Wayside WhalingJason Fiering: PhotosZubeda Jalalzai: Text
Early in Moby Dick Melville offers his famous depiction of New Bedford:“But think not thatthis famous town has only harpooners, cannibals, and bumpkins to show her visitors. Not atall. Still New Bedford is a queer place. Had it not been for us whalemen, that tract of landwould this day perhaps have been in as howling condition as the coast of Labrador. As it is,parts of her back country are enough to frighten one, they look so bony. The town itself isperhaps the dearest place to live in, in all New England. It is a land of oil, true enough: but not like Canaan; a land, also, of corn and wine. Thestreets do not run with milk; nor in the spring-time do they pave them with fresh eggs. Yet, inspite of this, nowhere in all America will you find more patrician-like houses; parks andgardens more opulent, than in New Bedford. Whence came they? How planted upon thisonce scraggy scoria of a country? Go and gaze upon the iron emblematical harpoons roundyonder lofty mansions, and your question will be answered. Yes; all these brave houses andflowery gardens came from the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. One and all.”
It is difficult for Melville’s Ishmael, anastute though limited observer, toimagine New Bedford sprouting nativegroves from its “bony” back country.Yet the oceans of the world havehelped sow the gardens and parks ofpatrician New Bedford. Whalemen(not farmers) have cultivated whatwould otherwise have remainedbarren. While my partner, JasonFiering, and I did not limit ourselvesto gazing “upon the iron emblematicalharpoons” fixed upon “loftymansions” we did look about town tothe images of whaling adopted by NewBedforders.In our survey we found that somehomes and establishments, while notmarked with harpoons…
…still unite sea and garden — whales andorchards…
In greater New Bedford references to the historic whaling industry aboundand have been overlaid by those of the city’s other great catch, HermanMelville’s novel, Moby Dick.
As such, New Bedford’s self-representation, whether commercial orpersonal, is inter-textual in nature (that is, referring both to itswwhaling past as well as to its literary celebrity).The images most weighty in such significance are of the great whalesthemselves (rather than their spare iron slayers).
New Bedforders have variously depicted thewhale, choosing images that to them mostaccurately if also hopefully represent theirtown and their particular enterprise. Still, inassuming the whale, they also participate inMelville’s project in Moby Dick of trying torender the leviathan, if not accurately at leastin ways that speak of their communal andcommercial identities. As we learn from MobyDick, however, such is no small task. ForMelville defining the whale is akin todefining the nature of meaning itself. Thewhale, says Ishmael, submerged and hiddenmust necessarily at least in its living totalityremain a mystery.
In some sense then, we might belike Ahab before the decapitated sperm whale’s head, asking theseimages to “speak.”“Speak, thou vast and venerablehead. . . and tell us the secretthing that is in thee” (339).
Unlike Ahab, fortunately, someof our living subjects—still inpossession of their heads—didexplain their renditions ofwhale-ness.
Moby Dick invites us to think about images and their underlying meanings as well as toreproduce images in response. As Elizabeth A. Schultz notes in Unpainted to the Last:Moby Dick and Twentieth Century American Art Melville’s novel has inspired anunprecedented number and variety of visual representations from commonplace itemslike t-shirts, pot holders, and cartoons to artist’s sketches, paintings, and sculptures. Shultz explains the propensity to recreate or re-cast Melville’s images in part asresulting from the novel’s prototypical (archetypal) status (Barbara Herrnstein Smith) andits tendency to challenge temporal and spatial boundaries (Charles Olson). The universalquestions and conflicts and the novel’s refusal of coherence allow for reinterpretationand reproduction. Like the white whale, therefore, images from the novel are ubiquitous. Further, Melville provides extensive visual details and artistic references. In recent criticism Melville’s interest in art and images has received increasingattention. Images for Melville, it seems, inspired and shaped Moby Dick. Melville alsolikened his craft to that of visual artists. In “The Whale and the Panorama” Robert L.Carothers and John L. Marsh argue that Melville’s novel was influenced by the BenjaminRussell-Caleb Purrington Panorama “A Whaling Voyage Round the World” whichshowed in Boston in 1849 and depicts scenes of whaling that correspond to some of theevents in Moby Dick. Along with his numerous references to renowned paintings,sculptures, and architecture, Melville was also affected by individual artists as well, such J.M. W. Turner (1775-1851). Later in his life the paintings of Elihu Vedder (1836-1923)inspired Melville, such that Melville dedicated his late collection of poems: Timolean toVedder.
The novel’s engagement with art and the visual begins almost immediatelywith Ishmael’s initial comments justifying his whaling expedition through auniversal fascination with water. He entreats the reader to consider the artistwhose landscape painting would be “in vain unless the shepard’s eye werefixed upon the magic stream before him” (5). From his portrayal of the NewBedford inns at night as “blocks of blackness” (10) . . .
