On 5 June 1839 the St Lawrence sailed from New York with a cargo of cotton destined for Lancashire mills. Also on board was the nineteen-year-old Herman Melville. He was an outsider, abused by the crew for his middle-class manners, his dandified clothes, and his ignorance of shipboard life, ‘so that at last I found myself a sort of Ishmael…without a single friend or companion’. He found consolation in the ocean, which swelled unaccountably as if possessed of a mind of its own. Once, in a Newfoundland fog, he heard the sound of sighing and sobbing which sent him to the side of the ship. There he saw ‘four or five long, black snaky-looking shapes, only a few inches out of the water’. These were not the monstrous whales of his father’s engravings, no ‘regular krakens, that…inundated continents when they descended to feed!’ They even made him wonder if the story of Jonah could be true.

The sights of Liverpool, the second city of the Empire, amazed the young man. He saw a Floating Chapel converted from an old sloop-of-war, with a steeple instead of a mast, and a balcony built like a pulpit. Here William Scoresby, once one of England’s greatest whalers and now a man of the cloth, preached. There were scenes of shocking poverty, too. One young man silently exhibited a placard depicting himself ‘caught in the machinery of some factory, and whirled about among spindles and cogs, with his limbs mangled and bloody’. And in an even more horrific image, a nameless shape moaned at the bottom of some cellar steps: a destitute mother with two skeletal children on either side and a baby in her arms. ‘Its face was dazzlingly white, even in its squalor; but the closed eyes looked like balls of indigo. It must have been dead some hours.’

On 30 September Melville returned to New York on the St Lawrence, only to find nothing had changed but himself. He had made no money, and had to go back to teaching to support his widowed mother and his four sisters. But he had known life at sea, and within a year he would leave on an even more ambitious voyage–from the Whaling City itself.

The transition is a keen one, I assure you, from a schoolmaster to a sailor…

Loomings, Moby-Dick

In the second chapter of Moby-Dick, Ishmael arrives in New Bedford on a snowy Saturday night, only to discover that he has to wait two days until the next packet sails for Nantucket, where he intends to join his ship. Searching the shore-huddled town for a cheap bed for the night, he finds the Spouter Inn, its timbered interior hung with ‘horrifying implements’ and murky paintings of impenetrable sea-scenes. Here he is told by the landlord that he must bunk with a harpooneer.

There was nothing so unusual in that; Abraham Lincoln himself often shared his bed with a travelling companion. But Ishmael is aghast to find that his room-mate is a six-foot savage with a tattooed face. ‘Such a face! It was of a dark, purplised, yellow color, here and there stuck over with large, blackish looking squares.’ And as Queequeg puts aside the mummified head he has been trying to sell in town and undresses by candlelight, Ishmael realizes with horror that the cannibal’s entire body is tattooed, too.

This is the man with whom he is expected to spend the night. After some hullabaloo, however, the white American lies down with the blue-stained Polynesian, and in the morning, Ishmael awakes to find Queequeg’s arm tight around his body ‘in the most loving and affectionate manner. You had almost thought I had been his wife.’ But as he lies there, unable to move, the young man is taken back to a childhood memory, of darkness, claustrophobia and terror.

It was midsummer’s day. For some minor misdemeanour, the infant Ishmael was sent to bed early. He endured the awful punishment of confinement while the world went on around him, outside his bedroom. Coaches passed by, other children played. The sun shone brightly on the longest day of the year, defying his attempts to kill time.

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Rockwell Kent/R.R. Donnelly & Sons/The Plattsburgh College Foundation

Eventually, he fell into ‘a troubled nightmare of doze’, from which he awoke with his arm dangling down beside the bed–only to find another hand clasped in his own. ‘For what seemed ages piled on ages, I lay there, frozen with the most awful fears, not daring to drag away my hand.’ As he fell asleep again, the sensation left him; yet he could never reconcile the strange, half-waking, half-sleeping encounter he had had with ‘the nameless, unimaginable, silent form’ that had gripped his hand.

