The Divine Magnet - The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea - Philip Hoare 

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

Chapter 7. The Divine Magnet

To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.

The Fossil Whale, Moby-Dick

Having been halfway round the world, Melville returned to his family in sleepy Lansingburgh in October 1844. He was only twenty-five, yet he had seen more in three years than most people would in a lifetime. He had been away for so long and so far from home that he’d almost forgotten who he was, or who he was supposed to be: hero, or outcast? Encouraged by his sisters, he wrote down the stories he told them of his adventures in the South Seas where, with his ‘remarkably prepossessing’ friend Toby Greene, a black-eyed, curly-haired boy of seventeen, he had deserted the Acushnet and lived among naked savages.

Typee–the word means man-eater, although Melville feared having his face tattooed with the devil’s blue more than being consumed by his hosts–was a sensation among the men of an American renaissance keen to distinguish itself from British literature. It was a sensual, sometimes idyllic account of life among the natives of the Marquesas Islands, as well as being a critique of the western influences beginning to taint their paradise. Walt Whitman saw it as a ‘strange, graceful, most readable book…to hold in one’s hand and pore dreamily over of a summer’s day’, while Nathaniel Hawthorne admired its ‘freedom of view’ and tolerance of ‘morals that may be little in accordance with our own; a spirit proper enough to a young and adventurous sailor’. It turned Melville into America’s first literary sex symbol–an almost disreputable figure.

A year later, as if licensed by his literary success, Melville married Elizabeth Shaw, daughter of his father’s friend, Lemuel Shaw, a wealthy Boston judge. The couple settled at 103 Fourth Avenue, New York, where Melville became part of the circle known as Young America which revolved around the editor Evert Duyckinck and his house on Clinton Street. But the sequels he wrote to TypeeOmooMardi and Redburn–did not fare as well, being judged degraded, immoral, even grotesque, and late in 1849 Melville left his young wife and baby son, Malcolm, for England, where he hoped to sell his latest book, White-Jacket, and, perhaps, finance further travels. He sailed from a wet and rainy New York that October on the liner Southampton, and two weeks later arrived at Deal, from where he made his way to London and a fourth-floor room off the Strand, ‘at a guinea & a half per week. Very cheap.’

Not many people walk down Craven Street now, even though it lies off one of London’s busiest thoroughfares. Hidden behind Charing Cross Station, its blackened brick Georgian houses seem remaindered from the modern city. Number 25 is at the end of the terrace, with a wide bow window at the side. At the top of its winding, uneven staircase are attic rooms, usually the preserve of servants. Their view is restricted now, but before the Thames was embanked and houses still ran down to the river, Melville could look out of his room onto an imperial waterway coursed by boats and barges.

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London was rising in a slew of stone and brick, of movement and noise. Nearby were the recently built Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery, while the new Palace of Westminster, still under construction, loomed over the water; the sun seldom shone on its intricate façade, obscured as it was by the fog that both cloaked and sustained the city. Stepping out from his boarding house and into the Strand, the American wore a new green coat, the source of ‘mysterious hints dropped’ on board the Southampton. He looked recognizably other, a Yankee in the court of Queen Victoria.

In his travel journal, one of the few documents that details his life, Melville recorded the ‘dark & cozy’ inns of the City, the Cock Tavern, the Mitre, the Blue Posts, and the Edinburgh Castle, where he drank Scotch ale and ate chops and pancakes–Herman had bad manners, and often spoke with his mouth full–talking metaphysics with Adler, a German scholar whom he had met on the voyage over. He saw the sights, visited the galleries and even attended a public execution; Dickens was among the same crowd. He also touted White-Jacket round the publishers, with little success. But as he roamed London, other ideas were forming in his head.

‘Vagabonding’ through alleys and ‘anti-lanes’ from the new Blackwall Tunnel to Greenwich and back to Tower Hill, Melville passed the place where a well-known beggar, a former sailor with one leg, wore a painted board displaying the circumstances of his loss. The scene was an echo of the unfortunates in Liverpool, only here the picture was more terrifying: ‘There are three whales and three boats; and one of the boats (presumed to contain the missing leg in all its original integrity) is being crunched by the jaws of the foremost whale’. London itself was a whaling port. The south-eastern docks at Rotherhithe were home to whale-ships and processing plants, while famous entrepreneurs of the trade ran their businesses from the more genteel address of the nearby Elephant and Castle.

Whales were on Melville’s mind; sometimes it seemed they were swimming down the city’s streets. The visceral butchery of Fleet Market reminded him of a blubber room; returning home at two in the morning from a ‘snug’ evening with some young Londoners, he ‘turned flukes’ in Oxford Street. It was as if the imperial metropolis were rousing the spirit of Moby Dick. In his attic room, high above the gas lamps shining on the midnight streets, Melville mourned his elder brother, who had worked and died in this city. ‘No doubt, two years ago, or three, Gansevoort was writing here in London, about the same hour as this–alone in his chamber, in profound silence…’ That night he was plagued by ‘one continuous nightmare till daylight’. He blamed it on strong coffee and tea; but perhaps whalish monsters were stirring in his dreams.

