Tag Archives: Herman Melville

Right Whales Through the Eyes of Herman Melville

The following post is part of a series of blogs created for the Face-ing Extinction: The North Atlantic Right Whale page on Facebook. Three organizations (WDC, ASRI, NBWM) from the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium meet monthly to create and update right whale related curriculum, discuss important issues related to the NARW and devise ways to bring awareness to the precarious status of the population of this highly endangered species. The FB page is a result of these meetings.

Because the Whaling Museum hosted the 19th annual Moby-Dick Marathon earlier this month, it was deemed appropriate to weave Eubalaena glacialis and Herman Melville together, something he first did in 1851. However, in 2015, it has been done in a more contemporary form of print media.

Two North Atlantic right whales. (nmfs.noaa.gov photo)

Two North Atlantic right whales. (nmfs.noaa.gov photo)

When Moby-Dick was published in 1851, confusion still existed as to which whales were Right whales and which were later to be known as Bowhead whales. In Chapter 32, Cetology, Melville attacks the topic of whale taxonomy like a librarian, splitting up the whales based on size. Thus, the known whales were split into three groups: Folio Whales, Octavo Whales and Duodecimo Whales.

Our whale is considered as Chapter 2 of the Folio Whales and is called a Right Whale. “In one respect this is the most venerable of the Leviathans, being the one first regularly hunted by man. It yields the article commonly known as whalebone or baleen; and the oil specially known as “whale oil”, an inferior article in commerce.”

However, it becomes clear immediately that there is confusion as to which whale he is trying to describe, “Among the fishermen, he is indiscriminately designated by all the following titles: The Whale; the Greenland Whale; The Black Whale; The Great Whale; the True Whale; the Right Whale. There is a deal of obscurity concerning the identity of the species thus multitudinously baptized. What then is the whale, which I include in the second species of my Folios? It is the Great Mysticetus of the English naturalists; the Greenland Whale of the English whalemen; the Baliene Ordinaire of the French whalemen; The Growlands Walfish of the Swedes.”

The text that follows makes it clear that rights and bowheads are being conflated, “It is the whale which for more than two centuries past has been hunted by the Dutch and English in the Arctic seas; it is the whale which the American fishermen have long pursued in the Indian ocean, on the Brazil Banks, on the Nor’ West Coast, and various other parts of the world, designated by them Right Whale Cruising Grounds.”

Later in the story in Chapter 58, Brit, however, there is no confusion as to which species they see while sailing north east of the Crozetts (small islands directly south of Madagascar). “On the second day, numbers of Right Whales were seen, who, secure from the attack of a sperm whaler like the Pequod, with open jaws sluggishly swam through the brit, which, adhering to the fringing fibres of that wondrous Venetian blind in their mouths, was in that manner separated from the water that escaped at the lip.”

Two paragraphs later he captures the experience of most people the first time they see any species of right whale in the water, “Seen from the mast-heads, especially when they paused and were stationary for a while, their vast black forms looked more like lifeless masses of rock than anything else….And when recognized at last, their immense magnitude renders it very hard really to believe that such bulky masses of overgrowth can possibly be instinct, on all parts, with the same sort of life that lives in a dog or a horse.”

Melville later dedicates an entire chapter, #75, to describing the head of a right whale. “So, at a broad view, the Right Whale’s head bears a rather inelegant resemblance to a gigantic galliot-toed shoe.”

Luckily the science of cetacean taxonomy has come a long way since the mid -1800s and there’s no confusion as to which whales are Eubalaena glacialis and which are Balaena mysticetus.  We have also long settled the discussion as to whether or not whales are fish. Just before he dives into his book-focused classification of cetaceans, Melville states, “To be short, then, a whale is a spouting fish with a horizontal tail.”

There are many intentionally funny moments in Moby-Dick. This one was not written to be humorous, but has become quite laughable. That being said, Moby-Dick has stood the test of time to become one of the humankind’s classic stories. It has put whales in the consciousness of thousands of people, including those who attend the Whaling Museum’s Moby-Dick Marathon each January. Perhaps some of you will join us at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in 2016.

Moby-Dick the Reptile

Our Moby-Dick Marathon may be done for 2013, but the influence of the story and its eternally metaphorical whale continue.  A recently discovered species of unpigmented skink, in the island country of Madagascar, is being nicknamed the Moby Dick mermaid skink. However, nicknames / common names, often change from language to language. For example, what we call cod, the Portuguese call bacalhau, the French call morue and the Norwegians call torsk. What doesn’t change is the scientific name. For the cod, that would be Gadus morhua. This new skink will forever have the white whale’s moniker attached to it no matter what language is used. It has been given the scientific name Sirenoscincus mobydick.  I’d like to thank Brandon Walecka for sending this story from Cosmos magazine to us.

This may be the first scientific name to include Moby-Dick. But, it’s not the first to include something from Herman Melville. There is a recently discovered species of fossil (and fearsome) sperm whale that in 2010 was given the name Livyatan melvillei. If you sound out the genus name, you’ll understand why the name was chosen…and that taxonomists have a sense of humor. Case in point, the scientific name for the blue whale, Balaenoptera musculus. This can translate into muscular winged whale. It can also translate into winged whale mouse.

Moby-Dick Marathon, Jan. 4-6

MDM17_ButtonThe New Bedford Whaling Museum’s 17th annual Moby-Dick Marathon celebrates Herman Melville’s literary masterpiece with a 25-hour nonstop public reading of the book during a weekend of activities and events, January 4 – 6, 2013. This year’s marathon is generously sponsored in part by Rockland Trust and the Empire Loan Charitable Foundation. Admission is free to the marathon and museum galleries during the event. Donations are gratefully accepted.

