Discover the story of Moby-Dick here at the Whaling Museum. From stories of Melville’s visit to Nantucket in 1852 to the Pop Culture of Moby-Dick today.
Melville on Nantucket
In July 1852, the year after he published Moby-Dick, Herman Melville sailed into Nantucket harbor for the first time, and on a similar packet steamer to that of Ishmael and Queequeg, for a three-day visit. Read more.
The Monster Myth
Before Melville, stories of demonic whales circled the globe. The whales that emerge from myths and fables often were not whales at all—at least not what we now know as whales. In medieval and renaissance maps, mapmakers populated the seas with many strange and fantastic beasts, often assuming every land animal had a sea-dwelling counterpart. For the colossal creatures larger than ships, they ascribed terrifying and threatening traits, as if they naturally posed a threat to sea travel. In later maps, whales began to signify good fishing areas, but they never lost their monstrosity. Read more.
A Diverse Crew
Melville gave his Pequod a diverse crew, mentioning 44 men from the U.S., northern and southern Europe, South America, Iceland, the Azores, China, and India. He epitomized this diversity in his four “har-pooneers”: Queequeg the Pacific Islander, Dagoo the African, Fedallah the Indian “Parsee,” and Tashtego the Gay Head Native American. American whaling crews before the Civil War were in fact diverse, but never this diverse within a single voyage nor among the ranks of the boatsteerers (harpooners). Read more.
Shipwrecks ruined whaling careers. For George Pollard, Nantucket whaler and captain of the Essex, the proverbial lightning struck twice. After safely returning home in the summer of 1821, Pollard set out again that fall on the Two Brothers, a whaler bound back to the Pacific. The ship struck a reef in shoals to the northwest of the Hawaiian Islands, and although he was reluctant to abandon ship, the crew safely evacuated to the nearby whaler Martha. The ship Two Brothers was lost to the sea… Read more.
Cannibalism and “Custom of the Sea”
Life at sea occasionally ended in tragedy! When vessels foundered, crews were at the mercy of the open seas. Fate led sailors to make terrible decisions. Taboo, often unspeakable but necessary actions taken to ensure survival in extreme circumstances were forgiven upon return to land. There was even a term given to this: “Custom of the Sea”.
Melville’s Moby-Dick drew from the story of the Essex, albeit with dramatized effect. In Moby-Dick, it seems as if the whole crew of the Pequod craved a cannibal diet—if Melville never fed his characters flesh, he still described their whale prey with an anatomy and behavior parallel to a hunted man. Read more.
At What Cost?
While only Ishmael survived the voyage of the Pequod, in reality, death at sea was less the result of maniacal pursuits, and more the consequence of tragic mistakes and accidents. Between 1724 and 1896, a total of 1,131 lives were recorded lost at sea. Beyond the expected hazards of seas, many mariners died from diseases, infected wounds or in the brig (on-board jail). Striking an unchartered shoal was not uncommon, such as Captain Pollard’s Two Brothers. The NHA compiled a list of named and unnamed individuals that stands as a memorial recognizing the human cost of this industry. Read more.
Pop Culture and Moby-Dick
Moby Dick is emblazoned in the canon of literature, art, opera, theater, film, and daily life. When did you first spot the white whale?
Moby-Dick flopped when it was first published in 1851, and during Melville’s lifetime, the book earned little acclaim and even less money. A new generation of readers rediscovered Moby-Dick in the early twentieth century, inspired by the madcap humor and mystical symbolism that made the novel seem mod-ern before its time. Since then, Moby Dick swims through popular culture, spawning adaptations in every imaginable medium.
We count 18 different versions of Moby-Dick filmed since 1930 the book is referenced in 68 other films. Here are a few of our favorites.