A Fine, Boisterous Something”: Nantucket in Moby-Dick

For my mind was made up to sail in no other than a Nanrucket craft, because there was a fine, boisterous something about everything connected with that famous old is­land, which amazingly pleased me. (Moby-Dick, ch. 2)

Ishmael, in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, is determined to sail out of Nantucket on his first whaling voyage-despite having to spend two long, cold days in New Bedford and despite having to share a bed with a stranger (a heathen harpooneer who is out selling embalmed heads!) before he can catch the packet­schooner to the island. Yet Melville himself shipped on board the whaleship Acushnet out of Fairhaven, not Nantucket. In fact, Melville did not visit Nantucket until 1852, six months after Moby-Dick was published. So how did he know enough about Nantucket to write a whole chapter in Moby-­Dick about it? How did he know about the “fine, boisterous something” connected with the island?

“I have swam through li­braries,” Melville wrote (Moby-­Dick, ch.32). Melville’s vora­cious reading habits were the source of details, information, and stories that he used throughout his writings. He consumed books and was con­sumed by them. And as he read books, he argued with them, laughed and cried over them, exulted in them, and became fiercely angry with them. The books he owned were filled with notes and jottings done with slashing pen marks and furious periods. Mel’lille rarely simply read anything.

Three of the books Melville consumed were Obed Macy’s The History of Nantucket (Boston: Hilliard, Gray, and Co., 1835), Jo­seph C. Hart’s Miriam Coffin, or the Whale­Fisherman (New York: Harper & Brother’s, 1835),and William Lay and Cyrus M. Hussey’s A Narrative of the Mutiny, on Board the Ship Globe, of Nantuchet, in the Pacific Ocean, Jan. 1824 (New London, Connecticut: Lay & Hussey, 1828). These,along with a pamphlet on Samuel Comstock, the leaderofthe bloody mutiny on the whaleship Globe, comprise the bulk of Melville’s Nantucket sources. The most important Nantucket source, Owen Chase’s Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwrech of the Whale-Ship Essex, of Nantuchet (New York: Gilley, 1821), is discussed in Thomas Fare! Heffernan’sarticle in this issue. Melville calls Obed Macy the “worthy Obed” and holds him “accountable” for an item which “may seem unwar­rantable”:

“It may seem unwarrantable to couple in any respect the mast-head standers of the land with those of the sea; but that in truth it is not so, is plainly evinced by an item for which Obed Macy, the sole historian of Nantucket, stands account­able.” (Moby-Dick, ch. 35)

Here Melville pokes fun at Macy-just as he pokes fun at another major source for Moby­Dick, William Scoresby’s An Ac­count of the Arctic Regions (1820). Throughout Moby-Dick, Melville attributes his informa­tion from Scoresby to fictional authors with such names as Captain Sleet, an Esquimau doctor called Zogranda, a famous authority on smells named Fogo Von Slack, and Professor Dr. Snodhead of the College of Santa Claus and St. Potts. Macy gets off lightly with only the epithet “worthy” being given to him. And worthy is a good epithet, for certainly Macy is not boisterous.

Melville’s surviving copy of Macy was given to him on January 7, 1852, by Thomas Macy-months after Moby-Dick was pub­lished. Yet it would seem that Melville had read Macy before he wrote Moby-Dick. Melville prefaces Moby-Dick with eighty “Extracts,” quotations about whales and whaling. “sup­plied by a sub-sub-Iibrarian.” He quotes Macy in his fifty-third Extract; however, further investigation reveals that his quotation exists verbatim in j. Ross Browne’s Etchings of a Whaling Cruise (1846) on p.518. Since we know forcertain that Melville read Browne’s book before writing Moby-Dick (he reviewed it in the Literary World in 1847). the appearance of that particular Macy quote in the “Extracts” still does not prove that Melville had read Macy at that point.

What proof is there, then, that Melville read Macy while he was composing Moby-­Dick? This question leads lit­erary scholarship into the realm of detective work. Be­cause of Melville’s greatness as a writer. scholars have been very interested in his compo­sitional process. Melville char­acteristically appropriated into his own works blocks of writing from other works whose origin is so clear that the source-hunter can iden­tify not only Melville’s source but also the very edition he used. The “fingerprints” by which scholars make such identifications with confi­dence include peculiar word­ing, errors in titles or dates, and misspellings that Melville copied without changing. With such fingerprints, Harrison Hayford was able to identify the 1833 Harper edi­tion of William Eilis’s Polynesian Researches as the major source for Melville’s second book Omoo. Hayford based his identification on in-ternal evidence (evidence found within Melville’s writ-ing); there is no external evi- dence of Melville’s having used Ellis: no surviving volume owned by Melville, no library slip, no sales receipt.