After a brief trip to the Continent–his intention to travel to the Holy Land circumscribed by London’s refusal to pay more than a reduced sum for his book–a homesick Melville sailed from Portsmouth to New York, where he set to work on a new novel–an unashamedly commercial venture. It was to be ‘a romance of adventure, founded upon certain wild legends in the Southern Sperm Whale Fisheries’, he told his English publisher, Richard Bentley. In what may have been an almost desperate move, Melville turned to his whaling experiences to capitalize on a new commercial empire at home, one that combined the American talents for heroism and consumerism.

New York was more prosperous and bustling than ever, a rival to London’s imperial sway. The profits from whales funnelled through this city, too. It was a place of import and export, its masts and piers reaching out to other lands, even as it sent its equal sons and equal daughters around the world. Close to Wall Street, where his brothers worked, was Nassau Street and its publishing and newspaper offices, Manhattan’s equivalent of Fleet Street and the Strand. Nearby were the luxurious new Astor House Hotel, and the Shakespeare Tavern where writers such as Washington Irving and Edgar Allan Poe drank. Around the corner was Barnum’s American Museum which, that summer, was decorated with a huge canvas banner advertising the whale that lay within.

As much as Moby-Dick was a product of Melville’s adventures at sea, it was also born of the city; its opening scenes state as much, set as they are on the quayside at the end of Pearl Street. In a strange, allusive manner, New York itself became the White Whale, just as Joseph Conrad would see Brussels as a whited sepulchre built on human bones, and as Gansevoort Melville had seen London as the modern Babylon. Even the island of Manhattan was whale-shaped, a pallid behemoth, both fascinating and appalling. Here, on what purported to be dry land, Melville’s desires were ambivalent. Expounded in his book, they represented both liberation and dread, deep longings and profound fears. And symbolic above them all was the whale: the leviathan that had risen from the deep to take hold of his imaginings.

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In his years at sea, Melville heard tales of lethal encounters between man and whale. Now, as Yankee whaling reached its peak, these incidents seemed to be becoming ominously more frequent. The whales were fighting back, breaking bones and boats, drowning men, turning on their assailants with a vengeful intelligence. On 15 August 1841, for instance, soon after the Acushnet left port, another New Bedford vessel, the Coral, encountered a school of sperm whales one hundred miles south of the Galápagos. The captain, James H. Sherman, recorded that having struck one whale, the beast rounded on the whaleboat that pursued it, ‘and chewed her in many Hundred Pieces’.

‘Spouting good blood while Eating the Boats’, the animal set off, followed by its hunters, but as they drew close and the mate was about to lance it, the whale ‘turned upon him and Eat his Boat up also’. In the chaos, the captain dived in to save a drowning crewman, and brought him back to the boat; but the whale had not finished with them. In its flurry, it turned on its side, its jaw lunging at the captain. Only then did Sherman manage to ‘hove an Iron into him…and in a few moments he was in the Agonies of Death and Breathed his Last’.

As he began to research his story, Melville found other accounts of avenging whales. The Union, a Nantucket ship, was lost off the Azores in 1807 after an attack by a whale, while a Russian vessel was raised three feet out of the water by ‘an uncommon large whale…larger than the ship itself’. Nor were sperm whales the only cetaceans able to stove a ship. Grey whales were called devil fish for their propensity to turn on their hunters, and fin whales, too, were known to charge and sink a vessel. Even smaller whales could be dangerous: at least one sailor was killed by a blackfish during Melville’s years of whaling.

But it was the otherwise placid sperm whale that could do the most damage. In 1834 Ralph Waldo Emerson was riding in a stagecoach when he had heard a sailor talk of a white whale called Old Tom which attacked with its jaw, ‘& crushed the boats to small chips…A vessel was fitted out at New Bedford, he said, to take him.’ Gathering up these stories, Ishmael speaks of a confederacy of dæmonic whales which gained ‘an ocean-wide renown’, a veritable champions’ league: Timor Jack, ‘scarred like an iceberg’, a fearsome fighter who was only caught when a barrel lashed to the end of a harpoon with which he was tapped on the shoulder, distracted his attention while ‘means were found of giving him his death wound’ New Zealand Tom, which destroyed nine boats before breakfast and was ‘terror of all cruisers…in the vicinity of the Tattoo Land!’ and Don Miguel, another grizzled battler, ‘marked like an old tortoise with mystic hieroglyphs upon the back!’

Of all such whales, the most vivid–because it came as a firsthand testimony–and the most infamous was the one that sank the Essex, an account of which was published in 1821 by the ship’s mate, Owen Chase. His title summed up the story sensationally, if not succinctly:

NARRATIVE OF THE MOST EXTRAORDINARY AND DISTRESSING SHIPWRECK OF THE WHALE-SHIP ESSEX, OF NANTUCKET: WHICH WAS ATTACKED AND FINALLY DESTROYED BY A LARGE SPERMACETI-WHALE IN THE PACIFIC OCEAN.

