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[Detail] Ships at the Erie Basin, New York.

Moby Dick

On January 3, 1840, a twenty-one year old Herman Melville left the port of New Bedford aboard the Acushnet, headed for the whaling grounds of the Pacific. Four years later, he returned to New England and wrote a South Seas adventure based on his voyage as well as on narratives written by explorers and missionaries.  In 1846, the work was published as Typee.  His work in this genre continued with Redburn in 1849 and culminated in Moby Dick in 1851.

This collection allows readers to better understand the literary and historical context in which Melville wrote Moby Dick, contributing to a better understanding of this classic.

In More Decency and Order Women and Whalemen in the Pacific, Joan Druett describes the onset of a nineteenth-century genre of whaling stories:

"The reminiscences of such men who went a-whaling and then came home to write about it became an accepted literary genre in the nineteenth century, and it was all a lot of seemingly harmless fun. No whaling tale was worth its salt without a gory mutiny or two, a couple of pugnacious whales, and an assortment of dusky beauties."

Some items in the collection approach this genre, such as Incidents on land and water, Life by land and sea, Voyages and commercial enterprises of the sons of New England, and Narrative of the adventures and sufferings of John R. Jewitt, though they are not specifically about whaling.  Search  on logbook for examples of another literary form devoted to the subject of whaling.

In addition to the adventure story and the logbook, natural histories such as An Account of the Arctic Regions with a History and Description of the Northern Whale Fishery and Natural History of the Sperm Whale were also in circulation in the early nineteenth century.  Finally, search  on mission, Vancouver, and Franchère for examples of the journals written by missionaries and explorers to which Melville referred in writing his own stories. 

These four types of writings were major elements of the literary context in which Melville wrote Moby Dick.  Compare Melville's novel to the adventure stories, logbooks, and journals in the collection:

  • Are the themes in Moby Dick similar to those in the adventure stories, logbooks, and journals in the collection?
  • Are the events in Moby Dick similar to those recorded by whalemen in their journals and logbooks?
  • What are the similarities and differences between the narrative form of Moby Dick and the narrative forms of adventure stories, journals, and logbooks?
  • What are the similarities and differences between the style in which Melville writes and the styles in which the logbooks, journals, and stories were written?
  • To what degree does Melville go beyond the traditions of the adventure-story genre?
  • What might the differences between Moby Dick and other adventure stories suggest about what Melville was attempting to accomplish in this novel?
  • What are some reasons why Melville might have chosen to write about whaling?

The many items in this collection testify to the size and activity of the whaling industry in the nineteenth century.  A new and expanding nation, the United States built up a fleet of over 700 whaling vessels to help support its fledgling economy. 

  • Who profited most from the industry?
  • Why might Melville have chosen to write about this industry?