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  • Books in Brief
  • Dawn Coleman

The Whale and His Captors; or, The Whaleman's Adventures
1850. Ed. Robert D. Madison. Afterword Mark Bousquet. Hanover: UP of New England, 2018. xxxv + 242 pp.

What did Herman Melville read, and when did he read it? And how did this reading shape his fiction? These are the perennial questions of Melville source criticism, the motor driving a robust tradition of scholarship epitomized by Merton Sealts's Melville's Reading (1966) and by Melville's Marginalia Online. Though a Melville scholar, Robert D. Madison barely addresses these issues in The Whale and His Captors, perhaps to avoid overplaying the literary angle of a title in the interdisciplinary "Seafaring America" series. Regardless, Melvilleans will thrill to the countless similarities between Moby-Dick and Cheever's learned and lively account of a whaling voyage, first published in late 1849, then more widely in 1850 (the basis for this text), and in an expanded version in 1853.

Just five years older than Melville, Henry Theodore Cheever was a 28-year-old seminary graduate when in 1842 he took passage on a scientific cruise leaving from New York to recuperate his health and remedy a vocal condition. On this trip he would end up staying in Honolulu for 18 months, a period that overlapped with Melville's own three-month stint there. Given that Samuel C. Damon's Seaman's Chapel was a social node for both, it would be, as Randall Cluff wrote in Leviathan 3.1 (2001), "an incredible accident of history if the two men were not at least aware of each other's presence on the island." Cheever traveled home on a whaling vessel in 1844, earning his keep during the eight-month voyage by preaching to the sailors on Sundays. He arrived in Boston in 1845 and wrote his account while serving as the minister of the Free Congregational Church in New York City in 1848 and 1849. [End Page 121]

Scholars have long recognized The Whale and His Captors as one of Melville's sources. Howard P. Vincent's The Trying-Out of Moby-Dick (1949) pinpointed a half-dozen or so discrete borrowings. Yet Melville's perceived debt to Cheever dwindled over the course of the twentieth century, despite Cluff's essay and Keith Huntress's 1971 New England Quarterly article on Melville's rewriting of Cheever in chapter 23, "Lee Shore." Hershel Parker, for instance, mentions just two borrowings from Cheever in his biography of Melville. Nevertheless, readers of The Whaleman and His Captors will hear on nearly every page passages that Moby-Dick echoes with a difference. To take just one example, not mentioned in Vincent, Cheever writes, "Your ship, perhaps, has been thoroughly scrubbed and cleansed . . . and all again is ship-shape and tidy, when, just after dinner, as all hands are on deck, the welcome cry is raised, 'There she blows!'" (39). Melville seems to have read these lines and asked, is the cry welcome? In chapter 98, "Stowing Down and Clearing Up," he adopts Cheever's scenario and recenters it on the workers: "[M]any is the time the poor fellows, just buttoning the necks of their clean frocks, are startled by the cry of 'There she blows!' and away they fly to fight another whale, and go through the whole weary thing again. Oh! my friends, but this is man-killing! Yet this is life." Time and again in Moby-Dick, Melville rewrites a Cheever passage to be more vivid, more colloquial, more philosophical, and more sympathetic to the common sailor. And, dare I say, against those who have acknowledged in Cheever only a "cetological source" for Moby-Dick (including Samuel Otter in Melville's Anatomies), that readers will find in Cheever literary patterns repeated in Moby-Dick, such as the artful balancing of whaling incident and history and a tendency to round off exposition with moral lessons. Indeed, the narratorial perspective can feel uncanny. As with Ishmael in so many chapters, Cheever appreciates the whalers' labors while eyeing them from an intellectual distance, a stance that perplexes readers of Moby-Dick yet is entirely fitting for a ride-along chaplain.



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