In his book (which to Melville bore ‘obvious tokens’ of having been dictated), the aptly named Chase describes how a bull sperm whale, apparently enraged by attacks on his fellow whales, came at the Essex at ‘twice his ordinary speed’, with ‘tenfold fury’ and ‘vengeance in his aspect’, his tail thrashing and his head halfway out of the water–a truly terrifying sight. Hitting the ship full-on, the whale smashed into her bows, then swam off to leeward and was not seen again. The resultant exchange between Captain Pollard and his first mate might have come from a 1940s British film.

‘My God, Mr Chase, what is the matter?’

‘We have been stove by a whale.’

As the Essex sank, her crew were circled by the animals they had hunted, the whales unseen in the darkness, ‘blowing and spouting at a terrible rate’. Drifting on the ocean in open boats, the shipwrecked men could hear huge flukes thrashing furiously in the water, ‘and our weak minds pictured out their appalling and hideous aspects’. Yet it was not the whales they had to fear: it was their fellow man. The starving and thirst-maddened survivors refused to sail towards nearby islands for fear of their cannibal inhabitants–only to end up eating each other to stay alive.

Melville claimed not only to have met Chase’s son, who lent him a copy of his father’s book–‘The reading of this wondrous story upon the landless sea, & close to the very latitude of the shipwreck had a surprising effect upon me’–he also maintained he had seen Owen Chase himself on his ship, the William Wirt. However, by the time Melville was sailing on the Acushnet, Chase had retired from the sea and was living alone in Nantucket, hoarding food in his attic, still fearing starvation and having lost his mind, clutching his friend’s hand as he sobbed, ‘Oh my head, my head’. Meanwhile, close by, his former captain lived with his own awful memories. Distrusted with any new command, Pollard worked as a nightwatchman and lamplighter, wandering the streets of Nantucket as if to atone for his sins. It was only after he wrote his book, on his first visit to an island that he had only imagined until then, that Melville met ‘Capt. Pollard…and exchanged some words with him. To the islanders he was a nobody–to me, the most impressive man, tho’ wholly unassuming, even humble, that I ever encountered.’

As Melville’s imagination fastened on the story of the Essex, it was supplemented by other legendary whales in print. In 1839 Jeremiah Reynolds’s ‘Mocha Dick: or, the White Whale of the Pacific’ was published in the Knickerbocker Magazine. A friend of Edgar Allan Poe’s, Reynolds was an eccentric writer and explorer who believed in a hollow earth. He embroidered on tales of a white whale known to haunt the waters off the Chilean island of Mocha, ‘an old bull whale, of prodigious size and strength. From the effect of age, or more probably from a freak of nature, as exhibited in the case of the Ethiopian Albino, a singular consequence had resulted–he was as white as wool!

This eerie creature was claimed to be one hundred feet long, rugged with barnacles and able to shatter boats with his twenty-eight-foot-wide flukes, or grind them to pieces with his massive jaws. He was said to have killed thirty men, stoven fourteen boats, and had nineteen harpoons planted in him. Reynolds’s story ends with the whalers triumphant: ‘a stream of black, clotted gore rose in a thick spout above the expiring brute, and fell in a shower around, bedewing, or rather drenching us, with a spray of blood…And the monster, under the convulsive influence of his final paroxysm, flung his huge tail into the air…then turned slowly and heavily on his side and lay a dead mass upon the sea.’ In reality, Mocha Dick–or at least a whale like him–continued to roam the oceans from the Falkland Islands to the Sea of Japan, attacking English, American and Russian ships without discrimination before being taken by a Swedish whaler in August 1859.

It was as if the hunted whale had become aware of its persecution, and was fighting a rearguard action. ‘From the accounts of those who were in the early stages of the fishery,’ wrote Owen Chase, ‘it would appear that the whales have been driven, like the beasts of the forest, before the march of civilisation into remote and more unfrequented seas.’ ‘Sperm whales are now much scarcer than in years past,’ noted Charles Nordhoff in the 1850s, ‘owing to the number of vessels which annually fit out from American and various parts of Europe, partly or entirely in pursuit of them.’

They may also have been more formidable opponents. Chase claimed that the animal that sank the Essex in its ‘mysterious and mortal attack’ was eighty-five feet long; Thomas Beale recorded sperm whales of eighty feet; while a lower jaw preserved in Oxford’s University Museum confidently announces an owner of eighty-eight feet. In Nimrod of the Sea; or, The American Whaleman, published in 1879, W.M. Davis registered sperm whales reliably measured at ninety feet; Ishmael heard of others one hundred feet long. Yet no modern sperm whale grows to more than sixty-five feet.

Some speculate that the hunting of large whales has gradually reduced their genetic likelihood; perhaps the Essex’s assailant was the last of a gigantic breed. The larger lone bulls were inevitably the first to be taken, and twentieth-century hunting accelerated this cull, while skewing our knowledge of the whale’s longevity. Assessments of their life spans rely on whaling statistics from the second half of the last century, by which time most of the older animals–being larger and more profitable–were dead.

