The meaning of whales

This morning, Mathieu P. left the following comment to my post on Melville's poem "Monody":

I am currently reading Melville's Moby Dick. Although I enjoy the book, I fail to understand fully the meaning of the chapter devoted to whaling, such as the one about cetology or the one about whalemen eating whale meat. There are enough comments about religion or cannibals to make me think that these chapter should be taken with a pinch of salt. I do not however understand to which degree exactly they should be taken and what their precise aim is. I would welcome any pointers or explanations. I may add that my only clue about American literature is Leo Marx's The Machine in the Garden, which I read eagerly (my English professor of my undergrad years praised that book).

I thought I'd try to answer publicly, not because I have the answer, but because by coincidence I've been thinking about this very question, among others, for a lecture that I've been invited to give at SUNY Geneseo's English department in honor of the Thoreau scholar Walter Harding. (The lecture is scheduled to take place at 4pm on September 23 on the SUNY Geneseo campus.)

What I hope to talk about at Geneseo is the problem of esoteric knowledge in Melville's work—that is, the sense that the reader has that Melville's work has a secret meaning, and that among the pleasures and duties of reading him is the pursuit of his secret. It isn't at all obvious that a work of art should have a secret meaning, and I think most successful works of art don't. It's hard enough to communicate when one is taking care to be honest and forthcoming. Jane Austen's novels don't seem to have secrets; not even a book as heavy with symbolism as the Great Gatsby does. Infinite Jest, on the other hand, seems to me to be hiding something—to be begging for exegesis—especially toward the end, when it turns compressed and the allusions to Hamlet start to accumulate. Books that provoke in the reader a sense of secret knowledge almost never, of course, make a claim to such knowledge explicitly, so deciding which books fall into the category is tricky and somewhat subjective.

There are more books in the world than anyone has time to read. Why should a reader think it worth his while to ferret out the meaning of a writer who is withholding it? Moreover, why should a reader believe that a withheld meaning is true? When people believe that someone has access to secret truths, it's generally because they think of the person as a prophet, a guru, or even an incarnated god. Why should a novelist have such access? Or to put the question another way: How does a novelist go about convincing readers that he has such access?

This is all a little far afield from Mathieu P.'s particular question, the short answer to which is that there is no consensus about what whaling signifies in Moby-Dick. Two books that suggest answers are Charles Olson's Call Me Ishmael and C. L. R. James's Mariners, Renegades & Castaways, both of which lay more emphasis on political and economic meanings than is common in academic analyses. I hope in my lecture that I will be able to articulate some of my own hunches about the secrets in Moby-Dick, which always sound half-mad even to myself when I try to put them into words. My method will be to compare them to the half-submerged ideas that appear in Mardi and Clarel, two works of Melville's that are less successful but also try to lure the reader into the pursuit of hidden meanings. A whale is an intelligent mammal that doesn't kill, doesn't have to work, and needn't have second thoughts about its sexual nature. Though apparently simple, when that definition works its way through Melville's strangely intertwined ideas about gender, incarnation, sexuality, immortality, and capitalism, the reader ends up in a strange place. I read Byron's Cain this week, and it occurred to me that Melville's whales share a great deal with the beings that existed in the world before Adam, shown to Cain by Lucifer during a visit to Hades:

Cain. What are these mighty phantoms which I see
Floating around me?—They wear not the form
Of the Intelligences I have seen
Round our regretted and unentered Eden;
Nor wear the form of man as I have viewed it
In Adam's and in Abel's, and in mine,
Nor in my sister-bride's, nor in my children's:
And yet they have an aspect, which, though not
Of men nor angels, looks like something, which,
If not the last, rose higher than the first,
Haughty, and high, and beautiful, and full
Of seeming strength, but of inexplicable
Shape; for I never saw such. They bear not
The wing of Seraph, nor the face of man,
Nor form of mightiest brute, nor aught that is
Now breathing; mighty yet and beautiful
As the most beautiful and mighty which
Live, and yet so unlike them, that I scarce
Can call them living.

In Byron's play, the pre-Adamites are not the same as whales, which do however make an appearance a few pages later, when Lucifer, on the same tour of Hades, shows Cain an ocean, a thing Cain has never seen before:

Cain. 'Tis like another world; a liquid sun—
And those inordinate creatures sporting o'er
Its shining surface?

Lucifer. Are its inhabitants,
The past Leviathans.

