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Melville's Marginalia Online is a virtual archive of books owned and borrowed by American author Herman Melville (1819-1891). Select "Policies" for our editorial guidelines, and "Browse Volumes" to view the site's new virtual format.

Newly Published

Introduction to Melville's Marginalia in Thomas Beale's The Natural History of the Sperm Whale

Steven Olsen-Smith
Boise State University

Herman Melville's copy of Thomas Beale's The Natural History of the Sperm Whale, discovered in the 1930s then owned by successive private collectors until Houghton Library acquired it in 1960, contains the closest evidence available to the lost manuscript of Moby-Dick and illuminates more fully than any other archival resource Melville's use of source materials in his writing. The copy was first discussed in The Trying-out of Moby-Dick by Howard P. Vincent (1949), who observed that most of Melville's marginalia had been erased from the book (129). In "Melville's Marginalia" (1965), Walker Cowen managed to decipher many of Melville's erased markings, and he showed that the book had once been heavily annotated (1:175-198). Thanks to generous support and assistance from the William Reese Company, Houghton Library, and Boise State University, all of Melville's markings and much of his annotation are now recovered and documented in the edition introduced by this essay. Along with illustrating an array of unexplored source borrowings for Moby-Dick, the recovered marginalia reveal Melville’s original notes for finely crafted allusions and similes and his development of the book’s romantic and tragic character, including his changing conceptions for the catastrophic ending of Moby-Dick.[1]

In scale and complexity the significance of The Natural History of the Sperm Whale to the composition of Moby-Dick surpasses that of any other source book from which Melville is known to have drawn. Yet the prevalence of erasures has made it difficult for researchers accurately to assess the extent of the evidence. Owing to the precise and systematic nature of Beale's study, scholars have quite naturally conceived of the book as a source of factual information to Melville. His reliance upon Beale's book for "accurate and authoritative facts" was first addressed by Vincent, who identified it as the "primary source book for Melville in composing the cetological section of Moby-Dick" (128). This assessment was repeated by Leon Howard and also by James Barbour, who concurred that Melville acquired Beale's book "to add factual material about whales and whaling to the narrative to give it copiousness and authenticity" (Howard, Herman Melville 162)

The abundance of markings, too, indicate Melville mined the book for exact information. Melville marked material about physical dimensions, anatomy, and behavior of sperm whales, and about the history and practice of whaling, including theories and opinions offered by Beale and by the authorities from whom Beale quotes; he marked geographical place-names associated with the whale fishery as well as terms and expressions signifying sights, actions, and events common in the profession; and he marked passages related to Beale's own experiences compiling the information published in The Natural History of the Sperm Whale. Particularly, Melville's annotation on page 72, "This [—?—] the auth[—?—]ity of Beale," indicates his conception of Natural History as a ready source of authoritative information. The partially deciphered word is either "authenticity" or "authority."[2]

Yet close examination of how Melville borrowed and altered material from Beale reveals numerous compositional procedures and aims involving not just the appropriation of source material (factual or otherwise), but also its rhetorical adaptation to new contexts and intentions. Static borrowings are rare among Melville's appropriations from Natural History, for in working from sources he was often less concerned with establishing factual accuracy than he was with achieving narrative exploits of a rhetorical and thematic nature—exploits, in short, of literary craft and creativity. In addressing how Melville used the book to prompt his imagination and produce original material, we behold the great assimilative talents of literary genius—here involving three distinct but at times overlapping modes: expository, dramatic, and poetic.