By the end of worldwide whaling, nearly three-quarters of all sperm whales had been killed, reducing a population of more than a million in 1712 to 360,000 by the end of the twentieth century. Even in the 1840s the whalers saw a definite decline, and wondered if their efforts would lead to the animal’s demise. In the chapter entitled, ‘Does The Whale’s Magnitude Diminish?–Will He Perish?’, the impeccably informed Ishmael cites the buffalo as ‘an irresistible argument…to show that the hunted whale cannot now escape speedy extinction’, although he also declares that sperm whales that once swam as ‘scattered solitaries…are now aggregated into vast but widely separated, unfrequent armies’.

Were these animals collectively enraged by their attackers and determined to fight back, just as modern rogue elephants, their habitat destroyed by man, are now thought to turn on humans? If the scars on bull male sperm whales are any indication, they are ferocious fighters among themselves. Certainly, the Yankee captains thought that the whales had become more wilful. Docile beasts turned on their assailants, using their own weapons–jaws, heads, flukes. Captain Edward Gardner of the Winslow, out of New Bedford, was another victim, nearly killed by a sperm whale off Peru in 1816, ‘wounding me on my head’ and ‘breaking my right arm, and left hand badly lacerated, my jaw and five teeth were broken, my wounds bled copiously’.

It was as if the whales were complicit in the role allotted to them. ‘In times past, when they were not so continually worried and followed, they were much easier to approach, although often giving battle when attacked,’ Charles Nordhoff observed. ‘Now, however, the utmost care is required to “get on”.’ As Ishmael confides, ‘I tell you, the sperm whale will stand no nonsense.’

And yet, conversely, the whales’ reactions could be entirely and almost pathetically inactive. Although a sperm whale could easily outdistance its persecutors, diving far and fast out of range, it often did not do so. Sometimes when their enemies approached, or when one of their number was injured–as Frederick Bennett wrote in another of the books that Melville consulted during his researches–the whales would ‘crowd together, stationary and trembling, or make but confused and irresolute attempts to escape’.

Paradoxically, such suicidal behaviour was in part due to the animal’s ability to live in the depths. At the surface, the sperm whale is slower, less agile and has less time and energy than other whales–and is therefore less able to flee such an unnatural predator as man. It is an inexplicable and potentially fatal evolutionary flaw, and it led the writer John Fowles to wonder why the sperm whale ‘has never acquired–as it easily could in physical terms–an efficient flight behaviour when faced with man. At times, it will almost queue up to be gunned…The poor brutes just never learnt.’

Man, whale, life, death: this was the story Melville had to tell. No writer, before or since, could have had such an epic gift. On one side, the world’s greatest predator, more legendary than real; on the other, young American heroes, men who risked everything in the pursuit of oil. Theirs was a quest that asserted the myth of America, the great new democracy in which anyone might find their fortune; but it also brought them into contact with something more mysterious. Moby Dick was a spectral creature believed to be omnipresent–‘actually…encountered in opposite latitudes at one and the same instant of time’–and able to escape repeated and bloody attacks, reappearing ‘in unensanguined billows hundreds of leagues away’. In this incarnation, the whale became ubiquitous, its hugeness as numinous as dark matter; an animal more mystical than muscular; as if the spermatozoid were a universe at the same time.

At first Melville dismissed such metaphysics. His book was to be as much a commercial venture as any whale-ship setting sail from New Bedford, his lay to be shared with his publishers. ‘Blubber is blubber,’ he told a friend, treating his new work as another Redburn, which he knew ‘to be trash, & wrote it to buy some tobacco with’. But all that would change. In his magpie imagination, named and nameless terrors gathered strength and power like the ominous white whale seen below the surface, ‘with wonderful celerity uprising, and magnifying as it rose…his vast, shadowed bulk still half blending with the blue of the sea’. In the process Moby-Dick became a legend itself; a story encoded with its own terrible beauty, one that saw into the future even as it looked into the past.

Monument Mountain stands off Route 7, its lower reaches surrounded by dense woods. A century and a half ago, the trees were not so close-grown. On a summer morning, the aftermath of two days’ rain is still percolating through the pines, drip-drip-dripping as I clamber my way up the slippery path. The hillside is strewn with huge boulders; a deep valley opens to the other side, coursed by a stream overhung by ferns. As I make my final ascent, a rain cloud bursts overhead, sweeping over the rocks on which garter snakes bask; bright orange lizards dart into crevices. At the summit, quartzite crags topped with stunted pines hang precipitously over themselves. Far below is the green-carpeted valley of the Housatonic River. Hawks hover on the updraught. All the world seems caught in the stillness.

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 Melville met a man who would change the course of his life. While staying with his aunt in nearby 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, Nathaniel Hawthorne was America’s most famous writer. He too came from a sea-going family–he was only four when his father, a sea captain, had died of fever in Surinam–and he had grown up with his mother and two sisters. That much he and Melville had in common. But where the sea was Herman’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.’