Lying there on that frosty December dawn in New Bedford, imprisoned by his bed-mate, Ishmael could barely distinguish Queequeg’s arm from the counterpane. Both were so heavily patterned that they seemed to blend one into the other: ‘this arm of his tattooed all over with an interminable Cretan labyrinth’ the patchwork cover with its ‘odd little parti-coloured squares and triangles’. Far from being terrified, Ishmael is comforted by the sensation, secure in the giant man’s embrace, as if he himself might become patterned all over, too. That night he becomes Queequeg’s ‘bosom friend’ the two would die for each other. Such is Ishmael’s rebellion against the normal world, that he should so intimately identify with so pagan a figure.

These scenes, part nightmare and part romance, are some of the most memorable in Victorian literature, so vividly written one might almost believe the author had experienced them himself. But when he arrived at the wintry port in the Christmas of 1840, Melville stayed on the opposite side of the river, at Fairhaven. He was accompanied by Gansevoort, who bought his younger brother the items he needed: an oilskin suit, a red flannel shirt, duck trousers; a straw tick, pillow and blankets; a sheath knife and fork, a tin spoon and plate; a sewing kit, soap, razor, ditty bag; and a sea chest in which to store them.

30 December 1840

LIST OF PERSONS

COMPRISING THE CREW OF THE SHIP
ACUSHNET OF FAIRHAVEN

Whereof the Master, Valentine Pease, bound for Pacific Ocean

NAMES: Herman Melville

PLACES OF BIRTH: Fairhaven

PLACES OF RESIDENCE: New York

OF WHAT COUNTRY CITIZENS OR SUBJECTS: US

DESCRIPTION OF THEIR PERSONS

AGE: 21

HEIGHT FEET: 5

HEIGHT INCHES: 9½

COMPLEXION: Dark

HAIR: Brown

Of the twenty-six men about to sail on the Acushnet, all had a share or lay in her future–fractions as eloquent as any amount of gold braid. Captain Pease, master and part owner, claimed 1/12 of all profits; the first officer, Frederic Raymond of Nantucket, 1/25. As a foremost hand, Melville’s lay was 1/75; while lowly Carlos Green of New York–a true greenhand–could expect just 1/190. For some, even that was welcome, not least William Maiden, the cook, and deckhands Thomas Johnson and Enoch Read, whose complexions were recorded as black or mulatto. They had ever laboured under a master; now they had signed away their lives to the whale.

The Acushnet was fresh off the production line; at the peak of the whaling boom, new whale-ships were said to be built by the mile, ‘chopped off the line, like sausages’. Others were converted liners or packets. ‘Thus the ship that once carried over gay parties of ladies and gentlemen, as tourists, to Liverpool or London, now carries a crew of harpooneers round Cape Horn into the Pacific’. Quarterdecks where the gentry once took the sea air now reeked of whale oil. ‘Plump of hull and long of spar’, the Acushnet was 104 feet long, 27 feet wide and 13 feet deep. Named after the river on which she was launched, she towered over the wharf at Fairhaven, her web of rigging and tall masts statements of industry and fortitude. Unlike her alter ego, she lacked bulwarks studded with whale teeth or a tiller fashioned from a whale’s jaw, embellishments that gave Ahab’s Pequod the air of a ‘cannibal of a craft, tricking herself forth in the chased bones of her enemies’. The Acushnet had her own disguise: false gunports painted on her side to ward off attacks from pirates or savages.

She was owned by a syndicate of eighteen men, among them the agent, Melvin O. Bradford and his brother, Marlboro Bradford, both Quakers. Their captain, Valentine Pease Junior, was forty-three years old, a tall, stern, bewhiskered and sometimes profane man, not overwhelmingly blessed with luck. On his first command, the Houqua, his first mate, Edward C. Starbuck, had been discharged in Tahiti ‘under conditions curious and not fully explained’. Seven men drowned, two others died when their boat was stove in by a whale, and eleven crew deserted, leaving only three original members to return and claim their lays.