Expository Renderings

First-time readers of Moby-Dick often get bogged down in its chapters of exposition, which interrupt Ahab's pursuit of the white whale with discussions of anatomy and behavior of sperm whales, the culture and practices of the sperm whale fishery, and related topics. Yet even the expository chapters display Melville's adaptive transformation of material from Natural History, where dry descriptions of sperm whale anatomy are outrageously altered to serve radically different narrative intentions. In the margins of his source Melville marked dimensions of the sperm whale's mature length (eighty-four feet, states his source), its tail and blubber, and bones. Then, in manuscript composition, he systematically enlarged upon what he had marked, adding six feet to the length of the sperm whale, and nearly four to its circumference (27.14-22), six feet to the width of the tail (24.23-24), more than two feet to the span of its largest rib (85.16-17), an inch to the thickness of its blubber (32.1-3), and half an inch to the width of its terminal vertebra (81.13). "Such, and so magnifying," writes Melville in "The Fossil Whale" (Chapter 104 of Moby-Dick), "is the virtue of a large and liberal theme. We expand to its bulk. To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea" (456). Melville's augmentative borrowings correspond with motifs of copiousness and magnitude displayed throughout the narrative of Moby-Dick, and to the tone of elated awe so often attending the book's expository flights on its subject.

By these additions Melville enlarged the physical and figurative stature of the sperm whale, or Physeter macrocephalus, while working in the opposite direction to diminish Beale's measurement of the Greenland whale (identified as seventy feet at 15.22-26, in contrast to sixty feet in Moby-Dick). Melville's augmentative borrowings at the Greenland whale's expense support a rhetorical approach first noted by Vincent in "Cetology" (Chapter 32 of Moby-Dick), where not just the details but the rhetoric of Melville's source appears amplified for the purpose of magnifying his subject (132). The impetus came from Beale's words on the popular reputation of the Greenland whale at 2.21-28:

The Greenland Whale, or Balæna mysticetus, has so frequently been described in a popular manner, that the public voice has long enthroned him as monarch of the deep, and perhaps the dread of disturbing such weighty matters as a settled sovereignty and public opinion, may have deterred those best acquainted with the merits of the case from supporting the more legitimate claims of his southern rival to this pre-eminence.

Beale’s tone and word-choice reflect the spirit and vocabulary of enlightened scientific discourse, notable for its assertive but diplomatic rhetorical style. Displaying alternative qualities of intensification, humor, and embellishment, Melville amplified the passage for "Cetology," declaring the Greenland whale a "usurper upon the throne of the seas . . . not even by any means the largest of the whales," and proclaiming "the time has at last come for a new proclamation. This is Charing Cross; hear ye! good people all,—the Greenland whale is deposed,—the great sperm whale now reigneth!" (135)

In a narrative exemplifying the problem of evil in one obsessed man's half-mad, half-heroic pursuit of a preternaturally large and deadly sperm whale, Melville's rhetorical enlargements of course serve a darker and more philosophically complex narrative plan than the above examples would indicate. In Chapter 41 of Moby-Dick, the fearful reputation of the white whale is said to derive in part from legendary terrors associated with the species in general. The chapter describes "some book naturalists—Olassen and Povelsen—declaring the Sperm Whale not only to be a consternation to every other creature in the sea, but also to be so incredibly ferocious as continually to be athirst for human blood" (181). Melville draws these pronouncements by Eggart Òlafsson and Bjarni Pálsson from a passage he marked in Natural History at 4.15-21, where Beale paraphrases the Danish explorers in order to refute the notion attributed to them.

In discussing the appropriation, Vincent observes with amusement that Melville creates a case for the sperm whale’s ferocity from Beale’s reference to authorities he sought to discredit (166). But in fact Melville invokes rumors of the sperm whale's blood-thirsty character not to assert their veracity, but to suggest their lingering influence on the minds of whalemen. Acknowledged as factually dubious in Moby-Dick, the sperm whale’s "relish for human flesh" is nonetheless granted potent credit as an involuntary suspicion felt by sailors at life-threatening moments in the whaling profession. Melville elaborates on the material drawn from Beale by stating that "however the general experiences in the fishery may amend such reports as these; yet in their full terribleness, even to the bloodthirsty item of Povelsen, the superstitious belief in them is, in some vicissitudes of their vocation, revived in the minds of the hunters." Involving Romantic preoccupations with the wayward powers of the mind to dictate events and shape human destiny (a fascination shared equally by his contemporaries Poe and Hawthorne), Melville’s delicate delineations of perception and reality underscore the subjective components at work in how Ahab and Ishmael make sense of the white whale’s legendary malice.

