The Day Before: Provincetown

The Morgan‘s “38th Voyage” has been divided into a dozen or so “legs”: each consisting of a night in port and a day at sea.  I and nine other voyagers had been assigned one of the last legs, from Provincetown to Boston.  So getting to Provincetown, the very stinger end of Cape Cod’s scorpion tail peninsula, required some strategic thinking.  Rather than driving there via the Cape’s often overly trafficked roadway, my spouse Ginny and college-age daughter Liana made our way to Boston, spent a night as a guest of fellow Melville scholar and 38th Voyager Wyn Kelley, who lives outside Cambridge, and took the ferry from Boston to Provincetown on the following day, July 14.

Although the plan for my personal “38th Voyage” is to experience something of what Melville might have sensed when he first climbed aboard a whaling vessel, I had no thought of trying to re-enact moments from his whaling fiction.  But inevitably I thought of how Ishmael arrives first in New Bedford (where he meets and beds down with Queequeg) and then sails to Nantucket.  One beginning, two ports.  And I was doing something similar.  And I feel I must resist thinking this similarity is relevant to my biography if only for the simple reason that Melville’s fiction is not his life.  In fact, he first sailed out of Fairhaven (next to New Bedford) and did not visit Nantucket until after he published Moby-Dick.  While Ishmael and I might share the two-port opening to our narratives, they have nothing to do with Melville’s one-port departure.  I must be vigilant in not letting fiction stain biography. But who is without stain?

Morgan moored in Provincetown, alongside Mystic Whaler

Morgan moored in Provincetown, alongside Mystic Whaler

As the high-speed ferry churned out of Boston harbor, several of us “38th Voyagers”—Daniel, Paul, Julia, Jason—found each other on the windy open deck and learned more about ourselves and our projects.  And as we plowed a long arc into Provincetown harbor, we caught our first glimpse of  the Charles W. Morgan, moored in the bay with the Mystic Whaler tethered beside it, like a lesser conjoined twin.


When the ferry brought us to the Provincetown dock, Ginny and I discovered that the town was no longer the sleepy village we had first visited in 1979, when our first daughter Emma was barely two and our second daughter Eliza a projection.  The main street paralleling the shore is now a bustling parade of tourists exploring the usual touristic shops and cafes.  It was also “Bear Week.”

DSC_0127Since the 1980s, Provincetown has become a vacation haven for citizens who are gay, and on this particular week, the community was celebrating “Bears,” who are gay men of a generally large build and hirsute nature.  These are men who do not fit the standard stereotype of the slender and perhaps effeminate male, and as a point of pride these big and hairy guys have found a label that provides some degree of comfort in a world that has, until recently, denied their existence and right to self-esteem.  Bearded, head-shaven, hand-in-hand, they walked past shops and beside out-of-towner families, making their humanity seem far more real than the label “Bear.” I could not help but think of Ishmael and Queequeg.

Or, for that matter, of Melville’s explorations of masculinity throughout all of his fiction.  Readers have always sensed in his writing an attraction to male beauty, male anger, male bonding, male iniquity, male detachment, male despair: a fact no doubt resulting from Melville’s inward gaze at his own masculinity.  Thus, the inevitable question: was Melville gay?  While I am not convinced that he was, I think the better question is how did Melville manage so well to write about the range of masculinities without recourse to the kinds of labeling we, in our time, inflict upon our thinking—fairy and bear, or even gay and straight—as if these single words could ever come close to expressing the complexity of sexual feeling.  In describing Ishmael and Queequeg in their matrimonial bed or standing head to head as a “cosy, loving pair,” Melville unexpectedly applies a hetero-domesticity to the two men that simply makes labeling impossible, as if to say we have more important, deeper work to do regarding humanity than affixing labels on people, like pounding revenue stamps on a bill of lading.  Finding the “life” in Melville’s deeper work is what I, as biographer, hope to do.  I may not be able to see life as Melville saw it, but I must train myself to look at life as it is, for myself, as best I can.  A biographer is one who looks, and hopefully sees.

Soon enough, I found myself and other Voyagers on board a small launch that would take us to the Morgan moored out in the bay.  Since our arrival, the tide had DSC_0138gone out, so the launch at the pier now floated far below us as we stood on the dock.  We descended DSC_0143the steep steps to the landing below, and  I turned to wave at Ginny and Liana as they watched us sailors-for-a-night-and-a-day head to sea.  The swift and bumpy ride to the Morgan made photography difficult, but I wanted a shot of the ship from below as we approached.  Within minutes we were climbing on board the Morgan.  When I got on deck, my first instinct was to look up at the foremast towering above us, its massive trunk, the ladder-like shrouds, the spars, and rigging.  Everywhere were  lines.

DSC_0144We were immediately greeted by third mate Rocky Hadler, who showed us no ropes but laid down a few rules—feel free to interact with the crew; don’t get in their way—and introduced us to our bunks in the forecastle below.

The matter of the bunked berths was something we had all awaited with some degree of anxiety.  What if I snore, or worse, what if they snore?  Will it be “stifling” down there? Will I fit in the space? Will the ship’s gentle rocking  put me to sleep or make me puke?

00BunkAtProw1We descended below decks via the “stairs,” which is really more like a ladder, and given the small opening, it was best to go down as you would on a ladder, facing the rungs.  I learned this trick quickly enough after attempting to descend facing forward and immediately whacking my forehead on the deck as I descended.  This was the first of three or so lumps on the head, acquired through contact with beams below decks, and one barked shin.  Once you have sustained these injuries, you quickly learn to respect the close quarters of a ship, especially below deck.

In the forecastle, we selected our bunks.  Mine was situated at the very bow.  An added amenity for this bunk only is a massive beam adding strength to the bow.  I did not know whether to cling to this beam or shun it.  In approaching a bed, your instinct is to climb settle in the usual way: sit on the side, lean toward your pillow, then pull your legs in.  But if you try this in the twenty-inch space between bunks, you find yourself stuck in a half sitting posture with a bang on the back of your head, which compensates for the bang on00BunkAtProw2Beam your forehead coming down the ladder.  Regaining consciousness, I observed one of the veteran crew tuck herself in.  She simply dove head first into her berth, rolled over, pulled in her legs, and closed her curtain.  In a few minutes she was in the arms of Morpheus.

As for me, I read on my Kindle and listened for what was outside the bow and next to my ear: an occasional muffled shushing of water and bump of the landing deck.  Next thing I knew it was 5:15 am, and a very polite crew  member called for all hands on deck.