Leviathan

“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.)

Harry Potter, wizard, dead at 12

Well, it happened to Frodo. I missed the Daily News article. My suspicions were aroused when an ABC producer emailed me, a couple of days ago, saying that he was working on a story related to the new Harry Potter book and wanted to know more about the reaction of 19th-century New York to the death of another child-hero of English fiction, Little Nell of Charles Dickens’s Old Curiosity Shop. (She’s the one about whom Oscar Wilde said that “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Nell without laughing.”) Now the BBC is saying that Rowling wept while writing (so did Dickens, wrenchingly), though they don’t say whom she killed. Hmm.

About Potter I know nothing. As for 19th-century New York: In his authoritative 1991 biography of Dickens, Peter Ackroyd writes: “It is always said that the crowds gathered on the harbour front of New York and asked the incoming passengers from across the Atlantic, ‘Is Little Nell dead?'” (p. 319). The story also appeared in Edgar Johnson’s biography of Dickens, without any footnote to back it up. The Oxford Reader’s Companion to Charles Dickens calls the story “famous (unconfirmed).”

Unconfirmed doesn’t mean untrue. But when I took a quick look at microfilms of the New York Herald from January to March 1841, when the news would have arrived, I had no luck. It was a very big deal whenever a ship arrived from Europe, and the Herald usually released an “extra” with all the latest news. I skimmed the headlines and top news from England that arrived in these months, and saw no mention of Dickens at all. There were reports of the theatrical doings in London, but nothing about fiction. Most of the news was political, because there was a danger of war with England.

On the other hand, in April 1840, the New York diarist George Templeton
Strong wrote this upon the release of Master Humphrey’s Clock, the frame tale out of which Old Curiosity Shop emerged:

The first number of Boz’s new work has appeared in the shape of a New World Extra, and the author would certainly be flattered to hear the number of voices and the variety of tones — squeak, bellow, and howl — in which the name of his offspring is proclaimed through Wall Street and the parts adjacent.

“He-e-ere’s the New World Extra — get Master Humphrey’s Clock here they are –“

“He-e-ere’s the New World — Dick’s new work”

“Here’s the New World — buy Master Humphrey, sir?”

He creates as great a sensation in the street of Mammon as the arrival of the British Queen with ‘cotton down’ possibly could do.

To translate that last sentence: A new Dickens volume is as exciting to the traders on Wall Street as the arrival by ship of the news that the price of cotton has fallen. I don’t actually know how excited stock brokers get today about a drop in cotton, but I suspect that J. K. Rowling, like Dickens a century and a half ago, surpasses it as a sensation.

Iraqi fauna

Pictures taken today in Al Hillah, Iraq, by T. R. Klysa, USMC, while in search of electrical equipment and plumbers for the repair of an elementary school. (Since I posted much starker images from Iraq ten days ago, I think it would be karmically imbalanced of me if I didn’t post these milder ones now. But it’s evident from the number of hits to this blog, then vs. now, that people are more interested in the fallout of battle than in facilities for schoolchildren.)




Left: “Boy with turkey, near the Al Hillah covered market.” April 29, 2003. Right:“Street sign, Al Hillah. Telephone/electrical wires obscuring view.” April 29, 2003.

Not as nasty as she wanted to be

The Spanish dancer Lola Montez, who was actually Irish, captivated Louis I of Bavaria, and he gave her a castle in 1846. But she seems to have left New York audiences nonplussed several years later. The New York correspondent of the Philadelphia Public Ledger disrespected her in a startlingly contemporary turn of phrase:

Put down Lola Montes, at the Broadway Theatre, a “dead failure,” and for these reasons.—She has not sufficient merit, as a danseuse, to attract the lovers and admirers of the art terpsichorean, nor enough of “the nasty” (excuse the word, it is the most expressive I can find,) to ensure the patronage of the prurient.

The earliest citation in the OED of “nasty” as a noun for “sexual intercourse” is dated 1934.

Does 18th-century abolition cause 21st-century same-sex marriage?

In the Boston Globe, E. J. Graff reports that Massachusetts courts may rule in favor of same-sex marriage before July 13. If they do, then the first two states to allow same-sex marriage (or in Vermont’s case, its legal equivalent) in the twenty-first century will be the first to have abolished slavery in the late eighteenth century.

The two states would also be making their decision in the same sequence. Vermont forbade slavery in its 1777 constitution, and a Massachusetts court decision abolished it in 1783, according to Kelley and Lewis’s To Make Our World Anew: A History of African Americans. Why is this happening? (If it is happening. So far there are only one and a half data points.) My guess is that legal arguments for same-sex marriage are most likely to succeed in states that abolished slavery early and were therefore free to write (and rewrite, in the 1840s) their constitutions with strong and broad assertions about human rights.

If you look up 1790 in the Historical United States Census Data Browser, you’ll see that at the time of the first national census, only Massachusetts (and its then-subsidiary Maine) and Vermont were absolutely free of slaves. Here are the states with the lowest proportion of slaves to total population in 1790:

  • Vermont: 0%
  • Massachusetts & Maine: 0%
  • New Hampshire: 0.11%
  • Rhode Island: 0.14%
  • Pennsylvania: 0.85%
  • Connecticut: 1.11%
  • New York: 6.23%

In other words, if the pattern holds, don’t hold your breath for same-sex marriage in New York, despite its ultraliberal reputation. Look for it next in Pennsylvania, which passsed the country’s first abolition law in 1780, or in crusty, Republican New Hampshire, where slavery ended in 1783.