His practice of appropriating and then elaborating on source material to generate original material and develop thematic motifs was for Melville an habitual part of the writing process, and he produced entire chapters along these lines. Among other subjects, his ideas for extended expositions on the sperm whale's physical form, its spout, and its herding instincts all seem to have been prompted by passages checkmarked, scored and otherwise marked at 2.6-7, 42.3-8, and 51.7-9 in Natural History. The process of expansion led Melville down many expository paths in his manuscript, all of which would contribute to his exhaustive but ever-ebullient approach to its subject: "Give me a condor's quill! Give me Vesuvius' crater for an inkstand! Friends, hold my arms! For in the mere act of penning my thoughts of this Leviathan, they weary me, and make me faint with their outreaching comprehensiveness of sweep" (456).

Dramatic Renderings

In a literary work notorious for its sprawling variety of narrative forms, it is not surprising to find that source-related details exploited in expository chapters sometimes show up in the narrative action as well. For example, Melville drew from Beale's description of sperm whale behavior at 46.15-16 to explain the sperm whale's act of "sweeping" in Chapter 86 of Moby-Dick ("The Tail"), "where in maidenly gentleness the whale with a certain soft slowness moves his immense flukes from side to side upon the surface of the sea; and if he feel but a sailor's whisker, woe to that sailor, whiskers and all" (377). But in addition to that expository elaboration, Melville dramatizes the act of "sweeping" in "The Chase—Second Day" (Chapter 134) with the white whale "slowly feeling with his flukes from side to side; and whenever a stray oar, bit of plank, the least chip or crumb of the boats touched his skin, his tail swiftly drew back, and came sideways smiting the sea" (559). Both applications of "sweeping" illustrate Melville's use of descriptive and alliterative flourishes, as well as his development of thematic motifs, while assimilating material he marked in The Natural History of the Sperm Whale.

In other source-related episodes Melville dramatizes the sperm whale's actions of "peaking the flukes" (44.8) and "going head out" (45.26-27), as well as rolling (46.20) and breaching (48.15). At 45.17-24 he scored Beale's description of the whirlpool created when an alarmed sperm whale rapidly descends beneath the ocean surface, and noted in the bottom margin: "White and green vortex in the blue—as when a ship sinks." Along with intimating Melville's developing conception for the catastrophic ending of his narrative, the marginalia here document his source for the maelstroms and eddies alluded to in his own dramatized accounts of the whale hunts in Moby-Dick, where the vortices created by plunging whales hold symbolic as well as descriptive value.

It is perhaps in his dramatic application of source material that we most clearly witness Melville in the act of literary craftsmanship. For in his art of story-telling different modes of action and observation frequently meld, producing unforgettable feats of description and symbolism. At 47.6-8 Melville read and marked Beale's observation that sperm whales sometimes assume a "perpendicular posture, with the head only above the water . . . for the purpose of surveying more perfectly, or more easily, the surrounding expanse." The white whale itself assumes this posture after demolishing a whaleboat in "The Chase—First Day" (Chapter 133 of Moby-Dick):

Ripplingly withdrawing from his prey, Moby Dick now lay at a little distance, vertically thrusting his oblong white head up and down in the billows; and at the same time slowly revolving his whole spindled body; so that when his vast wrinkled forehead rose—some twenty or more feet out of the water—the now rising swells, with all their confluent waves, dazzlingly broke against it; vindictively tossing their shivered spray into the air. So, in a gale, the but half baffled Channel billows only recoil from the base of the Eddystone, triumphantly to overleap its summit with their scud.