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Library of Congress, Washington

‘Handsomer than Lord Byron’, with dark eyes ‘like mountain lakes seeming to reflect the heavens’, Hawthorne dwelt on morbid things, although the monsters he summoned were decidedly human. His Puritan ancestors–with ‘all the Puritanic traits, both good and evil’–had persecuted Quakers, and had taken part in the Salem witch trials. This legacy infused 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 life enough to be chilled and benumbed’. And although he loved to swim in the river at the bottom of his garden in Concord at night, seeing the moon dance on the surface–where I swam too, pushing my way through the clear water and bright green weeds, imagining Billy Budd caught in their oozy fronds–he was haunted by the memory of a drowned young woman who was once pulled from the same river, her limbs white and swaying in the water.

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 the stories that Melville saw as Hawthorne’s masterpieces, and which would influence his own work. In ‘Young Goodman Brown’, set in seventeenth-century Salem, 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 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, published in 1850; and in the wake of its success, Hawthorne had escaped the clamour of fame by moving to Lenox in the Berkshires, close by a calm freshwater lake, where he hoped to work on his next book, The House of the Seven Gables.

Hawthorne could not avoid society even in the country, and 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 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 inevitable destruction to the whole party’. Then they all repaired to the Fields’ house for dinner, at which they discussed the sea serpent that had made an appearance off the coast of Massachusetts.

It was clear that Hawthorne–already an admirer of Typee–found Melville a magnetic figure. ‘I do not know a more independent personage,’ he would write. ‘He learned his travelling-habits by drifting about, all over the South Sea, with no other clothes or equipage than a red flannel shirt and a pair of duck trousers.’ Perhaps he even listened with envy to the sailor’s adventures, a sense of outlandish experience to contrast with his own haunted introspection. 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 dank dripping glen.

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Berkshire Atheneum

A month after meeting Hawthorne, Melville moved to a farm two miles south of Pittsfield, bought with the help of his wealthy father-in-law and named Arrowhead after the Indian artefacts he found in its fields; in the distance stood Mount Greylock, the highest point in Massachusetts. For two hours a day Melville would work the fields as a farmer; he even sold cider from the roadside, a memory of the house’s former guise as a tavern. But he was also less than an hour’s ride from Hawthorne’s house at Lenox. ‘I met Melville, the other day,’ Hawthorne told a friend, ‘and I like him so much that I have asked him to spend a few days with me.’

Melville expressed himself in rather stronger terms. In a gesture that was both revealing and concealing at the same time, he wrote a review of Mosses from an Old Manse in the guise of ‘a Virginian spending July in Vermont’, and in language that seems astonishingly suggestive to modern ears: ‘I feel that this Hawthorne has dropped germinous seeds into my soul. He expands and deepens down, the more I contemplate him; and further and further, shoots his strong New England roots in the hot soil of my Southern soul.’

Tethered by meetings and ever longer letters, the friendship between the two men grew. Later, when Sophia Hawthorne and their daughters, Una and Rose, went to visit relatives, leaving Nathaniel in charge of five-year-old Julian and his pet rabbit, Melville took the opportunity to call. He arrived, glamorously, driving a barouche and pair, with Evert and George Duyckinck, his dog and a picnic in the back. Hawthorne supplied the champagne, and they set off to visit the Shaker village at Hancock. Hawthorne, who had sampled Utopia during his brief stay at the Transcendentalist commune, Brook Farm, found the celibate Shakers a sad blasphemy, with their ‘particularly narrow beds, hardly wide enough for one sleeper, but in each of which, the old elder told us, two people slept’. It was a ‘close junction of man with man’ which Hawthorne professed to find ‘hateful and disgusting’. Ishmael and Queequeg may have seen it differently.

At Lenox, the two men would sit in the Hawthornes’ parlour smoking cigars normally forbidden in the house, talking ‘about time and eternity, things of this world and of 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 labouring 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 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. The younger man had complained of being restrained from writing ‘the kind of book I would wish to’. 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: books brought back from London, such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or ones borrowed from the New York library, such as William Scoresby’s An Account of the Arctic Regions; Robert Burton’s eccentric and digressive Anatomy of Melancholy; essays by Emerson in which God was revealed in nature; and Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, imbued with dreams, dæmonic possession and self-sacrificing love.

Then he found a complete edition of Shakespeare’s plays in print large enough to overcome his weak eyes. ‘I would to God Shakespeare had lived later, & promenaded in Broadway,’ he fantasized. But he would also fill his own book with earthy asides and euphemisms; jokes about chowder and bar-room quips with which Ishmael wryly undermines his creator’s high-flown words, declaring at one point that he regards the whole dangerous voyage of the Pequod–and life itself–as a ‘vast practical joke’, and informs Queequeg that he ‘might as well go below and make a rough draft of my will’, with his friend as his lawyer, executor, and legatee.

Melville was liberated by America, a place where he could write about anything and everything, and where he was perfectly aware of the double meaning of his words, even as Starbuck exhorted his crew: ‘Pull my boys! Sperm, sperm’s the play!’ There was a new urgency to his work which almost seemed to set him apart from what he was doing, time-coding his words–

…that down to this blessed minute (fifteen and a quarter minutes past one o’clock P.M. of this sixteenth day of December, A.D. 1850), it should still remain a problem, whether these spoutings are, after all, really water, or nothing vapour…

–as if he were suddenly able to see beyond himself and into the whale, in an out-of-body experience even as he moved towards it. Like Ishmael, he felt reborn. ‘Until I was twenty-five I had no development at all,’ he told Hawthorne. ‘From my twenty-fifth year I date my life.’ 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 re-writing obsessively, creating a kind of exclusion zone to which his own wife Lizzie could only gain admittance by knocking incessantly on his door until he deigned to answer.