Obed Macy’s History of Nantucket is a similar case. The external evidence points to Melville’s acquiring the book only after Moby-­Dick was finished. Yet there is internal evidence that he had access to another copy during composition. Melville writes in “The Mast-head” chapter:

“The worthy Obed tells us, that in the early times of the whale fishery, ere ships were regularly launched in pursuit of the game, the people of that island erected lofty spars along the sea-coast, to which the look­outs ascended by means of nailed cleats some­thing as fowls go upstairs in a hen-house.” (Moby-Dick,ch.35)

Melville’s words are based on the follow­ing passage in Macy:

“To enable them to discover whales at a considerable distance from the land, a large spar was erected, and cleats fixed to them, by which the whalemen could climb to the top, and there keep a good look out for their game.” (History of Nantucket, p.31)

Melville added only the fowl image in the clause.

The preceding illustrates Melville’s acqui­sition of information from his sources, what Charles Roberts Anderson, who discovered the source, calls “his lowliest fact-grubbings” (Melville in the South Seas I 19391. p.31). But Melville also transformed his sources. Macy wrote of the Nantucketers wtth quiet pride and dig­nity:

“The sea, to mariners generally, is but a highway over which they travel to foreign markets; but to the whaler it is his field of labor, it is the home of his busi­ness.  The Nantucket whaleman, when with his family, is but a visiter [sic[ there. He touches at foreign ports merely to procure re­cruits 10 enable him to pros­ecute his voyage; he touches at home merely long enough to prepare for a new voyage. He is in the bosom of his family weeks, on the bosom of the ocean years.” (History of Nantucket, p. 219)

Melville, a magician of words, transformed this pas­sage into what Anderson calls “an interlude of sheer poetry” (Melville in the South Seas, p.3 l):

“And thus have these na-ked Nantucketers, these sea hermits, issuing from their ant-hill in the sea, overrun and conquered the watery world like so many Alexanders…Let America add Mexico to Texas, and pile Cuba upon Canada; let the English overswarm all India, and hang out their blazing banner from the sun; two thirds of this terraqueous globe are the Nantucketer’s. For the sea is his; he owns it, as Emperors own empires; other seamen having but a right of way through it. Merchant ships are but extension bridges; armed ones but floating forts; even pirates and privateers, though following the sea as highwaymen the road, they but plunder other ships, other fragments of the land like themselves, without seeking to draw their living from the bottomless deep itself. The Nantucketer, he alone resides and riots on the sea; he alone, in Bible language, goes down to it in ships; to and fro ploughing it as his own special plantation. There is his home; there lies his business, which a Noah’s flood would not interrupt, though it overwhelmed all the millions in China. He lives on the sea…For years he knows not the land; so that when he :omes to it at last, it smells like another world, more strangely than the moon would to an Earthsman.”  (Moby-Dick, ch.14) 

Part of Melville’s transformation of his source lies in his use of the language of the KingJames Bible, especially Psalm 107.

Melville’s “Nantucket” chapter, nonethe­less, is not only lyrical; it is also very funny. Melville tells us that there is more sand on the island of Nantucket “than you would use in twenty years as a substitute for blotting pa­per.” He goes on, with exaggeration after exaggeration:” … that pieces of wood in Nan­tucket are carried about like bits of the true cross in Rome; that people there plant toad­stools before their houses, to get under the
shade in summer time; that one blade of grass makes an oasis, three blades in a day’s walk a prairie”; and on. Melville finally ends: “But these extravaganzas only show that Nantucket is no Illinois” (Moby-Dick, ch.14). Melville had been to Illinois when he wrote this, but not Nantucket: what, therefore, inspired this excess of sand?

Howard P. Vincent, in The Trying-Out of Moby-Dick (1949), suggests that Melville is “probably expatiating” (p.87) on some pas­sages in Joseph C. Hart’s Miriam Coffin:

[T]he little sandy island of Nantucket peeps forth from the Atlantic Ocean. Isolated and alone amid a wide waste of waters, it presents to the stranger, at first view, a dreary and unpromising appearance. The scrapings of the great African Desert, were they poured into the sea, would not emerge above its level with an aspect of more unqualified aridity than does this American island.

(Miriam Coffin, vol. 1, p. 32)

Melville knew Hart’s novel: he quotes from volume 2, chapter 10, of Miriam Coffin in Extract 75 of Moby-Dick. There are also several intriguing parallels between Moby-­Dick and Miriam Coffin, as Lean Howard first pointed out in” A Predecessor of Moby-Dick” ( 19 34) and as Anderson discovered indepen­dently. In Hart’s chapter on whaling, the whaleship is named Grampus (as is Bulkington’s in Moby-Dick), the first mate is named Starbuck, and an Indian squaw proph­esies doom. In Miriam Coffin, Judith Quary, a half-breed squaw, deciphers the future with tea-leaves.

