The Whale and Nantucket
by: Ben Simons
Herman Melville’s classic novel, then titled “The Whale,” was first published in England 160 years ago, in October 1851. In November of the same year, the first American edition appeared as “Moby-Dick.” Nantucket and its whaling history are prominent as background for the novel, and are central to the epic journey of the Pequod in its hunt for the great white whale. But the author of this quintessential work of American literature had never set foot on the island that he would immortalize as this “elbow of sand.”
Melville based the essentials of the plot of “Moby-Dick” and the climactic ramming of the Pequod upon all that he had read about Nantucket’s whaling history, particularly the gruesome tale of the Nantucket whaleship Essex. In 1841, he was a young member of the crew aboard the New Bedford whaler Acushnet when that vessel “spoke,” or “gammed,” with the Nantucket whaler Lima in the mid- dle of the Pacific Ocean. A young sailor aboard the Lima, William Henry Chase, gave Melville a copy of the account of survival and cannibalism written by his father, Owen Chase, following the ram- ming of the Essex, of which Owen Chase was first mate. Melville was transformed: “The reading of this wondrous story upon the landless sea, & close to the very latitude of the shipwreck had a surprising effect upon me,” which must be one of the great understatements in American literature. That moment at sea sparked the decade-long imaginative eruption that would result in “Moby-Dick.”
In that one brief Chapter 14 of “Moby-Dick,” “Nantucket,” Melville wrote the definitive pas- sage about the island: “Nantucket! Take out your map and look at it. See what a real corner of the world it occupies; how it stands there, away off shore, more lonely than the Eddystone light- house. Look at it – a mere hillock and elbow of sand; all beach, without a background.”
Nantucket in a nutshell: a pile of sand, a gla- cial afterthought, but also a “corner of the world,” connected and connecting the small with the vast, an insignificant nothing that is part of the main.
Melville went on to marvel at the whalemen who made Nantucket great: “What wonder, then, that these Nantucketers, born on a beach, should take to the sea for a livelihood! They first caught crabs and quahogs in the sand; grown bolder, they waded out with nets for mackerel; more experienced, they pushed off in boats and captured cod; and at last, launching a navy of great ships on the sea, explored this watery world; put an incessant belt of circumnaviga- tions round it . . . . And thus have these naked Nantucketers, these sea hermits, issuing from their ant-hill in the sea, overran and conquered the watery world like so many Alexanders.”
It was not until the evening of July 6, 1852, that the author first set foot on Nantucket, vis- iting the place that had long haunted his imag- ination, and, in the tale of the ill-fated Nantucket whaleship Essex, had been the inspi- ration for “Moby-Dick.” In the company of his father-in-law, Massachusetts Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw, Melville bunked down at the Ocean House at the corner of Broad and Centre streets, looking across to Captain George Pollard’s house on Centre. The following day, Melville and the judge “dined with a friend,” commonly held to be Thomas Macy of 99 Main St. Macy was the son of “the worthy Obed,” whose “History of Nantucket” Melville had also devoured in preparation for “Moby-Dick.” On his walk up Main Street, he would have passed the impressive brick house at 75 Main, the home of Henry Coffin, who, with his brother Charles Coffin of 78 Main St., owned the Nantucket whaleship Charles and Henry, which Melville sailed aboard briefly from November 1842 to April 1843.
The next day, Melville and the judge enjoyed an island tour by carriage “to Siasconset, & var- ious parts of the island.” In a letter to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, Melville described majestic Sankaty Head Light on the bluff:
“The air is suppressedly charged with the sound of long lines of surf. There is no land over against this cliff short of Europe & the West Indies ... The sea has encroached also upon that part where their dwelling-house stands near the light-house ... in strange & beautiful contrast, we have the innocence of the land placidly eye- ing the malignity of the sea.”
Later, the visitors “passed the evening with Mr. Mitchell the astronomer, & his celebrated daugh- ter, the discoverer of comets.” This gathering occurred at the Mitchells’ quarters above the Pacific Bank on Main Street. Meeting the brilliant Maria Mitchell, Melville was inspired by her fem- inine intellectuality to pen one of his finer poems, “After the Pleasure Party,” in which he struggles with the question of sexuality and passion:
“Now first I feel, what all may ween, That soon or late, if faded e’en, One’s sex asserts itself.
On their last day on-island, July 8, making “various calls & visits,” Melville met with Captain Pollard himself. Much later he recalled the encounter: “I – sometime about 1850-3 – saw Capt. Pollard on the island of Nantucket, 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.”
The “nobody” Pollard, after surviving the ordeal in which he ate the flesh of his own cousin, Owen Coffin, had become the town’s night watchman. This encounter with Pollard left a deep impression on Melville. The image of the surviving whaling captain’s face was one he would take with him from his Nantucket visit – his only trip to the island that had enriched and troubled his imagination for much of his life. He would recall the captain in his poem “Clarel” (1876):
Never he smiled; Call him, and he would come; not sour In spirit, but meek and reconciled: Patient he was, he none withstood; Oft on some secret thing would brood.
Ben Simons is the Robyn & John Davis Chief Curator of the Nantucket Historical Association.