Last week during the great Unstructured Clarel Readalong, I was off having fun in and around New Bedford, MA, site of a national historical park devoted to whaling and a really good whaling museum well worth visiting.
Not least for the giant whale skeletons in the foyer. The bones themselves are composed of up to half whale oil, and a collection system is set up to show how much oil drips out of the skeletons hanging above.
The museum has a wonderful collection of paintings, prints, and other whaling-related art as well as artifacts. Some were surprisingly detailed depictions of the process of whaling. Others were great examples of what Moby-Dick‘s narrator complains of in terms of grotesque anatomical mistakes, unrealistic scenes, and some excellent action as well. The exhibits trace whaling-related art through time from country to country, as it becomes dominant in various areas such as the Netherlands, England, France, and America. The Dutch even made delftware of this stuff—which I totally want.
This is a crazy Renaissance allegory by Brueghel. Check out the fish with legs in the upper left corner walking away with a fish in his mouth. At this period, most depictions of whales relied on scenes of whales that had washed ashore, though this one is obviously not what you’d call realistic. The text at the bottoms reads, in Dutch and Latin, “little fishes make food for big fishes.” Well then.
Ishmael attends services at the Chapel before embarking on the Pequod, and while there he reads the cenotaphs of whalers and other seamen who have gone before him—and not made it back home. These still appear in the Bethel, some old enough for Melville to have seen them and other as recent as the 1980s.
In addition to New Bedford, we made a stop in Mystic, CT at Mystic Seaport. The Charles W. Morgan, the last wooden whaling ship in the world, is there being fully restored. You can view the working shipyard where they are fixing it up and even board the ship during the restoration.
Here’s a top view of the try-works on the Charles W. Morgan, where the whale oil was processed. All the description of Moby-Dick was more helpful than any museum exhibit, by the way, in understanding what all the parts of the ship were for and how everything was supposed to work.
New Bedford was a great whaling city itself, but Ishmael took a packet from there to Nantucket, where he felt was the real place to start out. I didn’t do quite that, but I did take a ferry to Martha’s Vineyard, home of the Pequod‘s third mate, Flask.
Tomorrow, more photos of nearby Fairhaven, which has a maritime history of its own and is related to another bibliographing favorite.