Ungar and Walter Berglund on the American anti-sublime

So like everybody else, I read Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom last week, and like everybody else I loved it. I think I’m going to be limiting my dose of Franzen criticism in the near future, having already made my decision whether to read the book and all, but I did read Sam Anderson’s take on the novel in New York magazine this week. Anderson claims (pretends?) that he would have found Franzen’s crankiness about the environmental and cultural degradation of America tiresome if Franzen weren’t a genius in his creation of plot and character.

This, I confess, was not quite the problem that I had to overcome, but mine was related. My problem, rather, was the irony with which Franzen handles that crankiness. Perhaps to shield the reader from direct contact with his anger, Franzen places it largely in the mind and voice of Walter Berglund, Midwestern do-gooder, who is falling apart. I found myself reading dour judgments about the ecologial and cultural degradation of America that to me sounded justifiable and even spot-on but which were being framed within the novel as symptoms of nervous breakdown and by-products of romantic frustration. Here’s Walter Berglund explaining his distress to an old friend:

I couldn’t sleep at night. I couldn’t stand what was happening to the country. . . . It was like having acid thrown in my face every time I passed the city limits. Not just the industrial farming but the sprawl, the sprawl, the sprawl. Low-density development is the worst. And SUVs everywhere, snowmobiles everywhere, Jet Skis everywhere, ATVs everywhere, two-acre lawns everywhere. The goddamned green monospecific chemical-drenched lawns. . . . This was what was keeping me awake at night. . . This fragmentation. Because it’s the same problem everywhere. It’s like the internet, or cable TV—there’s never any center, there’s no communal agreement, there’s just a trillion little bits of distracting noise. We can never sit down and have any kind of sustained conversation, it’s all just cheap trash and shitty development.

To which every molecule in my being wanted to say, Amen, self-incriminatingly, but plot twists conspired to remind me that Walter’s thinking had drifted a little south of healthy.

Since I happened to read Freedom in between cantos of Clarel, Herman Melville’s 500-page epic poem about a tour to the Holy Land, I happened to notice that Melville, like Franzen, also took the precaution of voicing his angriest rants through fictional characters recognized by others inside his literary work as not altogether sane. Here’s Ungar, a Civil War veteran, taking a dim view of the English-speaking peoples’ loud religiosity and triumphalist crowing about free trade:

The Anglo-Saxons—lacking grace
To win the love of any race;
Hated by myriads dispossessed
Of rights—the Indians East and West.
These pirates of the sphere! grave looters—
Grave, canting, Mammonite freebooters,
Who in the name of Christ and Trade
(Oh, bucklered forehead of the brass!)
Deflower the world’s last sylvan glade!

My marginal note: “Franzenesque!”

Melville’s “Monody”: Probably for Hawthorne

Some time in the last few decades of his life, Herman Melville wrote a short poem, “Monody,” in which a speaker mourns a man whom he loved but became estranged from. In 1929, the critic Lewis Mumford claimed that the poem was an elegy for Hawthorne, who died in 1864. In 1960, the scholar Walter Bezanson strengthened the case by noting that the character Vine in Melville’s epic poem Clarel resembles Hawthorne in many ways, and that the vine-and-grape imagery that surrounds Vine echoes, or is echoed by, an image of a vine and grape in the closing lines of “Monody.” The identification became an established piece of lore among Melville scholars until 1990, when the editor and scholar Harrison Hayford cast doubt on it in “Melville’s ‘Monody’: Really for Hawthorne?” a pamphlet distributed as a keepsake along with the Northwestern-Newberry edition of Clarel, which Hayford co-edited.

I don’t remember when exactly I first read Hayford’s pamphlet, but it was over a decade ago, and I remember that I read it quickly and that it made me angry. Quickly, because although the last chapter of my book American Sympathy, which I must then have been either writing or revising, was concerned with Melville and homosexual eros, it wasn’t much concerned with Melville’s biography. I was hardly averse to his biography—I had drawn on details of Melville’s life in an earlier essay—but one of the ideas I had about American Sympathy was that the book would progress from biography to literature: the first chapter would discuss a set of diaries and letters, and the last would be an interpretation of Billy Budd conducted on a plane of empyrean detachment from the dross of history. It didn’t turn out that neatly, of course, but officially I wasn’t in the market for learning new facts about Melville’s life, so I read quickly. I became angry, because, despite the haste of my reading, it seemed to me that the aim of Hayford’s pamphlet was to bury a piece of the evidence for Melville’s sexuality as manifested in his writing.