“I do not see it,” said Harry [a sailor from the Grampus]; “it is but a mass of tea-leaves.” “It concerns not you,” said Judith … “but it deeply concerns him who can most easily make it out.” “But what of the whale?” de­manded Thomas [Starbuck, mate oft he Gram­pus]….”Seest thou not a small object projecting from its jaws?” said Judith. “I do,” answered Thomas; “it is the only thing that disfigures the outline of the whale.” “It is the half-swallowed body of a man!” exclaimed Judith.

(Miriam Coffin, vol. 2, p.113)
And Starbuck does die in a whale’s jaws. In Moby-Dick, Ishmael ships aboard the Pequod. He questions the part-owner, Peleg (another name which occurs in Miriam Cof­fin!), about Captain Ahab’s name. Peleg an­swers:

“Captain Ahab did not name himself. ‘Twas a foolish, ignorant whim of his crazy, wid­owed mother, who died when he was only a twelve month old. And yet the old squaw Tistig, at Gay-head, said that the name would somehow prove prophetic.”
(Moby-Dick, ch. 16)

Tistig is neither a half-breed, as Judith Quary is, nor does she live on Nantucket, but perhaps she is descended from Han’s squaw nonetheless. Just as the biblical Ahab, wickedest king in the Bible, died fulfilling the prophecy that “dogs [shall] lick thy blood” (I Kings 21: 19), so Captain Ahab’s name proves prophetic: he is killed when a whaleline catches around his neck.

The most striking parallel between Moby­-Dick and Miriam Coffin comes at the end of Hart’s chapter 10. The enraged whale “of prodigious size” (Miriam Coffin, vol. 2, p. 148) turns on the Grampus and sinks her. All the men escape except Starbuck, who has already perished in the whale’s jaws. Miriam Coffin is not the chief source for the ending of Moby-Dick, but it is an interesting one.

It is not known where Melville perused Miriam Coffin. Did he read it in a library, did he borrow it from a friend, or did he once own a copy which has since been lost? Melville’s acquisition of his third Nantucket source, Lay and Hussey’s Narrative, is easier to document because the book itself still exists. Attached to the front flyleaf of Melville’s copy is a letter of 9 January 1851 from Thomas Macy to T.G. Coffin stating that he was sending the volume “as a present to Judge Shaw.” Thomas Macy added that “after the most dilligent [sic! search,” he had “not succeeded in finding a copy of the loss of Ship Essex” (Owen Chase’s Narrative). Evidently, as Merton M. Sealts, Jr., speculates in Melville’s Reading (1988), Judge Lemuel Shaw, Melville’s father-in-law, was attempting to secure books about Nan­tucket for Melville. Thomas Macy sent “a mutilated copy” of Owen Chase’s Narrative, “the only copy that I have been able to pro­cure,” to Judge Shaw on 4 April 1851. Later, in January of 1852, Thomas Macy gave Melville a copy of Obed Macy’s History of Nantucket (Melville’s Reading, pp. 68-69).

Thus, there is no question that Melville owned a copy of Lay and Hussey, but what did he do with it? Scholars have found that Melville made little use of Narrative in Moby­Dich other than quoting it in Extract 64. But he was interested in the bloody mutiny on
board the Nantucket whaleship Globe, for he devotes another extract, Extract 68, to the mutiny. Extract 68 is a quotation from Wil­liam Comstock, the brother of Samuel Comstock, the chief mutineer on the Globe. The source of this quotation has puzzled scholars for years.

William Comstock published a small book about his brother entitled The Life of Samuel Comstock, the Terrible Whaleman in 1840. It was republished in 1845 as The Life of Samuel Comstock, the Bloody Mutineer. It is interest­ing, asF. De Wolfe Miller pointed out, that the passage Melville quotes in his Extract is iden­tical in both editions, but “he cites a fact found only in the first-that the author was brother to the mutineer-but has the title of the second” (“Another Chapter in the History of the Great White Whale” [1968]. p. 111). Other scholars have taken up this trouble­some quest for the exact source of the Samuel Comstock quotation, but it is still unfinished.

As can be seen from these examples, writ­ings by Nantucket writers and about Nantucket were important sources Melville used to complement his own experience as a basis for Moby-Dick. The island’s romantic reputa­tion as the fountainhead of Yankee whaling culture appealed to Melville more than the workaday appearance he may have remem­bered from Fairhaven and New Bedford.


This article is from the Fall 1991 issue of Historic Nantucket. 

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

> >