May 28, 2008

Before the Whale: Ishmael Takes a Walk in Manhattan

Moby-Dick: or, The Whale(Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)Herman Melville, born at 6 Pearl Street in lower Manhattan (the house is no longer there, though a plaque marks the spot), opens the first chapter of his epic 1851 novel, Moby Dick, or, The Whale, on his hometown island. The narrator, who famously asks us to call him Ishmael in the opening line, introduces the tale of the whale by ruminating on the basic human longing for the water and the cure for his own melancholia by returning to the sea. In the second paragraph he establishes the location of the opening drama:

"There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs - commerce surrounds it with her surf. Right and left, the streets take you waterward. Its extreme down-town is the battery, where that noble mole is washed by waves, and cooled by breezes, which a few hours previous were out of sight of land. Look at the crowds of water-gazers there.

Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon. Go from Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip, and from thence, by Whitehall northward. What do you see? - Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries."- Chapter i - Loomings, p. 1.

What a great word, "loomings"- a mirage of distant great things, enlarged or distorted, a portent, the shape of an imminent occurrence. The "noble mole" is the battery wall. Corlears Hook refers to an old Dutch family settlement on what's now the Lower East Side, and Coenties Slip was a boat slip between Pearl and Water Streets. Landfill developments over the centuries have gradually extended the original shoreline. Pearl Street once bordered the East River.

View Larger Map

Later in the chapter:

"And, doubtless, my going on this whaling voyage, formed part of the grand programme of Providence that was drawn up a long time ago. It came in as a sort of brief interlude and solo between more extensive performances. I take it that this part of the bill must have run something like this:

Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States

Whaling Voyage by one Ishmael


Though I cannot tell why it was exactly that those stage managers, the Fates, put me down for this shabby part of a whaling voyage, when others were set down for magnificent parts in high tragedies, and short and easy parts in genteel comedies, and jolly parts in farces - though I cannot tell why this was exactly; yet, now that I recall all the circumstances, I think I can see a little into the springs and motives which being cunningly presented to me under various disguises, induced me to set about performing the part I did, besides cajoling me into the delusion that it was a choice resulting from my own unbiased freewill and discriminating judgment. "

Golly. I'm not the first person to point out Melville's prescient "part of the bill" as quoted above - I've learned there was a buzz about it during the immediate months following the events of September 11, but it's startling to come across those words, nevertheless.

Image: Last night of shore leave, Bleecker Street, May 27, 2008.

The entire novel is available in several online versions. This one is from Princeton University.

Part of a series about walking along the New York shoreline. More circumambulations to follow. The map above also shows the area described in the previous post about a walk in Brooklyn.

See commentary and images of the walk between Coenties Slip and Corlears Hook at the follow-up post, A Walk for Melville.

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