historian, author, film producer

Moby Dick and the Problem of Slavery

Deep in the midsection of Moby Dick (1851), in chapter 55 to be precise, on “Of the Monstrous Pictures of Whales,” Herman Melville takes his readers on a little tour of the various blunders that scientists, painters, and sign makers have made in attempting to represent the whale accurately. They have all erred, Melville suggests, because the “living Leviathan has never yet fairly floated himself for his portrait.” In fact, to see a whale out of the water accurately enough to represent it would be impossible. “Mortal man” can’t lift the whale out of the water “so as to preserve all his mighty swells and undulations.” The only way for men to hoist the whale out and to get a look at him is to kill him first, and, of course, then all of the whales “undulations” are lost.

In a startling summation, Melville tells you that “there is no earthly way of finding out precisely what the whale really looks like. And the only mode in which you can derive even a tolerable idea of his living contour, is by going a whaling yourself; but by so doing, you run no small risk of being eternally stove and sunk by him. Wherefore, it seems to me you had best not be too fastidious in your curiosity touching this Leviathan.”

So, what does this whale symbolize? Is it the modernity of capitalism and industry, which we can only glimpse in parts? Is Captain Ahab’s ship the United States heading toward sectional break up in the pursuit of wealth, power, and violence? Is Ahab John C. Calhoun, bent on taking the U.S. down in a twisted quest of revenge, pride, or self-loathing?

Early on in Moby Dick, we learn that the whale and the whaling industry has extended its network across the seas to distant lands. It has created wealth and power and shaped lives far beyond those who set out at sea to harpoon the creatures. “Nowhere in all America,” Melville’s narrator tells us, “will you find more patrician-like houses; parks and gardens more opulent, than in New Bedford. Whence came they? How planted upon this once scraggy scoria of a country? Go and gaze upon the iron emblematical harpoons round yonder lofty mansion, and your question will be answered. Yes; all these brave houses and flowery gardens came from the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans. One and all, they were harpooned and dragged up hither from the bottom of the sea.”

The wealth of America, then, was extracted, pulled out of the ocean, or the soil, or the forest, or the mine. Melville was up to something new here with his vision of the ships of the whaling fleet and the homes of New Bedford as part of a vast, complex, dark system, a network extending to the far corners of the earth.

While Melville was writing Moby Dick, a New England merchant born in Massachusetts, named Asa Whitney, was lobbying Congress to pass legislation to promote the building of a transcontinental railroad. In his detailed treatise on the subject, A Project for the Pacific published in 1849, Whitney emphasized the global networks of trade that seemed to him to be governed by Nature. To explain the “geographical division formed by nature” that kept the Pacific’s economy distant from the Atlantic’s, Whitney turned to whaling as his chief example.

Like Melville, Whitney sensed that whole economies were shifting in the wake of capitalism, but unlike Melville, Whitney had unbounded optimism in the modern changes all around him and in technological progress specifically. In fact, Whitney’s faith in the railroad and telegraph technology was so deep that he thought the transcontinental railroad would work exclusively to the United States’ advantage. Technology would fundamentally alter the dominant geographies that Nature determined–the flow of rivers, the aridity of certain zones, the mountainous barriers between regions.

Whitney saw Nature’s limitations all around him. With the opening of California as a base of operations, whaling as an industry, “that important branch of commerce,” would inevitably pick up and move to the Pacific coast. Whitney predicted the whaling fleet would shift wholesale from New Bedford to the Pacific for ease of access to the whales, and the East Coast would lose a powerful industry to the natural arrangement of geography and commerce. By 1849, he argued, the transition was already underway. Only through a planned and massive intervention–a transcontinental railroad–could Nature’s hold be broken and the flow of change be redirected, not just in whaling but in other industries as well.

Whitney’s brief mention of whaling, however, was less significant than his outright defense of free labor. Whitney thought that the railroad would create an independent class of free men, citizens who were not dependent on anyone or any institution–in other words, who were not enslaved. The railroad workers would be laborers for a transitional period only, as they would inevitably set up in homesteads along the railroad line. Working on the railroad would be a stepping stone for immigrants to move toward independence. Whitney’s long commentary to assuage any concerns about the problem of immigrant laborers, especially Irish and Germans, reveals just how widespread these concerns were. White Americans, especially Northerners, thought that racial difference, dependency, and destitution spawned slavery and threatened government.

The Pequod sets sail with a crew from all corners of the earth. With Captain Ahab at the helm the ship plunges forward into the seas with one overriding purpose, to hunt the one white whale in the ocean and exercise vengeance on it, casting aside all concerns for individuals who might alter this course. The crew includes Ishmael, the New England adventurer, his bunkmate Queequeg, a dark-skinned South Pacific islander, a man who came from a place “not down on any map.” As well as Pip, the young cabin boy, possibly born a slave, possibly free born.

“Who ain’t the slave,” Melville’s main narrator and protagonist Ishmael reminds us. Andrew Delbanco’s recent biography of Melville (Melville, His World and Work, Knopf 2005) stresses the importance of slavery for Melville’s outlook in the years he wrote Moby Dick. The Pequod’s labor system was not terribly different from slavery in its force, brutality, danger, and punishment. Delbanco compares it to the American army and the construction crews used to build the American railroads and canals of the 1850s and earlier. Melville in Moby Dick tells us of the terrible consequences of enslavement and power. What Ahab wants are tools, to do his work and to bend to his indomitable will. What he has on his ship are men, of course, but they are used in Ahab’s service nonetheless.

Like the leviathan, slavery proved remarkably difficult to render accurately. It was almost impossible to paint a portrait of such a diverse, global, exploitative, and complex institution. Killing it would lose its “undulations.” Nevertheless, the only way to get a fair picture of the whale–or perhaps slavery–was to go “a whaling yourself.”