Whereas Beale describes the vertical pose of undisturbed whales in a vast aquatic setting, Melville drew from the description to dramatize a combative posture assumed by Moby Dick while closely engaged with human foes. The appropriative alteration reinvokes the legendary cunning of the white whale, just as the extended simile of the buffeted Eddystone lighthouse reinforces the violence of the encounter—here thematically charged by Melville’s sense of the superiority of natural forces over human technology. Both rhetorical acts foreshadow the impending fate of Ahab and the Pequod, where themes of natural supremacy initiated in part through Melville's appropriations from Beale come to a climax in the catastrophic narrative conclusion of Moby-Dick.

Poetic Renderings

Melville's poetic comparison of the white whale to the Eddystone lighthouse—with its attendant conception of the war between nature and technology—typifies a creative strategy that Melville pursued quite deliberately from the earliest stages of manuscript composition. His earliest known reference to the work that would become Moby-Dick is in a letter he wrote to Richard Henry Dana on 1 May 1850, wherein Melville described the work in progress as a difficult fusion of art and authenticity:

About the "whaling voyage"—I am half way in the work, & am very glad that your suggestion so jumps with mine. It will be a strange sort of a book, tho’, I fear; blubber is blubber you know; tho’ you may get oil out of it, the poetry runs as hard as sap from a frozen maple tree;—& to cook the thing up, one must needs throw in a little fancy, which from the nature of the thing, must be ungainly as the gambols of the whales themselves. Yet I mean to give the truth of the thing, spite of this. (Correspondence 162)

Here the coveted hybrid achievement of "poetry" and "truth" suggests a method of composition in which the one is directly generated out of the other, as well as "throw[n] in" at intervals. As we have seen, Melville's adaptation of marked information from its origins in Natural History to the text of Moby-Dick reveals just this strategy of creative elaboration. But it is in the recovered annotations, particularly, that we behold Melville in the process of creating poetry from blubber.

As the rudiments of themes and conceptual approaches Melville would develop in Moby-Dick, these range in metaphorical content among the violent, the bawdy, and the poignant. In response to Beale's discussion of a breaching sperm whale (48.19-23), Melville compares the phenomenon to a horse shaking its mane in defiance, and works the notion into "The Chase—Second Day" (Chapter 134 of Moby-Dick; 557-58). In response to material in Beale's chapter on "Herding" (54.7-9), Melville identifies the raw sexual instincts of young bull sperm whales with the sins of Ixion—in Greek mythology punished by Zeus for his attempt to seduce Hera. There he compares the dominant "schoolmaster" whale at 51.7-9 with the nineteenth-century French author Eugene Francois Vidocq—who, according to his Memoirs, was himself beaten for seducing his female pupils. The figure of Ixion would of course emerge in the epilogue of Moby-Dick, where Ishmael's resemblance to the mythical transgressor emblematizes the book's culminating theme of divine retribution (573). And Melville would allude to Vidocq in his own comic chapter on herding, "Schools and Schoolmasters" (Chapter 88 of Moby-Dick; 393).

Often appearing at synoptic points of transition and closure in the narrative, the annotations contribute to what Harrison Hayford has called the "dense imaginative coherence of Moby-Dick" ("'Loomings'" 119), and none more so than Melville's annotation on the "dying spout of the whale." In describing the chase and capture of the sperm whale, Beale at 182.26-31 concludes his account of a protracted battle between a whale and whalemen with a provocative depiction of the animal's death-throes, or "flurry." Melville marked the passage and, in the bottom margin, composed the rough draft of an extended simile he would later include, richly embellished, in his own episode of chase and capture in Chapter 81 of Moby-Dick, "The Pequod Meets the Virgin" (358). Here are the recovered annotation (A) and the published version (B):

A. As when the water issuing [—?—] off from a fountain [—?—] & slowly lowers—so the dying spout of the whale.
B. As when by unseen hands the water is gradually drawn off from some mighty fountain, and with half-stifled melancholy gurglings the spray-column lowers and lowers to the ground—so the last long dying spout of the whale.

