to Melville's Marginalia in Thomas Beale's The Natural
History of the Sperm Whale
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
Melville's marginalia had been erased from the book (129). In
(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).
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.
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."
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.
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
from Beale's words on the popular reputation of the Greenland whale at
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
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
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).
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"
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
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
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.
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
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
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"
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
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 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
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
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
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
 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.
 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
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