He had recreated 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. There was something forbidden about his subject, named for a mythic Mocha Dick but which also elided with the name of his fellow deserter, the dark and prepossessing friend whom he had thought dead but had met again in Rochester, New York. ‘I have seen Toby, have his darguerrotype [sic]–a lock of the ebon curls.’

Melville almost dared not to write his book, even as he advised a female friend not to read it. ‘Dont you buy it–dont you read it, when it comes out,’ he warned her. ‘It is not a peice [sic] of fine feminine 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. ‘But I don’t know but a book in a man’s brain is better off than a book bound in calf,’ he told Evert Duyckinck, ‘–at any rate it is safer from criticism.’ That binding might have been the tattooed skin of the pagan Queequeg; or the book his counter-bible, bound in the ghastly pale hide of the Whale itself. What began as an exercise in propaganda for the American whaling industry ended up as a warning to all mankind of its own evil. Melville had learned Hawthorne’s lessons well.

It was, ostensibly, a cheery timetable, a rural regime. He rose at eight to give his cow and horse their breakfast before breaking his own, then settled to work till two thirty in the afternoon, when, by arrangement, Lizzie knocked and kept on knocking until her husband answered. After driving out in the countryside, he spent his evening ‘in a sort of mesmeric state, not being able to read–only now & then skimming over some large-printed book’. Such self-imposed isolation seemed to invoke his increasingly strange and wilful voyage.

I have a sort of sea-feeling here in the country, now that the ground is all cover with snow. I look out of my window in the morning when I rise as I would out of a port-hole of a ship in the Atlantic. My room seems a ship’s cabin, and at nights when I wake up and hear the wind shrieking, I almost fancy there is too much sail on the house, and I had better go on the roof & rig in the chimney.

Working in the shadow of Mount Greylock, which he could see in the distance, the peak’s blunt and sometimes snowy brow conjured up the White Whale, ‘the mightiest animated mass that has survived the flood; most monstrous and most mountainous! That Himmelehan, salt-sea Mastodon, clothed with such portentousness of unconscious power.’

To friends, Melville spoke of the smooth running of his writing, but Lizzie wrote of a terrible time, a book accomplished ‘under unfavourable circumstances–would sit at his desk all day not eating any thing till four or five o’clock–then ride to the village after dark’. Like Hawthorne–who walked around Concord with his head so bowed that he did not recognize buildings that he passed every day when he was shown photographs of them–Melville removed himself from human contact in order to write more forcefully about humanity. The result was a work written and performed in secrecy like a Masonic ritual, underlain with a conspiratorial text, what Melville told Hawthorne to be the secret motto of his book–

Ego no baptizo te in nomine patris, sed in nomine diaboli

–that is, ‘I do not baptize you in the name of the Father, but in the name of the Devil’.

The Little Red Inn, Lenox, Western Massachusetts, 14th November, 1851, late afternoon, dreary snow and wind.

The chairs scrape over the boards as they draw nearer to the table. For two men to dine together was not usual in a country town. Melville had hired a private room for his publication party for Moby-Dick. There was only one guest.

Melville gave the finished copy to Hawthorne that afternoon. In those few seconds, as the book passed from hand to hand, between leaving go and taking hold, all the effort, all the energy of his life was distilled, the summary of his existence to date.

Hawthorne opened the book and saw the words inside:

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It was a public declaration, and an infinite demand.

Hawthorne’s reaction to Moby-Dick is one of the great lost letters of literature, but we can see its shape by Melville’s response.

A sense of unspeakable security is in me this moment, on account of your having understood the book. I have written a wicked book, and feel as spotless as the lamb…

Hawthorne opened Melville’s eyes to allegories and subtleties he had not seen in his own work. In response, and in an extraordinary mixture of arrogance and blasphemy and faith and love, the younger man almost accuses his friend and mentor:

Whence come you, Hawthorne? By what right do you drink from my flagon of life? And when I put it to my lips–lo, they are yours and not mine. I feel that the Godhead is broken up like the bread at the Supper, and that we are the pieces. Hence this infinite fraternity of feeling…You understood the pervading thought that impelled the book…Was it not so? You were archangel enough to despise the imperfect body, and embrace the soul.

Even given the exaggerations of Victorian correspondence, these are dramatic words, and we can only imagine Hawthorne’s reply. He may have been grateful he was about to leave Lenox. In Hawthorne, Melville sought refuge from the dark, like Ishmael and Queequeg settling down for their second night together at the Spouter Inn.

Lord, when shall we be done changing? Ah! but it’s a long stage, and no inn in sight, and night coming, and the body cold. But with you for a passenger, I am content and can be happy.

As his unholy book would be condemned by the good folk of the Berkshires, so he yearned for an eternity that his works, and those of his friend, might provide.

