Of Whales and Melville

Herman Melvill was born on this day two hundred years ago on the narrow southern tip of Manhattan. The family added an “e” to the name later.

In the grand “Grand Armada” chapter of Moby Dick, which moves from slaughter to tranquility to frenzy, he writes “there is no folly of the beasts of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men.” Indeed. The chapter juxtaposes ‘young Leviathan amours in the deep” with yet more killing, and the flailing escape of another trailing a sharp cutting-spade, which gouges and slices in the great pod the Pequod’s crew finds itself in. (I’m reminded of the on-rushing train at the end of Zola’s La Bête humaine of 1890). Although rich with so many things, the book is above all blood-soaked. The bloody business of whaling resulted in fine lighting from the oil, exquisite clothing and umbrellas (from whalebone, or baleen), remarkable lubricating oil in watches and other industrial uses, as well as ointments and other pharmaceuticals. (Of ambergris, HM writes “Who would think, then, that such fine ladies and gentlemen should regale themselves with an essence found in the inglorious bowels of a sick whale?”)

One thing to be said for the American whale fishery in the age of sail, although it is hardly consolation (I have much trod the blood-soaked streets of Nantucket): over decades they killed as many as were were taken in a single year of industrialized, twentieth century whaling.The Cassock?

UPDATE:
This bust of Melville is no longer found at the site of his birthplace 6 Pearl St. The plaque and the niche it was in, behind dirty glass or plexiglass, are also gone. I wonder what happened to it?I did find this this morning, but it was wiped away by the overly efficient corporate team at 17 State St., the owners of the plaza that encompass some of 6 Pearl.

1 Response to “Of Whales and Melville”


  1. 1 Paul Lamb August 2, 2019 at 5:21 am

    I finished my fourth reading of Moby-Dick on 1AUG19. I wonder how amazed the forgotten-at-his-death author would be to learn that his novels (and short stories) are read and treasured 200 years after his birth.


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