“Did you ever see a whale?” the New York Herald asked on 12 April 1851, in an editorial probably written by the newspaper’s editor, James Gordon Bennett. In Boston a week earlier, a black man named Thomas Sims had been seized as a fugitive slave, and the New York politicians John Van Buren and William H. Seward had written letters denouncing the Fugitive Slave Law, which were read aloud at a Boston protest meeting advocating Sims’ release. The letters were news, and as an editor, Bennett had to reprint them, but he thought that abolitionists like Van Buren and Seward were dooming the United States to civil war, and he couldn’t bring himself to reprint their letters without saying so. He chose a striking metaphor to convey his message:
Did you ever see a mighty whale struggling in the turbulent ocean? Did you ever see two very mighty whales, or other monster of the deep, in the terrible current of the boundless ocean, that was hurrying everything above and beneath it, onward and onward, in its tremendous career, to some final but awful catastrophe? In the midst of the current, in such a scene, you might see the skiffs, covered with canvass, endeavoring to stem the tide unavailingly; while, at the same time, the very monsters of the deep would be struggling against the current, to avoid, if possible, the awful fate which seemed to be impending over them, and over every living thing that, peradventure, got into this current, rolling on and rolling on, boisterous, furious, and boiling, to an awful but unknown eternity.
This sucking down of whales into a whirlpool, Bennett argued, was an emblem of “the present condition of this mighty republic.” As it happens, the judge who ruled that Sims had to return to his owner in the South was Lemuel Shaw, father-in-law of Herman Melville. According to biographer Hershel Parker, Melville was in Pittsfield, Massachusetts on the day that Bennett’s editorial was published. Melville’s novel Moby-Dick was mostly written—he would hire a typesetter just a few weeks later—but he hadn’t yet written the final chapters, in which the Pequod sinks into a whale-induced vortex, and “the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.”
Might the editorial have reached Melville, and might its imagery have lodged in his mind? I know that there are many essays about Moby-Dick and the Civil War, and I bet that someone has already quoted Bennett’s editorial in this context. But since this is just a blog, I’m going to post this item without checking the critical archive first. (Corrections happily accepted.)