On January 3, 1841, Herman Melville embarked from the busy whaling port of Fairhaven, Massachusetts, in the depths of winter. He was twenty-one years old. Soon his ship, the Acushnet, left behind the cold New England winter, rounded Cape Horn, and emerged into the Pacific. Melville remained in that ocean for over three and a half years, certainly the most adventurous, exciting, and irresponsible years of his life. And whether or not he knew it then, those early years at sea would later provide rich material for his fiction.
Put like this, there can seem a natural and even inevitable continuity between Melville’s decision to join a whaling ship and the publication, ten years later, of Moby-Dick. But, in another light, those decisions appear much more remote: how many hundreds of other young men, for example, served on whalers, without writing a word about it, or perhaps even being able to do so? There is nothing probable, really, about Melville turning his whaling years into literature, and I remain fascinated by his decision to attempt that conversion. Surprisingly, a tough, wide-sided whaling vessel like the Acushnet became the stuff of literature.
The Morgan is a sister ship to the Acushnet: built within a year’s time to the same design. The similarities make her an exciting artifact for anyone interested in Melville or Moby-Dick: as close to a physical embodiment of the Pequod as we are ever likely to see. On the other hand, the Morgan also frustrates any hope of simply re-entering Melville’s world, because that world is irrecoverable. I joined the ship on a warm summer evening in Boston, having flown in from the UK the same day. The conditions and circumstances of my arrival could hardly have been more different from Melville’s midwinter embarkation in 1841. Afloat beside the much larger Constitution and set against a modern industrial skyline, the Morgan looked delicate and even fragile, and it was difficult to connect this vision with her original commercial function. The jovial and welcoming atmosphere that prevailed on board set her nineteenth and twenty-first century identities further at odds. For me, the space below decks was more redolent of the hard-working life that Melville participated in: the pinched proportions of the forecastle bunks; ceilings that demanded a constant wary stop; the largeness of the blubber room compared to the living quarters of the entire crew; the sharp division between the world of officers and men; the vastness of the hold designed to carry the provisions and proceeds of voyages [End Page 147] of several years’ duration. Here I felt best able to think about Melville’s experience on a similar ship and to wonder how it inspired him.
In “Hawthorne and His Mosses,” written in ecstatic haste in the summer of 1851 when he was at work on Moby-Dick, Melville claimed: “You must have plenty of sea-room to tell the Truth in” (NN Piazza Tales 246). He seems to imply that he wished to recover, in order to write his great novel, the conditions he had been exposed to as a sailor. Yet most of Melville’s time at sea was spent on whalers like the Morgan, where he shared a wet, tapering forecastle of sixteen to twenty-five feet in length with fifteen to twenty other men, rotating four-hour shifts in minimal light. Here, his personal space was a berth of six foot by two, the average size of a berth according to Margaret Creighton in Rites and Passages (1995). Surely it is not this room to which Melville compared the “sea-room” of the author? In fact, he wrote much of Moby-Dick at a large table planted squarely in the middle of a spacious study at Arrowhead farm, Massachusetts: an arrangement which seems designed to dispel the claustrophobia of the forecastle.
And it was not only a physical liberation that Melville enjoyed at Arrowhead, but an intellectual one. His time at sea had coincided with a period when intense efforts were made to control the kinds of texts that sailors read and wrote. A religious reform movement was...