This was not an unusual story. Of her original crew of twenty-six, only eleven would return on the Acushnet. The rest deserted or were discharged, discouraged by long and inhospitable voyages and strictures enforced by omnipotent captains. Contracts stated that men were not to leave the ship until her hold was full of oil, and that they must adhere ‘to the good order, effectual government, health and moral habits’ expected of them. ‘Criminal intercourse’ with women would be punished by the forfeit of five days’ pay; ‘intemperance and licentiousness’ earned similar penalties, if not the lash. To add insult to injury, wear and tear meant that they had to buy new clothes from overpriced onboard supplies. When the debt was deducted from their share of the ship’s profits, they were often left with nothing, or even found themselves owing money for their trouble. Given such conditions, it was hardly surprising that men jumped ship. In fact, two of the Acushnet’s crew had deserted even before she sailed. They had not signed up to be slaves, after all.

There are some things a place will not tell you, as if it conspires with its past. To look at it now, you would not guess that New Bedford was once the richest city in America. This now incongruous town–at least, to anyone who has not been there–was the capital of a new economy, one that reached out across the world; the bustling industrial centre of a republic founded on the backs of whales.

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New Bedford’s roots lay in its sheltered harbour and good connections with the rest of New England, but, above all, strong ties with the Quakers of Nantucket–who had perfected the art of whaling in the early eighteenth century–con-tributed to the port’s unprecedented success. One of those Quakers, Joseph Rotch, developed New Bedford in the years following the Revolution. By the 1840s, when Melville arrived, the port had grown rich–more so since it was linked by a bridge with Fairhaven, its twin on the other side of the river.

Route 6, the highway once known as the King’s road and which runs all the way to the tip of Cape Cod, still crosses the Acushnet by a nineteenth-century turntable bridge, a Meccano construction that pivots to permit more important traffic to pass. Here vessels still have precedence over cars. This is a working port. It smells of diesel and fish, and there are ships at the end of its streets. It is also a designated national park, not of rolling hills or woods, but of thirteen city blocks, all devoted to a memory.

NEW BEDFORD–THE WHALING CITY

Set next to the modern freeway, on a huge, block-like plant for refrigerating fish, is a giant mural of air-brushed whales swimming serenely in a turquoise-blue sea. The whale is imprinted on New Bedford: even the licence plates of the cars that drive through it are embossed with the sperm whale, the state animal of neighbouring Connecticut.

In front of the Free Public Library is an outsize statue on a granite block. It resembles a war memorial, but it was set in place in 1913, and carved with a succinct epithet–

A DEAD WHALE OR A STOVE BOAT.

–a simple enough equation. Despite his square jaw and Aryan looks, there is something tribal about the idealized, muscular whaler balanced on a disconnected prow; he might almost be a Plains Indian. His spear is aimed at one inexorable point: we are the whale; this was the first human it saw, and the last.

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Let his monument stand, with his harpoon in hand.
Sturdy son of the sea who dragged wealth to the land.

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Modern New Bedford lives on in the shadow of such monuments. Brooks Pharmacy sells garish postcards of the Whaling City. Visitors can ‘Catch the Whale’, a downtown shuttle bus, or buy T-shirts from the Black Whale shop. Around the corner, the dark interior of Carter’s menswear store, est. 1947, is piled high with workwear and fishermen’s caps for modern Ishmaels. The young assistants nod to their few customers on a Saturday morning, preferring to get on with talking about their Friday nights. Tomorrow, the church steeple over the way will summon sailors to the Lord, along with the sleepy guests from the Spouter Inn.

In this same New Bedford there stands a Whaleman’s Chapel, and few are the moody fishermen, shortly bound for the Indian Ocean or Pacific, who fail to make a Sunday visit to the spot. I am sure that I did not.

The Chapel, Moby-Dick

At the entrance of the Seaman’s Bethel–which, with its clapboard and its square tower, resembles a ship sailing over the brow of Johnny Cake Hill–a veteran from the mission next door shows me inside, then steps out for a smoke, leaving me to wander around alone. The dark hallway opens into an airy space lined with box pews and white marble slabs set into the wall, each a witness to past mourning, ‘as if each silent grief were insular and incommunicable’.

In Memory of
CAPT. WM. SWAIN
Master of the Christopher Mitchell of Nantucket.
This worthy man,
after fastning to a whale,
was carried overboard by
the line, and drowned
May 19th 1844,
in the 49th Year of his age.