Another reason I read quickly was that I wasn’t then in any position fully to evaluate Hayford’s claim, because I couldn’t evaluate Bezanson’s, because I hadn’t yet read Clarel. I shamefacedly report that it is only now, in August of 2010, that I am at last filling this lacuna in my formation as a Melvillean. (More on Clarel another day, perhaps; I seem to have filled a small notebook with notes already, and I’m only two-thirds through the 500-page poem.) In the back of the Northwestern-Newberry edition of Clarel is a version of Hayford’s essay about “Monody,” which abridges Hayford’s argument about the Hawthorne identification but gives a more detailed description of Melville’s manuscript of “Monody,” which survives in Harvard’s Houghton Library. Calmer than I was a decade ago, and also a veteran of journalism, I was impressed, in reading the Clarel version of Hayford’s essay, by his careful use of the available facts—such caution is not always exercised by literary critics. For about ten dollars I bought a copy of his pamphlet from an online bookseller and re-read it last week. I now see that it’s a useful essay, which distinguishes what’s known from what has been speculated, but I don’t think I was entirely wrong in my more emotional reaction a decade ago, because there is something slightly disingenuous about it rhetorically, and it may be worth while to try to spell out why.

“Monody” runs as follows:

To have known him, to have loved him
After loneness long;
And then to be estranged in life,
And neither in the wrong;
And now for death to set his seal—
Ease me, a little ease, my song!

By wintry hills his hermit-mound
The sheeted snow-drifts drape,
And houseless there the snow-bird flits
Beneath the fir-tree’s crape:
Glazed now with ice the cloistral vine
That hid the shyest grape.

Hayford points out that no evidence proves that Hawthorne is the object of this poem’s lament, though the mistakes of scholars have sometimes given the impression that such evidence exists. Hayford is assiduous about clearing this scholarly underbrush away. In speculating about the friendship between Hawthorne and Melville, for example, Mumford claimed that Hawthorne’s story “Ethan Brand” depicted Melville, and that Melville was upset by the portrait. In fact, Hayford points out, “Ethan Brand” was published before Melville and Hawthorne ever met.

That’s an obvious blunder, but not all Hayford’s corrections are of errors so black-and-white. Melville and Hawthorne became famously close in 1850 and 1851, while they were not-quite-neighbors in western Massachusetts and while Melville was finishing Moby-Dick. In the fall of 1851, however, Hawthorne abruptly left. Biographer Brenda Wineapple has suggested that Hawthorne wanted to be closer to Boston, to position himself strategically for his friend Franklin Pierce’s 1852 presidential campaign, but some biographers of Melville have speculated that Melville came on too strong, emotionally or perhaps even sexually, and frightened Hawthorne off. If so, then the phrase “estranged in life” in line 3 of “Monody” might point to Hawthorne. Hayford, however, insists quite rightly that Hawthorne and Melville exchanged uniformly warm letters in this period, that Hawthorne’s references to Melville in his letters and journals throughout his life were nothing but kind, and that when Melville visited the Hawthornes in Liverpool in 1856, Hawthorne wrote that “we soon found ourselves on pretty much our former terms of sociability and confidence.” There isn’t “the slightest documentary confirmation,” Hayford writes, of what he calls “the rupture hypothesis.”

To which anyone who’s been around the block might answer: Well, yes and no. When you realize that someone isn’t going to reciprocate your love, you don’t necessarily stop talking to each other. As Robert Milder wrote in “Editing Melville’s Afterlife,” a 1996 review of Hayford’s pamphlet for the journal Text, “‘estrangement’ might . . . imply a slow but perceptible emotional distancing.” In 1852, Melville’s letters to Hawthorne do grow cooler. It’s dangerous to read literature back into biography, but there’s an awful lot of literary evidence pointing to something biographical happening between the two men. In Melville’s Clarel, the hero yearns for Vine, widely thought to represent Hawthorne, imploring him, “Give me thyself!” In Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance, the narrator rejects the overtures of the burly Hollingsworth, who is often said to represent Melville. And Hawthorne’s 1856 reference to “our former terms of sociability and confidence” is ambiguous: Hawthorne was saying that the 1856 visit went well, but he was also acknowledging that he and Melville were no longer as close as they had been.