In the evolution of this gem from draft to completion we witness Melville's cultivation of descriptive and alliterative effects, as well as conceptual tendencies that would coalesce in his portrayal of Ahab. Its scenario of mortal identity brought low by unseen forces forecasts the metaphysical rage of his hero—a "mighty pageant creature" whose noble but uncontrolled outrage at the world's "intangible malignity" will end in his own dying descent (73, 184).

The Ur-Moby-Dick?

The popular fame and appeal of Moby-Dick rests, of course, in its plot—the timeless story of obsession illustrated by Captain Ahab's relentless pursuit of the white whale that took his leg, his battle with the whale, and its catastrophic destruction not only of the captain but of his ship and crewmembers—save one, the narrator Ishmael. Yet perhaps no other literary masterwork displays so many curious imperfections at the textual level: unrealized foreshadowing, characters introduced with gravity but quickly dismissed, inconsistencies of narrative detail. One such irregularity occurs in "Knights and Squires" (Chapter 27) shortly after the Pequod begins its fated voyage, with the narrator projecting that "not very many" of the crew (as opposed to him alone) would return alive from the voyage (121). On the basis of such anomalies, scholars have long speculated about what may have occurred in manuscript over the book's year and a half period of composition, and they have debated the question of whether Melville set out from the beginning to write the grand tragedy he published, or if its greatness developed out of a less ambitious adventure narrative patterned after his previous works.

The book's enigmatic genesis was first addressed by Howard (1939), who argued that Moby-Dick was extensively reconceptualized in the process of composition. The position was taken up by Vincent (1949), further elaborated by Howard (1951) and popularized by Stewart (1954), who in his article "The Two Moby-Dicks" coined the title "Ur-Moby-Dick" to signify what he believed had been a radically different early narrative. Significant contributions followed from Howard's student Barbour (1970; 1975). Up to that point, scholars subscribing to the hypothesis of two (or more) Moby-Dicks had assumed that the book's opening "shore narrative" (Chapters 1 to 21) stands pretty much as it did in the early version of the work, and that Melville's reworking of the early version dealt primarily with the longer sea narrative. This assumption was upset in a breathtaking analysis of the book's textual anomalies by Hayford (1978), who argued that the shore narrative had undergone multiple stages of revision, and that the now-vestigial Captain Peleg of Chapters 16, 18, and 22 had preceded Ahab as captain of the Pequod.

As Howard would later observe in 1987, Hayford's discoveries enable us "to explore the ways in which textual evidence and such scholarly evidence as sources and influences can contradict, modify, or confirm each other" (Unfolding 49), and Robert Sattelmeyer, another of Howard’s students, has recently drawn from Hayford’s insights to argue anew that Melville’s narrative underwent a profound transformation in manuscript. Now, a recovered note on page 184 of Natural History strongly suggests Melville's early conceptions for Moby-Dick included key elements of early versions postulated by the above-named scholars. There, at the end of his chapter on the chase and capture of the sperm whale Beale summarizes the true story of the American whaleship Essex, stove and sunk by a sperm whale in the South Pacific, with the surviving crew suffering thirst, death, and cannibalism in open whaleboats. At the end of Beale's account Melville sketched the following episode for his narrative in progress:

"Killers" dragging the whale away
from the vortex (Ex [—?—])
"Old Thunder" / [?Peleg] /

If accurate, the conjectural reading of Peleg here supports Hayford's argument that this character originally occupied a much larger place in Melville's narrative plan than his finalized role as past chief-mate and current part-owner of the Pequod, for in contrast to the limited role he plays in Melville's published narrative, he here seems linked to the catastrophic event that would ultimately conclude Moby-Dick. As Hayford points out, Peleg's expletive "blood and thunder!" (uttered in Chapter 22) indicates the epithet "Old Thunder" was applied to him before it (along with the role of captain) was transferred to the newly-conceived Ahab ("Unnecessary Duplicates" 147). The vortex in line 2 would seem to be the conceptual outcome of a developing plot device in Melville's marginalia to Beale (see the marginalia at 45.17-24), and Melville's abbreviated parenthetical reference to the Essex (alongside a remaining undeciphered word) suggests the image is here meant to signify the aquatic disturbance created when a ship sinks. In line 1, "Killers" presumably signifies the officer's position among whaleboat crews denominated "headsman or whale-killer" in Chapter 62 of Moby-Dick (287).