On Friday, January 4 at 5:30 p.m. the weekend kicks off with a ticketed buffet dinner and cash bar in the Jacobs Family Gallery. For tickets to the dinner ($29), call (508) 997-0046 ext. 100.

Dinner will be followed by a free public lecture titled Moby-Dick in Pictures: A Drawing For Every Page, presented by artist Matt Kish, at 7:15 p.m. in the Cook Memorial Theater. In 2009, the Ohio artist began creating an image a day based on text selected from every page of Moby-Dick. The work, which took 18 months complete, utilizes a wide variety of mixed media, to create “a visual masterpiece that echoes the layers of meaning in Melville’s narrative.”

On Saturday, January 5 at 10:00 a.m., Stump the Scholars, returns by popular demand – a free program in which the audience is invited to pose questions to Melville Society scholars on all matters Moby-Dick in the Cook Memorial Theater. Patterned after a popular public radio quiz show, a prize will be awarded to those who can stump the scholars.  Questions may be submitted  in advance at mdmarathon@whalingmuseum.org or posed just prior to the program.

At 11:30 a.m. in the Bourne Building, Melville Society members will read many of the 80 brief Extracts related to whales and whaling, which Melville included before Chapter 1.

At noon, the Moby-Dick Marathon begins with “Call me Ishmael.” – the most famous opening line in American literature, read by retired Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank. With more than 160 scheduled readers, the marathon will continue through the night, ending early Sunday afternoon.

All reading slots have been booked. The public is cordially invited to come and go at any time during the marathon, or stay for the entire 25 hours and win a prize.

For the first time in the marathon’s history, a sight impaired participant will read from a Braille edition of the book.

On Saturday at approximately 1:30 p.m., marathon participants will walk next door to the historic Seamen’s Bethel (est. 1832) – located at 15 Johnny Cake Hill for the reading of Chapters  7, 8, and 9, titled “The Chapel,” The Pulpit,” and “The Sermon”  – all three chapters take place in the original “Whaleman’s Chapel.”  This segment will feature a performance by Gerald P. Dyck. Vocalist, composer and longtime music director of the New Bedford Choral Society, Mr. Dyck, holds a Master of Sacred Music degree from the Union Theological Seminary School of Sacred Music.

Culture*Park, a regional performing arts collaborative, will stage Chapter 40, “Midnight, Forecastle” in the Cook Memorial Theater.

Guests are also invited to the Wattles Family Gallery to chat with Melville scholars on Saturday from 2:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. and Sunday, 9:30 a.m. to 11:00 a.m., and with Melville artist, Matt Kish from 6:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. On Sunday from 9:00 a.m. to 10:30 a.m., meet Melville artist, Jason Hancock in the Centre Street Gallery (main level) where his contemporary works inspired by Moby-Dick are on exhibit.

The Museum’s website will provide livestreaming throughout the weekend. Tweet the marathon with hashtag #MDM17 and @whalingmuseum.

Related exhibits to see during the marathon include A Voyage Around the World: Cultures Abroad, Cultures at Home.

Images related to the book will also be projected in the Cook Memorial Theater throughout the marathon, presented by the Museum’s youth apprentices.

A midwinter tradition, attracting hundreds of Moby-Dick fans from around the world,

the marathon marks the anniversary of Melville’s January 1841 departure from the port of New Bedford and Fairhaven aboard the whale ship, Acushnet.

Refreshments will be available for sale throughout the Marathon.

The New Bedford Whaling Museum is the world’s most comprehensive museum devoted to the global story of whales, whaling and the cultural history of the region. The cornerstone of New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, the Museum is located at 18 Johnny Cake Hill in the heart of the city’s historic downtown.

Moby-Dick Marathon Weekend Schedule of Events

Friday, January 4

5:30 p.m.: Ticketed buffet dinner, Jacobs Family Gallery (cash bar: 5:00 – 7:00 p.m.)

7:15 p.m.: Public lecture, “Moby-Dick in Pictures: A Drawing for Every Page,” with artist Matt Kish, Cook Memorial Theater.

Saturday, January 5

10:00 a.m.: Stump the Scholars, Cook Memorial Theater.

11:30 a.m.: The Moby-Dick Extracts, read by the Melville Society, Bourne Building.

12:00 noon: Moby-Dick Marathon begins, BourneBuilding.

1:30 p.m. (approx.): Chapters 7– 9 in the Seamen’s Bethel with Gerald P. Dyck.

2:30 p.m. (approx.): Marathon continues, Jacobs Family Gallery.

2:00 – 3:00 p.m.: Chat with a Melville scholar, Wattles Family Gallery.

6:00 – 7:00 p.m.: Chat with Melville artist, Matt Kish, Wattles Family Gallery.

7:00 p.m. (approx.): Chapters 35 – 40. “Midnight, Forecastle” performed by Culture*Park, Cook Memorial Theater.

8:00 p.m. (approx.): Marathon continues, Jacobs Family Gallery.

Sunday, January 6

9:00 – 10:30 a.m.: Chat with Melville artist, Jason Hancock, Centre Street Gallery.

9:30 – 11:00 a.m. Chat with a Melville scholar, Wattles Family Gallery.

1:00 p.m. (approx.): Marathon concludes with the Epilogue.