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.”