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.

Sea Writing and Melville Biography

In this post, I want to begin an experiment by printing here selections from my Melville biography—still a work in progress—related to Herman’s first moments at sea, written before I embark on the Morgan.  Once I am done with my experience on a whaling ship, I want to see how I might re-write these passages.  The new versions created by such revision would be what I call a “fluid text,” mentioned in my previous post.

Some background: Melville embarked on his first oceanic voyage as a nineteen-year-old “boy” (greenhorn) on the packet St. Lawrence to Liverpool and back in 1839.  He would not go whaling, on the Morgan‘s sister ship Acushnet until January, 1841.  My first day sailing on a whaling ship will happen, weather permitting, on July 14, 2014, between Provincetown and Boston.  So my adventure will do double duty in simulating, via my own experience, Melville’s first voyage and his first day on a whaling ship. The three selected passages below attempt to capture some sense of life on a ship: its motions, its effect on time and sleep, and the stars at night.

[Leaving New York Harbor] from Ch. 39. Along the Marge

Sailing through the Narrows—New York Harbor’s gateway to the Atlantic—is exhilarating whichever way you are headed, into port or out to sea. Boatloads of immigrants, as early as the 1830s, have made their entrance to America through this strait, with Brooklyn to the right and Staten Island to the left. And the St. Lawrence might have passed one such immigrant ship as it sailed into the Atlantic. For Melville the exhilaration was in escaping America and family. The musty acrid stench of the city, the clatter of iron rims on cobblestones, the sweat and babble of workmen and whores, the chuffing of the steamboat Hercules that had tugged his ship through the Narrows, and the carpings of mother, uncle, siblings, and cousins simply dissolved. With wind filling the sails, Herman left it all behind and moved into waters he had never before witnessed. . . .

[Watches and Sleeping] From Ch. 40.  His First Crew

In Redburn, Melville makes spirited fun of this watch-induced, bell-driven system of sleep deprivation. With sophomoric good humor, he has Redburn weigh the pleasures of unconsciousness against the fact that when asleep, you cannot be conscious of being unconscious or therefore cannot enjoy the pleasures of unconsciousness. Thus, instead of seeking uninterrupted sleep while off duty during the middle watch, he asks a starbolin on duty to come below decks and quietly rouse him every hour as if he were announcing the next watch so that in waking up prematurely and repeatedly he can enjoy what would seem to be “several complete watches in my bunk to the other sailor’s one” and thereby maximize his awareness of the good sleep he is getting (NN Redburn ch. 26). Some will see the humor in this philosophy; insomniacs perhaps not.

The rigid dispensation of maritime time ignores human biorhythms. It reminds the sailor that every moment of his life is ticking away, every movement accounted for. At all times, he is being “watched.” The relentless system forbids normal sleep, countermands human will for the sake of survival, infects the mind with the presumption that an artificial order—“forms, measured forms” as Melville would have Captain Vere put it in Billy Budd—might somehow countermand the natural chaos of the waves. It even infects language.

Consider the economy of this nautical term watch. It is three kinds of noun and a verb. Seamen use a timepiece (watch) set to Greenwich time to navigate, while men in a team (watch) look at (watch) the rigging and sea during their shift on deck (watch): they watch the ship’s watch in watches during a watch. Now, after that sentence, look again at this word watch and see how odd it looks with all the duties it performs. At sea, one word for Time accounts for one’s group, identity, duties, and wakefulness; it brings the beating hearts of disparate men—their eating, sleeping, work, and bonding—in conformity to one artificial rhythm.

[Star Gazing] From Ch. 40. His First Crew

Although the city lights of Albany, Manhattan, even little Lansingburgh were dim compared to the glaring incandescent street lamps of today, their brightness limited stargazing for city dwellers, and on land Melville would have had to wander out at night and lie down in a field on his uncle’s farm in Pittsfield to watch the stars, or in Manhattan, he could walk along the Battery. But at sea, with the dim lights of the ship to his back, he could stand as far forward from the foremast as possible, press his belly to the port bulwarks at the bow, tilt back, and look straight up to the red star Arcturus over head in June. He could easily make out the familiar Big Dipper, and then follow the line of its pointer stars to Polaris on the tail end of the Little Dipper, that dim but ever-fixed star appearing only a couple hands up from the horizon, the polestar hub around which all other constellations seem to revolve. Lingering on deck into the middle watch that first night, he could see Draco perhaps for the first time, the long sinuous constellation that threads a path between the two Dippers almost encircling Polaris. And later at sea, with an hour or two to spare during other, quiet, steady-sailing middle watches, he could, if he took the time, observe the brighter stars of the Little Dipper seem slowly to move like the hand of a clock around the hub of Polaris, or so they would appear to move as Herman on the revolving earth revolved beneath the stars.

In one of his infamous but compelling “cetological” chapters in Moby-Dick, Ishmael alludes to this phenomenon—observable with the naked eye over time—when he reports seeing representations of whales everywhere, in paint, teeth, wood, sheet-iron, stone, mountain ridges, and finally stars. “Thus,” Melville concludes, “at the North have I chased Leviathan round and round the Pole with the revolutions of the bright points that first defined him to me.” Often related in mythology to the dragon, the Leviathan that earthbound Ishmael says he “chased round and round” is Draco, who with the Little Dipper also appears to revolve around the “Pole” of polestar Polaris.