When the scholar Jay Leyda printed “Monody” in The Melville Log (1951), a two-volume compilation of documentary sources about Melville, he was so persuaded by the Hawthorne identification that he placed the first stanza of “Monody” below the May 19, 1864 entry for Hawthorne’s death. In Melville’s manuscript, the two stanzas appear on separate pieces of paper, with different inks and different paper, and Leyda thought the second stanza must have been composed later. Hayford, ever a stickler, writes that Leyda was wrong on both counts. Indeed, nothing but speculation linked the dates of the composition of “Monody” and Hawthorne’s death, though Leyda’s reputation for impartiality and documentary style was to convince many scholars otherwise. The different inks and papers of the manuscript proved only that the two stanzas were inscribed at different times, not that they were composed at different times. In fact, Hayford continued, if the stanzas were composed at the same time, as he suspected, then “Monody” couldn’t be about Hawthorne at all, because there couldn’t have been any snow on Hawthorne’s grave in May.

“Hayford’s reasoning is faultless,” Milder wrote in his review,

but it works on the premise that an elegy should have the factual scrupulousness of a newspaper report. . . . No writer who began his career by expanding four weeks of benign captivity among a Marquesan tribe into four months would scruple about introducing snow and ice into an elegy for someone who happened to die in May.

Moreover, there is in fact some reason to believe on the basis of the manuscript that the second stanza was composed later than the first. For one thing, the two stanzas differ markedly in literary style. The first is colloquial, with a phrasing that’s natural and easy; it’s written almost the way someone might talk. The second, however, reverses natural word order. In English, you wouldn’t ordinarily say, “By wintry hills his hermit-mound the sheeted snow-drifts drape.” You would say, “The sheeted snow-drifts drape his hermit-mound by wintry hills.” The contorted syntax and the compression of detail and imagery in the second stanza sound to me like the result of a much more effortful mood.

For another thing, the manuscript contains a telling set of erased alterations to the first stanza, and to the first stanza only. (I’m relying here on Robert C. Ryan’s genetic transcription of the “Monody” manuscript, printed with Hayford’s essay in Clarel). Next to both instances of the word “him” in the first line, Melville pencilled the word “her,” which he then in both instances erased. In Hayford’s words: “Melville considered changing his pronoun references to the mourned person from masculine to feminine.” Hayford concludes from this that the person mourned might therefore have been either a man or a woman, and if we lived in a world with perfect symmetry in that department, Hayford might be right. But we don’t live in such a world, but rather in one in which even Whitman, when printing his poem “Once I Pass’d through a Populous City,” changed

I remember, I say, only one rude and ignorant man, who, when I departed, long and long held me by the hand

to

I remember I say only that woman who passionately clung to me

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that Melville’s lost beloved was a woman. The most likely reason for Melville to change the gender of the pronoun, in that case, would be to hide his love for this woman from his wife. But Melville gave this very manuscript to his wife, to make a clean copy of—her copy of it is printed on the page after his, in the Northwestern-Newberry Clarel—and if the partly erased pencil “her’s” were visible to Hayford and Ryan in 1991, they would surely have been visible to Elizabeth Shaw Melville in the nineteenth century. Another problem: I’ve never heard any biographical hint of Melville having had an affair while married. Yet another: If the woman in question were a lover of Melville’s, it would hardly be true that neither party was “in the wrong,” as the poem has it. Melville would have been a cheating husband, and cheating husbands are proverbially in the wrong. It seems nearly impossible to me that the alterations were an attempt to restore a woman hidden behind Melville’s “his’s.” It seems far more likely that Melville had qualms and briefly considered disguising a romantic poem about a man who had died.

There is, however, no attempted alteration to the word “his” in the first line of the second stanza. That suggests to me that Melville composed the second stanza after his bout of wondering whether to censor the gender of his beloved. If the second stanza was indeed composed later, there’s really no need for its winter imagery to correspond to the May of Hawthorne’s death—though as Milder observes, there’s really no such need in any case.

Hayford never claims that there’s any reason to think that “Monody” isn’t about Hawthorne, and I agree that there’s no final proof that it is. But even if “Monody” isn’t about Hawthorne, the gender of the person mourned reveals that Melville had been deeply moved and upset by the unhappy outcome of his love for another man. Therein, I think, lies Hayford’s rhetorical sleight of hand. Hayford writes as if he believed that if it may be doubted that Melville wrote “Monody” for Hawthorne, then it may also be doubted that Melville grieved because he never got to live out in full his love for another man. But Melville did write “Monody,” and it doesn’t sound to me like the sort of poem written out of feelings that were purely imaginary.