I shall leave the world, I feel, with more satisfaction for having come to know you. Knowing you persuades me more than the Bible of our immortality…The divine magnet is on you, and my magnet responds. Which is the biggest? A foolish question–they are One.

It was a plea for fellow feeling that went beyond sex or intellect. It fed on the same unknowing power that drove his work; and as his relationship with Hawthorne could go no further–as he crossed the line of normal behaviour–so Melville never recovered from Moby-Dick.

On its publication, Melville’s book confused and confounded the critics. Was it a gothic sensation, political parable, or a religious tract? Some thrilled to the chase, and the final battle between Ahab and the White Whale–‘he comes up to battle, like an army with banners…The fight is described in letters of blood’–but many were mystified, or even irate. Melville might have expected as much. He was more moved by the newspaper reports of a whale that had stove in a New Bedford ship. ‘Crash! Comes Moby Dick himself, & reminds me of what I have been about for part of the last year or two,’ he wrote to Evert Duyckinck. ‘It is really & truly a surprising coincidence–to say the least…Ye Gods! what a commentator is this Ann Alexander whale. What he has to say is short & pithy & very much to the point. I wonder if my evil art has raised this monster.’

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Bodleian Library, Oxford

Despite its appearance on both sides of the Atlantic (like the White Whale, it could be in two places at the same time), the book prospered in neither. In order to register its copyright, it was first published in London under the title The Whale, in three volumes designed to catch the eye of the carriage trade, with bright blue boards and a handsomely embossed gilt whale swimming down each white spine. But just as that was a right whale–and therefore the wrong whale–so the expense of the English edition–which cost a guinea and a half, and which seemed to reflect the lavishness of that year’s Great Exhibition–was undermined by Bentley’s decision to excise the epilogue in which Ishmael survives to tell his tale (as well as sections he considered blasphemous or obscene), an omission that further confused the readers. The ending was restored for the American edition–a much more egalitarian, single volume affair, priced at a dollar fifty (although even this was available in a selection of differently coloured covers)–but Harper and Brothers never sold out of their three thousand copies, the remainder of which perished in a fire in the publisher’s downtown Manhattan warehouse in 1853. It was a judgement, perhaps, to echo Hawthorne’s bonfire of the vanities, and confirmation of its own author’s assessment of his wicked book.

What made Melville also unmade him; it was the abiding paradox of his life. His adventures had provided him with material for his fiction, but they had ruined him for it, too, making him forever restless. By going to sea, Melville lived the life that would make his books possible; but his escapades also made him unfit for life as a writer. Haunted by the grand hooded phantom, the great whale, he felt dogged by ‘the invisible police officer of the Fates, who has the constant surveillance of me…and influences me in some unaccountable way’.

Even as Moby-Dick was being published, Melville was at work on the decidedly land-locked Pierre, Or The Ambiguities, an autobiographical novel about a celebrated New York author who at one point is pursued down the street by a cameraman wanting to take his photograph, just as his alter ego had run from the Typees for fear their tattooists would take his face away. (‘I respectfully decline being oblivionated by a Daguerretype,’ Melville told another friend, ‘what a devel of an unspellable word!’) But his increasingly dark vision met with depressingly decreasing returns and a dwindling readership; and so in October 1856, despite suffering severe rheumatism, he embarked on what was to be his last great adventure.

‘Mr Melville much needs this relaxation from his severe literary labours of several years past,’ noted the Berkshire County Eagle, ‘and we doubt not that he will return with renovated health and a new store of those observations of travel which he works so charmingly.’ With him he carried his latest manuscript, The Confidence-Man, hoping to sell it in London. His ship arrived in Glasgow, where Melville marvelled at the shipyards and women with faces like cattle. At Edinburgh, he stopped to get his laundry done–

9 Shirts

1 Night shirt

7 Handkerchiefs

2 Pair stockings

Drawers & under shirt

–then proceeded, via Lancaster and York, to Liverpool, with its memories of his first sea voyage. Lodging at the White Bear on Dale Street, the next day he walked out in the rain ‘to find Mr Hawthorne’, but the address was out of date and his journey futile. The following morning he called at the consulate, and found Nathaniel.

Hawthorne had spent the last four years as American consul in Liverpool, living with his family in nearby Southport; he was now in his fifties, and balding. Melville too looked ‘a little paler, and perhaps a little sadder’. Learning of his friend’s ill health, Hawthorne diagnosed ‘too constant literary occupation, pursued without much success’, and a ‘morbid state of mind…I do not wonder that he found it necessary to take an airing through the world, after so many years of toilsome pen-labour and domestic life, following upon so wild and adventurous a youth as his was.’

The two men took the afternoon train to Southport, a faded resort once patronized by Louis Napoleon, now a shadow of its former splendour. The next day they walked on the beach, blown along by the wind, and sat in a hollow in the dunes to smoke cigars. Melville began to talk of Providence and futurity, ‘and of everything that lies beyond human ken’. He told Hawthorne that he had ‘pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated’ like Ishmael leaving Manhattan, he seemed to advance a death-wish.