The recovered notation shows that at some early point in the composition of Moby-Dick Melville considered a narrative plot in which the crew of the Pequod (or some ship of an earlier name) actually capture the object of their pursuit—an especially dangerous whale even at this early stage, since it manages to sink their ship before it is slain. The scenario seems unlikely enough considering hallmark qualities of the story Melville completed: its fatalistic handling of Ahab's purpose, its conception of the white whale as an embodiment of the world's abiding evil, and the orchestrated finality of its catastrophic conclusion. But we can make sense of the projected episode by following Howard's suggestion a bit further to consider Melville's abandoned plan in light of other sources available to him.

Melville was already familiar with the story of the Essex when he undertook to write Moby-Dick, for he had read the 1821 Narrative published by its first mate Owen Chase, and he acquired his own copy midway through the composition of Moby-Dick. The marginalia in his surviving copy show that along with studying Chase's account of the staving of the Essex Melville paid close attention to the aftermath of the disaster, marking passages on the crews' efforts to salvage supplies from their sinking vessel, as well as passages detailing their sufferings at sea. Other passages marked in Natural History of the Sperm Whale further suggest Melville at some point considered extending the story of his whaling crew beyond the sinking of their ship. In the South Sea Voyage appended to Natural History, Melville marked Beale's account of efforts by a lost whaleboat crew to beach their vessel amidst tumultuous surf (285.12-20), and of the stranded sailors' sense of loneliness and isolation before a gathering storm (288.12-17). Finally, scholars have long recognized that Melville also knew Jeremiah N. Reynolds's 1839 tale of "Mocha Dick: Or the White Whale of the Pacific," a magazine story on which he obviously based the title and situation of his own whaling narrative. In the fictional "Mocha Dick," the crew of a whaling vessel encounter and fight a notorious white whale which, after considerable tribulation and mishap, they capture and slay.

Does Melville's rough marginal sketch of a sunken ship and slain whale point to the "Ur-Moby-Dick"? Hayford himself avoided using this title to signify an early narrative, Melville's changing conceptions occupying fluid and overlapping phases of literary creation rather than two or more distinct narratives. Yet the recovered sketch underscores an important function of Beale's The Natural History of the Sperm Whale, and of the relationship between the published Moby-Dick and its other sources. As we have seen, Melville relied again and again on individual passages in Beale to prompt his imagination and elaborate his thematic interests, with the source passage sooner or later eclipsed by soaring original artistry. In the rough sketch we behold Melville's initial debts not only to Beale, but to Chase and Reynolds—sources he similarly outgrew in the course of composition, and ultimately transcended with his own timeless story and memorable conclusion.

[1] Readings of erased marginalia derive from work performed collaboratively by Steven Olsen-Smith and Dennis C. Marnon. This introduction is based on Steven Olsen-Smith, "Melville's Copy of Thomas Beale's The Natural History of the Sperm Whale and the Composition of Moby-Dick," Harvard Library Bulletin 21.3 (Fall 2010), 1-77.

[2] Parenthetical page references in this introduction refer to pagination in "Herman Melville's Marginalia to Thomas Beale's The Natural History of the Sperm Whale," with line numbers following pagination, where applicable. For instance, the citation "27.14-22" refers to page 27, lines 14 to 22 of Beale's Natural History of the Sperm Whale.

Bibliography

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