Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Romance of whaling, "in the days before petroleum"

"There is no longer any interest in the subject. It was not possible for any one to say anything worth reading or listening to after Herman Melville's yarns. His "Omoo" and "White Jacket" were the last romances of the sea. Richard H. Dana, Jr., exhausted the field of "before the mast," and Melville left nothing for anybody to tell about whaling."
--Review of Nimrod of the Sea, Brooklyn Daily Union, September 8, 1874
 The Brooklyn Daily Union - September 8, 1874
By contrast, and with no thought of Moby-Dick, the Christian Watchman praised Nimrod of the Sea as "a graphically-told narrative of daring exploits" and "a deeply interesting account of the nature and habits of the whale, of the methods employed for his capture, and of the uses which he is made to serve."
A bright boy, in the reading of the book, will not fail to gather a vast deal of new information in respect to the sea and its wondrous forms of life. Scattered through it are many spirited pictures representing the perilous circumstances which surround the intrepid sailors in their attacks upon the whale." --Christian Watchman [Boston], September 10, 1874
The New York Herald (September 28, 1874) described the author William M. Davis as "one of those hardy Long Island mariners who sailed for the whale in the days before petroleum."

Found on Newspapers.com

So far, the 1874 review of Nimrod of the Sea in the Brooklyn Daily Union is the only contemporary notice I have found that recalls Moby-Dick. However, in the same year, the review of "Jules Verne's Romances" in the Wilmington Daily Commercial favorably compares the "vein of poetry and romantic mystery" in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea with that of Moby-Dick:
But a mere fantasy, an intellectual whim, must not be carried too far, lest in the process of attenuation it should break. M. Verne touches the limit nicely in "Twenty Thousand Leagues," and that book remains his best because in addition to its audacity and wealth of invention it had a vein of poetry and romantic mystery running through it. In those respects it resembled Herman Melville's "Moby Dick," in which the practical details of whale-fishing are relieved by a fine play of the imagination.  --Wilmington [Delaware] Daily Commercial, November 4, 1874
The Nantucket Historical Association has whaling journals by William Morris Davis in 1834-1837. According to the catalog description, Log 354 ("Journal of a man before the mast or on board the Whale Ship Chelsea of New London") was "Used in preparation of William M. Davis 'Nimrod of the Sea or The American Whaleman' (Harper 1874)."

As Caleb Crain has observed, some elements in Davis's description of sperm-squeezing in Nimrod of the Sea resemble Melville's treatment of the same operation in chapter 94 of Moby-Dick. For instance, Melville imagines himself "in a Constantine's bath" of sperm, while Davis experiences a more luxurious "bath" than ever did "Solomon in all  his glory." I would like to know if and how Davis describes the operation of squeezing sperm in manuscript. And everything else, for that matter. It could be a rewarding project to compare manuscript and book versions throughout, to see what kind of rewriting was involved in 1872, and how much. Possibly the style of Moby-Dick in places influenced the editing or rewriting of Nimrod of the Sea. Obviously, Nimrod as published in 1874 could not have influenced Moby-Dick (1851), unless somehow Melville had access to "oil-stained" whaling logs of the Chelsea by William Morris Davis (1815-1891).


  1. It appears that "Nimrod" paraphrased pretty heavily from Moby-Dick:


  2. Thanks for the cite, just the one we need. Looks like Edward Stone did not know about the surviving whaling journals of the Chelsea. Now I really really want to see them. Anyone for Nantucket?

  3. "A bright gold doubloon is nailed to the mainmast...." Is THAT in Davis's old oil-stained journal of the whale ship Chelsea?

  4. From "Nimrod's" description of the midnight try-works on pp. 89-90, I'd say it's more likely he wrote his own account with a copy of Moby-Dick open on the table next to him, for page-by-page inspiration. :-)

  5. Maybe Davis like Melville had Browne's Etchings of a Whaling Cruise in front of him:

    >>A trying-out scene has something peculiarly wild and savage in it; a kind of indescribable uncouthness, which renders it difficult to describe with any thing like accuracy. There is a murderous appearance about the blood-stained decks, and the huge masses of flesh and blubber lying here and there, and a ferocity in the looks of the men, heightened by the red, fierce glare of the fires, which inspire in the mind of the novice feelings of mingled disgust and awe. But one soon becomes accustomed to such scenes, and regards them with the indifference of a veteran in the field of battle. I know of nothing to which this part of the whaling business can be more appropriately compared than to Dante's pictures of the infernal regions. It requires but little stretch of the imagination to suppose the smoke, the hissing boilers, the savage-looking crew, and the waves of flame that burst now and then from the flues of the furnace, part of the paraphernalia of a scene in the lower regions.<<


  6. Davis and Browne invoke Dante's Inferno outright, as Edward Stone points out in the article on "The Buried Book" in Studies in the Novel (Winter 1975).