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  • Melville SocietyBezanson Archive Fellowship 2018
  • Elizabeth Heinz Swails

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Elizabeth Heinz Swails stands in front of the crooked jaw of a sperm whale in the New Bedford Whaling Museum. June 2018.

Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Heinz Swails.

[End Page 197]

During the weeks of June 17–30, 2018, I had the pleasure of serving as the Walter E. Bezanson Fellow at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, courtesy of the Melville Society Cultural Project. I went to the Museum with an interest in studying the Robert D. Madison collection of poetry that Melville would have read, as it seemed to be the perfect resource for my dissertation chapter in progress: "Melville's Thinking Animal and the Conundrum of Classification." I specifically consider several animal poems from John Marr and Other Sailors, including "The Maldive Shark." I set out to bolster my argument that Melville used nonhuman movements to understand human and nonhuman cognition by exploring his poetic sources. However, like many Fellows before me, I quickly became engrossed in the many rich resources the Whaling Museum has to offer. For a scholar seeking to study the massive creatures at the center of many of Melville's works, there is no better place to be than the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

My first excursion was a tour of the Museum itself, which is quite impressive. With a collection that spans over 110 years, the Museum is a space in which it is easy to get lost. I spent a lot of time in the entrance to the Museum where visitors can gaze upon four whale skeletons suspended above their heads. The Museum offers several vantage points for these seemingly other-worldly remains. First, there is KOBO (King of the Blue Ocean), a 66-foot skeleton of a juvenile blue whale. The size of KOBO's skull alone leaves one mesmerized. Then there is Quasimodo, a 37-foot male humpback skeleton and one of the Museum's residents that has been there longest (since 1936). Finally, and perhaps the most moving sight in the entryway to the Museum, is Reyna and her unborn calf. Reyna, a 49-foot female North Atlantic right whale was accidently struck and killed while 10 months pregnant. Both skeletons are preserved as if she and her calf were never separated. In the Museum's "From Pursuit to Preservation" exhibit resides the great sperm whale skeleton, measuring 48 feet. His perfectly preserved teeth and battering-ram of a skull recall the final chapters of Moby-Dick. He is unnamed by the Museum, but my imagination quickly found a substitute. Being in a room with these whales was magical. Seeing their bones, it is hard not to recognize the similarities between our species. The bones of their flipper fins are startlingly finger-like, and the way they are suspended in the air makes observers feel as if they are somehow swimming in the air with the cetaceans.

I was lucky enough to have the opportunity also to tour both the Museum's Reading Room (where I ultimately spent most of my time) and the Melville Society Cultural Project's Archive. My gracious hosts, Robert K. Wallace, Mary K. Bercaw Edwards, and Timothy Marr, were simultaneously hosting me and an NEH Summer Institute for Teachers on "Moby-Dick and the World [End Page 198] of Whaling in the Digital Age." This conjunction proved to be enormously beneficial to my endeavors as we were all engrossed for two weeks in the world of Melville. Led by the Museum's wonderful librarian, Mark Procknik, we toured the Museum's resources together. I found several great works in the Madison collection, my favorite being Allston's Lectures on Art and Poems, especially his exposition "Form" in which he states, "we cannot think of the human being except as a whole" (emphasis in original 116). Allston's notion that humans are only comprehensible as a whole propelled my thoughts on Melville's whales as they relate to human thinking and literary form. Melville invites readers to consider the whale through an intricate interaction of parts, which many of his chapters in Moby-Dick detail (e.g., "Cetology," "The...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1750-1849
Print ISSN
1525-6995
Pages
pp. 197-202
Launched on MUSE
2020-03-06
Open Access
No
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