Be ye also ready: for in such an hour as ye think not, the Son of man cometh.

The Bethel’s ministry was and is the sea; new names are added to these plaques as the port loses its sons to the ocean. Yet this place could be a stage set, and, for all I know, John Huston’s cameras might still be in the gallery, filming his 1954 version of Moby-Dick, while the high-ceiled chapel echoes to the plaintive hymn of Jonah’s plight,

The ribs and terrors in the whale
Arched over me a dismal gloom

and Orson Welles, playing the fictional Father Mapple of Melville’s story, sermonizes to his sea-bound congregation on the same biblical story,

Yes, the world’s a ship on its passage out, and not a voyage complete; and the pulpit is its prow.

Here Ishmael pays his respects to his maker, and here he listens to Father Mapple preach from a pulpit constructed to look like a ship’s prow. But Huston’s film–which received its world premiere in New Bedford’s State Theatre, after a parade through the town led by its star, Gregory Peck–was actually made in England, and the theatrical pulpit that stands here now was commissioned in 1961 from a local shipwright to satisfy movie fans who came here expecting to see it.

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Outside, the streets that Ishmael saw as dreary ‘blocks of blackness’ are empty of extras as I cross the road to the modern Whaling Museum, where I am greeted by the skeleton of a fifty-ton, sixty-six-foot blue whale hanging over the receptionist’s desk like a gigantic children’s mobile.

Washed ashore on a beach on nearby Rhode Island in 1998, this specimen was, at six years old, just a baby, but it created a giant problem. Claimed both by the museum and by the Smithsonian Institution, a compromise was reached; a leviathanic judgement of Solomon. It was agreed that the museum could have the whale, on condition that it was put on public view, visible by day and night.

In order to accomplish this feat, the whale first needed to be taken apart. The carcase was cut up into sections which were then lowered into the river in cages. For two years the minute denizens of the Acushnet ate away at the whale’s flesh, until its skeleton was picked as clean as a spare rib. The reassembled result now swims through an atrium built to satisfy the Smithsonian’s stipulation, an orphaned infant in a glass limbo. Incontinently, it still drips oil, like sap from a newly cut conifer or tar from a railway sleeper. The scent pervades the hall: an indefinable ocean aroma, imparting an oiliness to the air itself.

New Bedford’s museum is compendious; almost every known image of the whale is represented here. Most splendid of all is Esaias van de Velde’s Whale Beached between Scheveningen and Katwijk, with elegant sightseers of 1617, which shows just one in a series of sperm whales thrown upon the coast of the Netherlands in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Such strandings were emblems of the country’s fortunes at a time of flux, and in scenes of composed disaster they were replicated in engravings and even on Delft plates and tiles. They were narratives of the Dutch Golden Age–and the threats to it–and in one extravagant and remarkably accurate image, Jan Sanredam depicts a sixty-foot-long sperm whale washed up at Beverwijk on 19 December 1601.

The whale lies between land and sea; its physicality is startling, almost overwhelming. Arranged along the length of its belly are finely dressed visitors in doublets and ruffs–among them, the artist himself, seen in the foreground with his assistant holding up his cape as a screen while his master sketches. As they strike poses or perch on horseback, there is a strange, allegorical distance between them and the whale, as if they existed entirely in other dimensions. Here a whale, there the people.

Even the dogs stare.

The most prominent figure at the centre of the picture–and to whom it is dedicated–is the beplumed Prince Ernest, Count of Nassau. He was hero of the recent war against Spain, yet he uses a handkerchief to protect his aristocratic nose from the stench. Others clamber onto the whale itself; one officer plunges his sabre into its spout hole.

They crawl like ants, these humans, over and around the ravished animal. Behind its massive but now impotent tail, over which a rope has already been thrown, carriages convey more silk-clad noblemen, and tents have been set up to cater for the crowds which appear to be arriving in droves. Had it been stranded across the English Channel, this creature would have been the property of the Virgin Queen; Elizabeth I was fond of whale meat. Here in Holland, it was the subject of artists who sought to capture the strange mortality of such natural phenomena. In 1528 Albrecht Dürer, who was nearly shipwrecked, and subsequently suffered a fever which precipitated his early death when trying to reach a stranded whale ‘much more than 100 fathoms long’ in Zealand, reported that the local population were concerned by ‘the great stink, for it is so large that they say it could not be cut into pieces and the blubber boiled down in half a year’. Such incidents seemed harbingers of death: the Scheveningen whale took four days to die, at which point its bowels exploded, fatally infecting its audience.