If not Hawthorne, who? It has been suggested, for example by Corey Evan Thompson in a 2006 article for ANQ, that the true subject of “Monody” is Melville’s teenage son Malcolm, who committed suicide in his bedroom in the Melvilles’ New York home on September 11, 1867. This seems far-fetched. Rather clumsily, Thompson argues that Melville couldn’t have longed for Hawthorne to be his close male adult friend because Melville had for a companion Richard Tobias Greene, the man fictionalized as “Toby” in Melville’s first novel Typee. After all, Greene named one of his sons after Melville, Thompson writes. This is true, but even in Typee, Toby isn’t a terribly romantic figure; in the matter of charisma, the cannibals leave him well in the shade. And once returned to America, Greene always lived elsewhere—upstate New York, Ohio, Chicago—and so could hardly have assuaged whatever longings Melville may have had.

More to the point, however, the poem just doesn’t sound like an elegy for a son. The lines “To have known him, to have loved him / After loneness long” are too erotic for a parent to address them to a child, even a dead child. I for one would be much more creeped out by a Melville who wrote such a poem about his son than by a Melville who wrote it about a male friend. If Melville had his son in mind when writing the poem, it’s inexplicable that he considered altering the gender of the poem’s subject—what need for disguise would there be? Melville was said by one of his cousins to have been a strict parent, and he may even have been an abusive one, traits that seem belied by the poem’s claim that “neither [were] in the wrong.” Even if Melville were unconscious of his severity, though, the characterization of the estrangement as equitable seems inconsistent with a parent-child relationship, even one that has gone awry. Nor does the person described resemble what is known about Malcolm. Everyone who knew Hawthorne described him as shy, but according to Hershel Parker, Malcolm’s uncle John Hoadley wrote about the boy’s “playful fondness of children” and his “fondness for social frolicking with his young friends, and acquaintances that he made down town.” Not long before his death, Malcolm joined a volunteer regiment and a baseball team; he hardly seems to have been “the shyest grape.”

In Clarel, however, Vine is addressed with exactly such imagery:

“Ambushed in leaves we spy your grape,”
Cried Derwent [to Vine]; “black but juicy one…”

Vine first appears in the poem at a tomb sculpted with grapes, among other fruit, and is said to have blood like “swart Vesuvian wine” that’s been somehow cooled, as if the imagery of a vine on a grave were with Melville from his first conception of the character.

At the end of his pamphlet, Hayford pronounces over the Hawthorne/”Monody” hypothesis “the Scottish verdict ‘Not Proven.'” True enough, as a matter of biography and history, but the case for Malcolm as the poem’s subject should be thrown out of court. My own verdict is that if the poem’s subject wasn’t Hawthorne, it was a man so like him and so closely linked to him in Melville’s imagination that the distinction between them is, for the purposes of literary interpretation, moot.

Crowd-sourcing a lost Melville-related index

Extracts, the Melville Society’s newsletter from 1969 to 2005, is freely available online, including an index to a few dozen of the issues (number 49 to 72). Once upon a time, there also existed online an index to all the issues of Extracts. I seem to remember that this index was hosted on the site of someone not officially associated with the Melville Society. I also remember that when cross-referenced with the page images of the newsletter itself, it was very useful for tracking down odd bits of information about Melville not readily found elsewhere. But Google can’t tell me where this index is anymore, if indeed it still exists. Does anyone know?

Notebook: “There She Blew”

Harry V. Givens, photographer, 'Whale Skeleton, Point Lobos, California,' American Environmental Photographs Collection (1891-1936), AEP-CAS206, Department of Special Collections, University of Chicago Library

“There She Blew,” my review of Eric Jay Dolin’s Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America, is in the 23 July 2007 issue of The New Yorker. Herewith a few web extras and informal footnotes.