Herman’s first day at sea was a long one. Though initiated into a world of work and regulated time, he had a well of adolescent adrenalin that normally kept him up late at night on land anyway, and ironically the nautical system of watches, which despite its rigidities seems suited to adolescent sleep patterns, actually required him to spend those late nights wide awake, every other day, without a carping mother sending him to bed. Like Ahab, he relished “the stillness and seclusion of many long night-watches” and alone with his thoughts at sea, he was encouraged “to think untraditionally and independently.”

Fluid Texts: The Morgan, Moby-Dick, and Theseus’ Ship

Original and new timber of the Morgan keel

Original and new timber of the Morgan keel.

How “real” is the Morgan as a ship, is an important question to ask.  As important as asking, what do you mean by “real”?  The ship dates back to 1841, but like any ship it had to be repaired, refitted, rebuilt during its active life, and it has been restored in recent decades.  So how much of the original timber is left, and does that make a difference in our understanding of this historical and critical object?

In raising the issue of ship conservation on our “38th Voyager” listserv, crewmember Frank Reed made the following comment, invoking the philosophical conundrum known as “Theseus’s Ship,” which goes something like this:  Theseus sails out on a thirty-year voyage, and every year he replaces some part of his ship—planks, sails, rigging, fittings—with new materials until, at some point, he has replaced all parts of the ship so that nothing original remains.  When he returns home, is he on the same ship?  As you can tell from Frank’s comment, which I am quoting below, the Morgan is indeed something of a Theseus’s Ship.  In responding, I raised a parallel in literary studies to what I call Fluid Texts, and my response follows Frank’s below.  I think the conversation reveals interesting ways to talk about ships, novels, “versions,” and revision.
Frank Reed (email correspondence, 6 July 2014):
When the decision was made in the early 1970s to remove the Morgan from her sand berth, it was a conservation decision with profound consequences. Rather than being a historical artifact, the Morgan necessarily became a living ship. Protected in sand, nearly everything below the waterline was “original fabric” (19th century wood) and a lot above the waterline, too. It was estimated that the vessel was 50-60% original fabric. But after re-floating, it became necessary to restore and replace planks and beams and everything else on a regular basis. Now the Morgan is less than 20% original fabric and by some estimates only 10% original fabric (mostly the massive keel). Is this an old vessel? By the standards of living ships, yes, it is. On wooden vessels, rotten planks get replaced. But by the standards of other artifacts, it surely isn’t a historical “artifact”. If someone sold you a desk manufactured in 1841 and then explained after you bought it, that 90% of the wood had been replaced within the past thirty years, you might be appalled! The Charles W. Morgan has become a literal Ship of Theseus (though it certainly has a stronger claim to being an old vessel than the US Brig Niagara –is that vessel the second oldest in the USA, as Erie Maritime maintains, or is the Charles W. Morgan, as Mystic Seaport claims?). As a completely restored and renewed sailing vessel, some have argued that the Morgan must sail, at least for one last summer and maybe more. And even in 1974, I remember some curmudgeonly locals arguing that it had no other fate except sailing cruises for well-to-do “tourists” once it was removed from the safety of that sand berth. Living ships must sail.
My Response (email correspondence, 6 July 2014):
Dear Frank,
Your delicious explanation is fascinating, and adds more depth to what I anticipate will be one of the deeper experiences of my life: sailing on this vessel.
You raise the parallel to Theseus’ Ship, which is an old paradox that has been used in other fields, in particular one that I am engaged in, when I am not writing this Melville biography, and that is Textual Scholarship and the creative process, in particular a field of study I sort of inaugurated called “the fluid text.” The idea is that a written work exists in multiple versions, and over time a text will “evolve” through various versions that the author has no control over but which reveal fascinating aspects of our culture. Translation is one such “revision” of a text into a thoroughly different “version.” And any form of adaptation—Moby-Dick appears as a children’s book, games, films, plays, operas, music—also generates numerous versions of the work.
The fluid text approach is not to say that the original of MD is any less important, only that the many versions of it are also an important way of mapping how a culture reads MD. Anyway, I have used Theseus’ Ship in talking about fluid texts to ask: how far along, from one version to the next, can we go before we find that the version in hand is no longer a version of the original but another original of its own? And my answer to this is “only when we forget the links that connect the versions.” In short, memory is what keeps Theseus’ Ship still identifiable as Theseus’ ship, even though every plank and line has been replaced.  And only memory, or our making histories of fluid texts, keeps us conscious of the “version” being a version.
So what I draw from this is that the Morgan is like Theseus’ Ship, which is like Moby-Dick. We keep generating versions of them and if we keep remembering our continued and evolving experience of the Morgan, we won’t scoff simply because the planks under our feet are not the very molecules that were first placed there. Culture is memory, and things like the 38th Voyage keep culture alive because it creates new memories about the same object, or version of the original object. So a new plank is a version of the old plank, and the person who placed the new plank is a version of the first ship’s carpenter who placed the old plank; and we voyagers are versions of the original whalers, at least to the extent that we can relate our experience to theirs, critically and with imagination.
But having said this, I want to know how many of us will want to see, touch, and feel some part of that 10-20% of the ship that Frank tells us is “original.” Can we touch the keel, without jumping over board. Melville, or rather Ishmael, has a chapter on the risks of knowing what the whale’s spout is: you risk death finding out; but I won’t get into that.  yrs, John.
[Later in this thread, New Bedford Whaling Museum senior maritime historian Mike Dyer passed along the image that appears above showing where some of the Morgan’s original and new timbers meet.]