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  • Viewing Moby-Dick through the Lens of the Charles W. Morgan
  • Peter Norberg

I was fortunate to be on the second leg of the 38th Voyage of the Charles W. Morgan, an outbound reach from Newport, Rhode Island, to Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts. I chose this leg of the voyage because it would overlap the course Melville sailed aboard the Acushnet and then follow in the imaginary wake of the packet schooner, Moss, which carried Ishmael and Queequeg from New Bedford to Nantucket. When the Morgan crossed the mouth of Buzzard’s Bay and sailed up Vineyard Sound, it would traverse both the actual and the imaginary routes Melville traveled and perhaps provide an opportunity, in the words of Nathaniel Hawthorne in “The Custom-House,” for “each [to] imbue itself with the nature of the other” (Hawthorne, Library of America Collected Novels, 149). To what extent would the historically accurate workings of a whaleship help me better understand the aesthetics of an epic novel that was inspired by the business of whaling? To answer this question, I planned to stage readings of passages from Moby-Dick that could be associated with material aspects of the ship and to capture video that could be embedded in an online module designed to supplement a range of courses in which Moby-Dick is taught at my institution, and perhaps beyond.

My initial goals were modest: to create video illustrations for chapters like “The Line” or “The Try-Works,” while having other voyagers and crew members read relevant passages from these chapters in real time. This was primarily an experiment in pedagogy designed to discover the extent to which the Morgan could be used as a material source for understanding Melville’s novel. I intended to treat the Morgan as a source for Moby-Dick, but I learned that Melville’s novel is itself a potent source for scholars, informing and inspiring their work across a range of disciplines. When I described my project to the other eight voyagers onboard, I was surprised to learn that five of them had brought along their personal copies of Moby-Dick. More surprising still, each person had a favorite chapter that referenced source elements related to their own scholarly interests. The cetology chapters embody what I call an aesthetic of curiosity: these chapters mark moments when a range of intellectual pursuits intersect and inform one another, fueling the sort of critical, speculative thinking that leads to innovation. [End Page 120]

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Peter Norberg at the wheel of the Charles W. Morgan en route to the island of Martha’s Vineyard.

Photo courtesy of Peter Norberg.

For example, Jason Smith, a historian interested in how cartography was used to define the ocean in commercial and strategic terms, was excited to read from chapter 44, “The Chart.” With a sea chest to serve as desk, and a variety of props including navigational charts “borrowed” from the Captain’s quarters, a sextant and compass, and a copy of Nathaniel Bowditch’s American Practical Navigator, Jason read up through the footnote describing the chart prepared by Lieutenant Matthew Fontaine Maury that recorded sightings of right and sperm whales.

Joe Forbrich, a playwright and actor, gave an intense reading of the section of chapter 45, “The Affadavit,” that references Owen Chase’s Narrative of the Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex. Joe’s most recent work, a play that dramatically brings to life Chase’s story of survival, was due to premiere the following night at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse, and he grabbed my battered copy of Moby-Dick eager to find the passage that showed his and Melville’s common inspiration: “I have seen Owen Chase, who was chief mate of the Essex at the time of the tragedy; I have read his plain and faithful narrative; I have conversed with his son; and all this within a few miles of the scene of the catastrophe” (NN Moby-Dick 206). [End Page 121]

Jamie Jones, a cultural critic interested in the history of whaling, read movingly from chapter 87, “The Grand Armada.” Jamie’s research focuses on the cultural afterlife of the whaling industry, and...


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