…to his review of the “boggy, soggy,squitchy” painting at the SpouterInn, Ishmael has just begun toconsider art and also to act as artist,himself.Melville’s Ishmael considers shapesnot only in art but of people,objects, and actions. Of “cuttingin” to the whale, he says: “Now asthe blubber envelopes the whaleprecisely as the rind does anorange, so is stripped off from thebody precisely as an orange issometimes stripped by spiralizing it.For the strain constantly kept up bythe windlass continually keeps thewhale rolling over and over in thewater” (331).
Also, Queequeg’s“phrenologically . .excellent” head reminds him of GeneralWashington’s (56). Later, Ishmaelrelates Queequeg’s tattoos to theastrological etchings on thedubloon as well as to those thatQueequeg carves on his coffin.The marks tantalize Ishmael, forthey invite interpretation: He seesthese as being the work of somelong gone prophet “who, by thosehieroglyphic marks, had writtenout on his body a complete theoryof the heavens and the earth, anda mystical treatise on the art ofattaining truth; so that Queequegin his own proper person was ariddle to unfold; a wondrouswork in one volume” (524).
Ishmael also graphically details Ahab: “His, whole high, broad form, seemed madeof solid bronze, and shaped in an unalterable mould, like Cellini’s cast Perseus”(134). And, as we shudder to learn, Ahab has a “crucifixion in his face” (134). As wesee here, Melville, according to Douglas Robillard, “describes paintings, statues,buildings and carvings which decorate them, and ships . . . sometimes . . . people asif they themselves were works of art, comparing them to statues or paintings or evenarchitectural masterpieces”(4).
In addition to painting these images, Ishmael also reviews renditions ofwhales, especially in the chapters entitled, “Monstrous Pictures ofWhale,” “Less Erroneous Pictures of Whales,” and “Of Whales in Paint;in Teeth; in Wood; in Sheet-Iron; in Stone; in Mountains’ in Stars.”There he assesses the merits and failures of a range of mythic, scientific,and artistic reproductions. Stuart Frank, in his Herman Melville’s PictureGallery scrupulously catalogues Melville’s references and contends thatthose chapters move purposefully from less erroneous pictures (depictedby those far removed from whaling) to those with truer experience ofwhales, and beyond. He says, “The path is a gradual ‘descent’ from thelofty pinnacles of theology, mythology, and science to the ‘savage’immediacy of Nature and the hunt; and then literally upwards into thestarry heavens beyond sea and earth” (xix).
Through a similar movement, Jason and I have organized our images of whales in NewBedford, beginning with more distinctly literary references to the white sperm whale madefamous by Melville to a range of whales varying in color and aspect. Blue Whales
Our “lofty pinnacles” are the literary andphilosophical realms of Melville’s Moby Dick.Our more “immediate” pictures are those numerousreinterpretations of the white whale and challenges tothe sperm whale’s dominant position as NewBedford’s official symbol. We will end with whales inthe sky, a movement upwards again, that seeks to castNew Bedford into a more hopeful future.In the official/street signage of the whaling city thewhite sperm whale dominates.
The white whale’s is also the face of many of New Bedford’sestablishments and public events.
In Melville’s novel the whale’s whitenessis highly significant not only for Ahabbut for Ishmael as well. For Ahab it isthat blank wall, undecipherablepasteboard mask that infuriates him,“That inscrutable thing” he says, “ischiefly what I hate” (178). For Ishmaelwhiteness is ghastly, “the visible absenceof color, and at the same time theconcrete of all colors. . . . a colorless, all-color” (212). Whiteness reveals that allcolors, he says, are “subtile deceits” andcover the frightening truth that “Natureabsolutely paints like a harlot, whoseallurements cover nothing but thecharnel-house within” (212). The whitewhale, though smiling, references thathighly coded object of Ahab’s disdainand Ishmael’s fear.
The sperm whales, in the wooden signsweathered by the elements while notwearing that ghastly hue, illustrate thedisturbing workings of nature. They mayhave, after all, at one point worn somefresher stain or color, but now hang in agrayish non-color. Like the ragged MobyDick, they brandish their battle scars.
Joel Gonsalves keeps his thirty-seven year old sign hanging in front of theSurrey Shoppe despite his periodic impulses to replace it. Something aboutthe age and decay speak to him, and so he re-attaches its jaw and repairswind damage.
Others are meticulously maintained, covering over the “charnel housewithin” but here through the color-less, non-color.
But what do we make of NewBedford’s variously colored whales?Does this blue whale successfullyreplace the phantom white withmore natural hues? So that, to useIshmael’s illustration, like the“blue” in Virginia’s Blue Ridgemountains, we are left feeling moreof a “soft, dewy, distantdreaminess” rather than the moresublime starkness of NewHampshire’s “whites” ? (209).
