Herman Melville and Nantucket

Herman Melville Portrait
Herman Melville

Herman Melville wrote his classic novel Moby-Dick (1851) without having visited the island of Nantucket. The island and its whaling history form the backbone of his novel, and indeed are central symbols in the epic journey of the Pequod in its hunt for Moby-Dick, the white whale. Melville based the essentials of his plot, and the final climactic ramming of the Pequod, upon all that he had read about Nantucket’s whaling industry, and in particular, the gruesome tale of the Nantucket whaleship Essex. After the publication of Moby-Dick, Melville finally visited the island, and met face-to-face with Captain George Pollard Jr., the captain who survived one of the most harrowing ordeals at sea in human history.

In one brief chapter of Moby-Dick (1851), Chapter Fourteen, “Nantucket,” Melville wrote the definitive passage about the island without ever having visited its sandy soil: “Nantucket! Take out your map and look at it. See what a real corner of the world it occupies; how it stands there, away off shore, more lonely than the Eddystone lighthouse. Look at it—a mere hillock, and elbow of sand; all beach, without a background.” Nantucket in a nutshell: a pile of sand, a glacial afterthought, but also a “corner of the world,” connected and connecting the small with the vast, an insignificant nothing that is part of the main.

Ocean House Hotel
Ocean House Hotel (now the Jared Coffin House)

Melville went on to marvel at the whalemen who made Nantucket great: “What wonder, then, that these Nantucketers, born on a beach, should take to the sea for a livelihood! They first caught crabs and quohogs in the sand; grown bolder, they waded out with nets for mackerel; more experienced, they pushed off in boats and captured cod; and at last, launching a navy of great ships on the sea, explored this watery world; put an incessant belt of circumnavigations round it.. . . And thus have these naked Nantucketers, these sea hermits, issuing from their ant-hill in the sea, overrun and conquered the watery world like so many Alexanders.”

99 Main Street
99 Main Street

It was not until the evening of July 6, 1852, that the author first set foot on Nantucket, visiting the place that had long haunted his imagination, and, in the tale of the ill-fated Nantucket whaleship Essex, had been a major source for Moby-Dick. In the company of his father-in-law, Massachusetts Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw, Melville bunked down at the Ocean House at the corner of Broad and Centre streets, looking across onto Captain George Pollard’s house on Centre. The following day, Melville and the judge “dined with a friend,” commonly held to be Thomas Macy of 99 Main Street, where the men are believed to have shared a meal. Thomas was son of “the worthy Obed,” whose History of Nantucket Melville had also devoured in preparation for Moby-Dick.

The next day, Melville and the judge enjoyed an island tour by carriage “to Siasconset, & various parts of the island.” Melville described majestic Sankaty Head Light on the bluff in a letter to Hawthorne: “The air is suppressedly charged with the sound of long lines of surf. There is no land over against this cliff short of Europe and the West Indies. . . .The sea has encroached also upon that part where their dwelling-house stands near the light-house . . . in a strange and beautiful contrast, we have the innocence of the land eyeing the malignity of the sea.”

Main St. Nantucket
Pacific Bank on Main Street, Nantucket

Later, the visitors “passed the evening with Mr. Mitchell the astronomer, & his celebrated daughter, the discoverer of comets.” This gathering occurred at the Mitchells’ quarters above the Pacific Bank on Main Street. Meeting the brilliant Maria Mitchell, Melville was inspired by her feminine intellectuality to pen one of his finer poems, After the Pleasure Party, in which he struggles with the question of sexuality and passion:

Now first I feel, what all may ween,
That soon or late, if faded e’en,
One’s sex asserts itself. ll. 33-35

Capt. George Pollard's house
Capt. George Pollard’s house, 46 Centre Street

On their last day on island, July 8, making “various calls & visits,” Melville met with Captain Pollard himself. Much later he recalled the encounter: “I—sometime about 1850-3—saw Capt. Pollard on the island of Nantucket, and exchanged some words with him. To the islanders he was a nobody—to me, the most impressive man, tho’ wholly unassuming, even humble—that I ever encountered.” The “nobody” Pollard, after surviving the ordeal in which he ate the flesh of his own cousin, Owen Coffin, had become the town’s night watchman. This encounter with Pollard left a deep impression on Melville. The image of the survivor sea captain’s face was one he would take with him from his Nantucket visit—his only trip to the island that had enriched and troubled his imagination for much of his life. He would recall the captain in his poem Clarel (1876):

Never he smiled;
Call him, and he would come; not sour
In spirit, but meek and reconciled:
Patient he was, he none withstood;
Oft on some secret thing would brood. ll. 96-100

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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.

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