‘It is strange how he persists–and had persisted ever since I knew him, and probably long before–in wandering to and fro over these deserts, as dismal and monotonous as the sand hills amid which we were sitting,’ Hawthorne wrote in his journal. ‘He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief…If he were a religious man, he would be one of the most truly religious and reverential; he has a very high and noble nature, and better worth immortality than most of us.’

This was a high tribute from Hawthorne; a mirror, in its way, of the faith Melville had placed in him–as if only now he realized it and felt guilty for not having done more. But who could have saved Melville from himself? A few days later, he sailed from Liverpool for the Holy Land, leaving his trunk behind at Hawthorne’s consulate, taking only a carpet-bag with him. The two men never met again.

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Arrowhead is set close to the road, sheltered by trees. The rain washes the light out of the sky, the clouds rolling inky-black over the ochre house. Minutes later the sun is sharpening the clapboard, picking out acid orange day-lilies along the picket fence. Everything seems green and lush. Inside, the place feels uninhabited. Its wooden floors smell warm in the summer afternoon, but the rooms echo only to hushed voices. In the upstairs study, through the wavy, watery window, I can just make out the locked grey lump of Mount Greylock on the horizon, masked by trees.

…here and there from some lucky point of view you will catch passing glimpses of the profiles of whales defined along the undulating ridges. But you must be a thorough whaleman, to see these sights…

By the fireside is a toggle-head harpoon–

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And if you be a philosopher, though seated in the whaleboat, you would not at heart feel one whit more of terror, than though seated before your evening fire with a poker, and not a harpoon, by your side.

–and nearby, a battered chest, left behind ‘like a hurried traveller’s trunk’, with a handwritten luggage label, partly erased:

H. Melville–East 26th Street

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Our guide thinks Hawthorne was a handsome man, ‘and that was the beginning of the trouble’. And I think of all those minor scenes, commonplace for all their protagonists’ fame, two men smoking their cigars and drinking their brandy and staying up late, talking into the night.

For now the words descended like the calm of mountains–

–Nathaniel had been shy because his love was selfish–

W.H. Auden, ‘Herman Melville’

As dusk falls, the shutters come down. The doors are locked, and the house stands empty again. Mountains lie between–the mountain on which they met, and the mountain that marked their parting–rocks half covered in firs but bare to the summit, reaching out to the sky and back down to the sea.

It was the whiteness of the whale which appalled me

In 1863 Melville gave up trying to farm at Arrowhead and moved back to New York and a house in Gramercy Park. From there he would walk down to the Battery, where he earned four dollars a day as Deputy Inspector No. 75 of the Custom Service, ‘as though his occupation were another island.’ In the evening he would work in his study, facing a wall like Bartleby. What did those years add up to but tragedy? In 1866, in the bedroom upstairs, his eighteen-year-old son Malcolm shot himself in the head with a pistol he kept under his pillow. Twenty years later, Stanwix, his other son, died of consumption, alone in a San Francisco hotel, aged thirty-four. As he looked through his window, across the street, Melville could see the terraced houses, mirrors of his own, their stone steps and iron railings a rhythm of urban banality, a view that never changed, unlike the sea.

His end would be as equivocal as his beginning. Melville was seventy-two years old when he died of a heart attack, just after midnight on a Monday morning in September 1891, before Manhattan had begun its working week. Thirty years had elapsed since his last novel, The Confidence-Man, and he had published only poetry since. After his interment in Woodlawns cemetery in the Bronx, Lizzie tidied up her husband’s papers and put the manuscript of Billy Budd, Sailor away in a drawer. Glued to the inside of the desk on which he wrote it was a tiny clipping:

Keep true to the dreams of thy youth

Outside the city, in a bleak suburb–all the bleaker for a freezing February afternoon when the chill bleeds the colour out of the streets and sky–cars roar along the freeway in a twenty-four-hour race to get in and out of New York. They drive by without an upward glance to where their ancestors lie, having long given up the chase.

Shiny memorials line these tidy lanes; the names of city worthies are as deep-etched as the day they were set on these sepulchral avenues, suburbs of the dead, a sharp contrast to the simplicity of a Quaker graveyard. Last week’s snow lies grey and gritty like an ice lolly spilt on the pavement. From my pocket I take a piece of slate, found on a Nantucket beach. I lean over to place it on the marble headstone, carved with ivy as if to mimic the living wreath growing around its feet.

HERMAN MELVILLE

Born August 1, 1819
Died September 28, 1891

Above the inscription is an extravagantly empty scroll, chosen by the author as his memorial; its blankness seems to mock all the books he did not write. Next to him lies Elizabeth, biding her silence, as ever; and on the other side, smaller memorials to his sons, both dead before their father. It is a sad array, a family reunited on a bare Bronx hill. Kicking at one of the little icebergs of frozen snow, I work up enough powder to shape a white whale on the lifeless grass, an acorn for its eye and a twig for its mouth. It looks childish, a cartoon animal playing over the writer’s whitened bones. I wait to feel something, to commune with the writer’s spirit. But there is nothing here, in this civic facility. The stone and the earth are all as dead as the asphalt over which the traffic hurtles en route for somewhere else.

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Dan Towler