What then are we to make of bluish/black whales…
Images of whales in New Bedford,also variously re-cast the spermwhale’s shape that at times defytaxonomy:
In Moby Dick the right whale’s head iscounterbalanced with the sperm whale’s eventhough, to Ishmael, the sperm whale’s is farsuperior. He valorizes the Sperm Whale’s headfor its “mathematical symmetry” andcharacter.While some of New Bedford’s black whalesare also clearly sperm whales…
…others resemble neither spermwhales nor right whales.
Elaine’s at the Black Whale challenges the gloomy white sperm whale, both incolor and in kind. Elaine Lima identifies this as a black baleen whale —which, tells us, is often mistaken for a whale upside-down. Elaine’s blackwhale, therefore, surrenders the reference to Melville’s novel and looksinstead to the black dog of Martha’s Vineyard. Hoping to reproduce asimilarly profitable sales gimmick, Elaine’s at the Black Whale stays true to NewBedford’s whaling identity, but not to the white sperm whale. This blackwhale, will, perhaps, help recast the city in a more auspicious light.
Melville comments on the accuracy of wooden whales cut in profile on theforecastles of whale boats (295). In New Bedford and surrounding towns,these profiles are numerous, though as to accuracy, we cannot always attest.
Often marked with the homeowner’s names or house numbers, these whales establishownership and place.
As signs on residences that welcome, we alsocategorize the smiling brass whale knocker hereas well. These are not the “anvil-headed whale”knockers that Melville says are best when the“porter is sleepy.” For that reason, however, hemight also have found them more (295), thoughuninspiring in their manufactured uniformity.
These are New Bedford’s fast fish. Melville defines these fish: “alive or dead a fish istechnically fast, when it is connected with an occupied ship or boat, by any medium at allcontrollable by the occupant or occupants” (433). A loose fish is up for grabs, with noone yet who can claim it.
While not all the whales in NewBedford as not content to stay fixedto walls, fences, and doors, wewonder if these are technically “loosefish.”
You might see a number of these takingto the road.
Or, while still attached to grounded structures, you might see anumber of them in the sky.
Suspended and spiraling, theyprotest their being bound to oceanand to earth.
Of these whales Melville writes:“On the spires of some old-fashioned churches you will seesheet-iron whales placed there forweather-cocks; but they are soelevated, and besides that are to allintents and purposes so labeled with“Hands off!” you cannot examinethem closely enough to decide upontheir merits” (295).
This is a significant lament from Ishmaelwho examines the whale to the minutestdetail even to the “transparent” “skin of theskin,” through which, he says he has read theprinted page and imagined, significantly,that it “exerted a magnifying influence.”
They challenge, that is, being trodden upon and being physically aswell as philosophically “manhandled.”
But, If these whales onlyintimate flight, the winged whaleof Gallery X takes whimsically tothe sky. In direct response to thepreponderance of dead whales inNew Bedford’s past, this whalecomes to life ascends on his ownpower.
Gallery X’s hanging mobile by Charles Hauck paradoxically brings to mindthe sectioning of the whale in diagrams of “cutting in.” The segmenting alsosuggests air, movement, and flight, as if the whale could yet escape itsgrounding. As the flying whale rises up it hopefully takes the whaling city withit.
Despite Ishmael’s and Melville’s bestattempts the novel concedes that it cannever contain, paint, or properly define thewhale. “The more I this mighty tail,” theysay, “the more do I deplore my inability toexpress it. . . Dissect him how I may, then, Ibut go skin deep; I know him not, andconsider never will. But if I know not eventhe tail of this whale, how understand hishead? much more, how comprehend hisface” (414)
We have certainly learned from the novel not to expect to understand all that theseimages might intimate about New Bedford. Unlike Ahab, we do not presume to find“the secret thing” (339). Nonetheless the whale as symbol and the whaling city are notsoon to be parted.
Works CitedBredahl, A. Carl, Jr. Melville’s Angles of Vision. Gainesville: U of Florida Press, 1972.Berthoff. Warner The Example of Melville. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1962.Carothers, Robert L. and John L. Marsh. “The Whale and the Panorama” Nineteenth-Century Fiction. 26.3 (Dec. 1971): 319-328.Eldredge, Charles C. “Wet Paint: Herman Melville, Elihu Vedder, and Artists Undersea.” American Art. 11.2 (Summer 1997): 106-135.Frank, Stuart M., Herman Melvilles Picture Gallery: Sources and Types of the “Pictorial" Chapters of Moby-Dick. Fairhaven: Mystic Seaport Museum, 1986.Greenberg. Robert W. Splintered Worlds: Fragmentation and the Ideal of Diversity in the Work of Emerson, Melville, Whitman, and Dickinson. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1993.Melville, Herman. Moby Dick: or The Whale. New York: Penguin Classics, 1992.Robillard, Douglas. Melville and the Visual Arts: Ionian Form, Venetian Tint. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1997.Schultz, Elizabeth. Unpainted to the Last: Moby Dick and Twentieth-Century American Art. University Press of Kansas, 1995.