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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

Yes, there was a real white whale! Herman Melville read about it in Knickerbocker Magazine in 1839. The article by J.R. Reynolds described the chase, capture, and killing of a violent sperm whale as "white as wool," whose haunt was near Mocha Island, off the coast of Chile.


In a May 2, 2020, essay for the New York Times, Carl Safina relates information about this real white whale, then quips: "It's unknown what led Melville to tweak Mocha to Moby. Good thing he did, and that Starbuck was the name he gave his first mate rather than his captain. Otherwise, the novel would follow Starbuck's obsession with a Mocha!" Safina's jesting aside, his essay, "Melville's Whale Was a Warning We Failed to Heed," is worth reading.

In Melville's 19th century, we slaughtered the whale almost to extinction.

Now, we fill them with plastic.

In a memorable article, "Belly of the Beast," I quote the following for its image.

"A sperm whale that recently washed up on the Spanish coast had an entire greenhouse in its belly; the flattened structure, together with the tarps, hosepipes, ropes, flowerpots, and spray canister" for the greenhouse. All from an Andalusian hydroponic business, which grows tomatoes for export to colder climes. The article's author, Amia Srinivasan, did what good writers do: they make us remember by being specific. Here is another sentence I will not forget: "When whales exhale through their blowholes, the vapor is so dense that it produces rainbows." (The New Yorker, August 24, 2020, pgs. 64-69, "What have we done to the whale?)


In Carl Safina's NY Times essay from May 2, 2020, he ends by saying: "If we are all Ishmael and Ahab, caught in our collective addiction, the whales exemplify a counterculture, a way of living weightlessly, of not draining the world that floats them." Safina quotes a naturalist, Henry Beston, who states that whales and all beings are caught in the net of life and time, as "fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth."

Safina concludes his final paragraph with Beston's familiar image of a net. But Safina adds two barbs. "Mesh by knotted mesh, it's a net we have woven perversely, by unweaving the web of life. Melville tried to warn us."


Next week: Melville on Tattoos




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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

I have realized that some of the students signed up for my May Melville class, do not read my blog on Herman. The thought that words compete poorly with images these days, brought back a scene from 1966. Fifty-five years ago, I was observing in secondary schools as part of my San Francisco State education program. And the day I recall, a friend and I had visited a junior high in Colma, close to San Francisco. The eighth grade English class I observed was reading a comic book version of Moby-Dick.

The tired-looking female teacher looked apologetic and said, "Anything to get them reading." My friend Mary who had driven me to the school, expressed dismay as we headed back to SF State that late morning. Five years of studying literature, both of us ardent readers since childhood, and using comic books in classes?

I wonder if Mary remembers what we did after our required observation that morning. Before our afternoon seminar at SF State, we went to a bar near the campus. In those days I barely had money for rent. No matter. I ordered an expensive specialty drink: thick cream blended with vodka and galliano, made into a frothing alcoholic sea. A White Whale! I choose it instead of a Brandy Alexander, which I learned to love after seeing The Days of Wine and Roses.

That day my drink required symbolism!

This memory also made me recall something relevant from my student teaching the fall of 1966 at Jefferson High School in Daly City. (Mary student taught there, too.) One of my master teachers was a pot head and did not visit my class once after the first day when he introduced me to the students in junior English. How I pulled off using One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in the class amazes me now. But after the morning at Colma Junior High, one of my favorite passages in Ken Kesey's outrageous novel is one I will quote today. Anyone who has not read the novel, might have seen the movie. For the following passage, think of the wacky Randle McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) and the novel's narrator, Chief Bromden.

"He (McMurphy) goes to getting ready for bed, pulling off his clothes. The shorts under his work pants are coal black satin covered with big white whales with red eyes. He grins when he sees I'm looking at the shorts. "From a co-ed at Oregon State, Chief, a Literary major." He snaps the elastic with his thumb. "She gave them to me because she said I was a symbol."


NEXT WEEK: Hello, world. Melville Warned Us…


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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

On 20 November 1820, 40 miles from the equator in the South Pacific, most of the twenty Essex crew were in boats, harpooning a shoal of whales. But one sperm whale of 85-90 feet had moved away, then headed toward the ship, and attacked it not once but twice. What? "The supposedly gentle whale turning intelligently violent?" No record of this having ever happened.


Over the next two days, with the Essex slowly sinking, the crew stocked three whale boats with hard bread, kegs of water, and necessary navigational equipment. They also modified the boats with sails and higher sides. Weeks later in rough weather, one boat disappeared and was not seen again. Of the two surviving boats, Captain James Pollard commanded one, first mate Owen Chase the other. And Chase kept notes, which became the basis of his written account of the Essex tragedy.

In the beginning, the three small whale boats did not sail toward the easily reached Marquesas. Why? Fear of being eaten by savages. Instead, the plan was to sail south about 1500 miles to latitude 26, then ride the breezes to Chile or Peru. Cabin boy Nickerson, one of eight survivors, later wrote of this fatal error: "How many warm hearts ceased to beat in consequence of it?"

Ah, life. Head in the wrong direction and pay for it. Fateful misinformation. A dreadful irony, too. The five men survive in two boats by partaking in cannibalism, which they had feared and why the wrong direction was chosen.

This is the tragedy of the Essex. Well known, though not to me until I began exploring Moby-Dick for a book I am writing. Unlike school children in the 19th century who read about the Essex, I did not read in school about the Donner Party (ironic word). Yet after reading the Shipwreck of the Whaleship Essex, I better understand the cannibalism in the High Sierras during the Gold Rush.


Owen Chase's account in plain & stoic prose (presumed to have been written by a hired literary hack) lets a reader imagine desperate hunger & thirst, sail in rough seas in a flimsy boat, and even to partake of human flesh. His account raises many questions about humans and survival. Would you have stayed on an island which lacked food and water, to get out of a flimsy boat at sea? (three of the crew did). Would you have sacrificed yourself to keep your shipmates alive? (Pollard's nephew, Owen Coffin, did). Would you have lain in the bottom of the boat and given up, as several men did?

Shipwreck of the Whaleship Essex also has two short accounts by Captain Pollard and Englishman Thomas Chapple. At the end are Herman Melville's notes on Owen Chase. How all of this this relates to Melville and Moby-Dick, I will write about next week.


Today, I offer a page of Melville's notes, which made me reflect on Lizzie Shaw Melville, Herman's wife and scribe. Imagine having to decipher these penciled words? Who transcribed Melville's memoranda? I do not know. But the volume containing his memoranda is housed in the Houghton Library at Harvard University.


"Since writing the foregoing I--sometime about 1850…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…


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