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Arthur Credland/Hull Maritime Museum

Full of potent signs and wonders, Sanredam’s picture is framed with the apocalyptic events foretold by the coming of the leviathan. A pair of cherubs supports a cartouche containing a recent earthquake, Terra mortus. On either side, we see eclipses of the moon and sun, themselves flanked by halves of the severed whale, its future fate. Meanwhile Father Time looks down from one corner, and a winged Angel of Death aims his bow from the other, symbol of the plague that had recently ravaged Amsterdam. In a picture so rich in imagery, it is notable how one’s attention is drawn to the animal’s extended penis. Like a sixteenth-century codpiece, it makes a statement of virility, or its lack; its flaccidity is a counterpoint to the prince’s upright plume, and the whale’s name. From a zoologist’s point of view, however, it is proof that only bull sperm whales venture this far north.

New Bedford’s museum is full of whales as seen by men. Whales spouting blood as sailors ride them like jockeys. Whales belly-up, gasping as harpoons and lances are teased into their undersides. Whales painted in Hollywood style, apparently triumphant. What would Ishmael say if, while awaiting his whaling passage, he decided to loiter a little longer in the port–say, a hundred and fifty years or so–and paid his seven dollars at the cash till to cast a critical eye over this collection?

In the chapter entitled ‘Of The Monstrous Pictures of Whales’, our stern narrator takes issue with such ‘curious imaginary portraits’. He lays the blame with the ancients as the ‘primal source of all those pictorial delusions’ but the worst offender of his day was Frédéric Cuvier, brother of Baron Cuvier, the distinguished French scientist. His Sperm Whale of 1836 was, as Ishmael put it bluntly, ‘a squash’. It was a question of attribution. Advised by the French Academy that there were no fewer than fourteen species of sperm whale, artists duly delivered images more like fashion plates of Directoire dandies, whales corseted and collared à la mode, sleek with fish tails, or with disproportioned bellies and misplaced eyes.

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What did whales really look like? Ishmael acknowledges that there are good reasons for such glaring errors. These animals were seen in their entirety only when beached, he notes, and ‘the living Leviathan has never yet fairly floated himself for his portrait…So there is no earthly way of finding out precisely what the whale really looks like.’ The remarkable thing about his statements–which are never less than remarkable–is that they still hold true. Cetaceans remain unfathomable. The whale would stay ‘unpainted to the last’,

And the only mode in which you can derive even a tolerable idea of his living contour, is by going a whaling yourself; but by doing so, you run no small risk of being eternally stove and sunk by him. Wherefore, it seems to me you had best not be too fastidious in your curiosity touching this Leviathan.

Similarly, turning the pages of old books, whaling prints resemble Renaissance masters, only with something fatally wrong: not angels announcing virgin births, or merchants’ wives sitting calmly in tiled parlours, but the frenzied struggle of a gigantic animal in its death throes. The stillness of such images seems to accentuate their strangeness, to widen the gap between what they are, and what they seek to portray. In all these pictures of whales–in paint, in teeth, in wood, in sheet-iron, in stone, in mountains, in stars–never was the distance between description and actuality so great. Never have words and pictures failed us so comprehensively.

There is something about the sperm whale that leads me on, something that, even now, I find it hard to describe. No matter how many pictures I might see, I cannot quite comprehend it. No matter how many times I might try to sketch it, its shape seems to elude me. None the less, my curiosity remains, for all Ishmael’s caution. And as he lingers in New Bedford’s cobbled streets, calling into Carter’s for some last-minute apparel before his long journey ahead–even as he readies himself for his own close encounter–my fitful and increasingly dubious guide seems to challenge me to discover why ‘above all other hunted whales, his is an unwritten life’.

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Max Goonetillake