As ever, my first thanks go to the book under review. I also consulted the conservationist and historian Richard Ellis’s Men and Whales (Knopf, 1991), which takes the story of whaling beyond America, and the economists Lance E. Davis, Robert E. Gallman, and Karin Gleiter’s In Pursuit of Leviathan: Technology, Institutions, Productivity, and Profits in American Whaling, 1816-1906 (University of Chicago, 1997), which contains empirical data and insights that will interest Ph.D.’s as well as M.B.A.’s. The best documentation of Melville’s life as a whaler is in Herman Melville’s Whaling Years (Vanderbilt, 2004), a 1952 dissertation revised by its author, Wilson Heflin, until his death in 1985, and astutely edited for publication by Mary K. Bercaw Edwards and Thomas Farel Heffernan. (It’s from a note in Heflin’s book that I found the description of sperm-squeezing in William M. Davis’s 1874 memoir.) Two nineteenth-century memoirs of whaling that I refer to—J. Ross Browne’s Etchings of a Whaling Cruise and Francis Allyn Olmsted’s Incidents of a Whaling Voyage—are available online thanks to Tom Tyler of Denver, Colorado, as part of his edition of journals kept aboard the Nantucket whaler Plough Boy between 1827 and 1834. William Scoresby Jr.’s Account of the Arctic Regions, with a History and Description of the Northern Whale-Fishery is available in Google Books. (For the record, though, I read on paper, not online. I’m not really capable of reading books online.)

Also very useful was Briton Cooper Busch’s “Whaling Will Never Do for Me”: The American Whaleman in the Nineteenth Century (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1994), which told me about bored shipboard wives and the whaler who read Moby-Dick while at sea, and Pamela A. Miller’s And the Whale Is Ours: Creative Writing of American Whalemen (Godine, 1971), my source for the quatrain about sperm whales vanishing from “Japan Ground.”

Now for the wildly miscellaneous. While I was researching the review, some Eskimos killed a bowhead whale off the shores of Alaska and found in its blubber the unexploded explosive tip of a bomb lance manufactured in the 1880s; the discovery got a short paragraph in the New York Times (“This Whale’s Life . . . It Was a Long One”), and a longer explanation on the website of the New Bedford Whaling Museum (“125-year-old New Bedford Bomb Fragment Found Embedded in Alaskan Bowhead Whale”). The NBWM has some great photographs of whaling in its online archives, from an inadvertently campy tableau of a librarian showing a young sailor how to handle his harpoon in the 1950s, to a sublime and otherworldly image of a backlit “blanket piece” of blubber being hauled on board a whaler in 1904. The blanket piece was photographed by the whaling artist Clifford W. Ashley, as part of his research for his paintings; he also took pictures of a lookout high in a mast, a sperm whale lying fin out beside a whaler, the “cutting in” of a whale beside a ship, and whalers giving each other haircuts. Though taken in 1904, they’re the best photos of nineteenth-century-style whaling I’ve seen, and they’re also available in a book, Elton W. Hall’s Sperm Whaling from New Bedford, through the museum’s store.

The best moving images of whaling are in Elmer Clifton’s 1922 silent movie “Down to the Sea in Ships,” which features Clara Bow as a stowaway in drag and has an absurd plot, complete with a villain who is secretly Asian. It stars Marguerite Courtot and Raymond McKee (who was said to have thrown the harpoon himself during the filming), as well as real New Bedfordites and their ships, as Dolin explains, and even has a scene of Quakers sitting wordlessly in meeting, the purity of which tickled me. It has been released by Kino Video on DVD and is available via Netflix as part of a double feature with Parisian Love. The NBWM has a great many stills; try searching for “Clifton” as a keyword.

If photographs strike you as too anachronistic, you can find the occasional watercolor whaling scene in the nineteenth-century logbooks digitized by the G. W. Blunt White Library of the Mystic Seaport Museum, such as these images from the 1841-42 logbook of the Charles W. Morgan. There is more scrimshaw than you will know what to do with at the Nantucket Historical Association. If you want to hear whales, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has at least two websites with samples, and there are more here, courtesy of the University of Rhode Island.

The conceptual, book-based artist Alex Itin has an intriguing video collage of Moby-Dick the text and Orson Welles the actor; Welles tried a number of times to stage a version of the novel. And much further down the brow of culture, the Disney corporation did an animated book review of Moby-Dick a few years ago. (I can’t promise it won’t work your last nerve.) Last but not least, here are NOAA’s estimates of current whale populations, by species, and the homepage of the International Whaling Commission, responsible for the animals’ welfare.

Photo credit: Harry V. Givens, photographer, “Whale Skeleton, Point Lobos, California,” American Environmental Photographs Collection (1891-1936), AEP-CAS206, Department of Special Collections, University of Chicago Library (accessed through the Library of Congress’s American Memory website).