NKU Melville Scholar Sets Sail on Historic Whaler that Inspired Moby Dick
When America’s oldest remaining commercial ship, the 1841 Charles W. Morgan, sets sail from Martha’s Vineyard to New Bedford on June 25 on its historic first voyage in nearly 100 years, it is only fitting that Northern Kentucky University Regents Professor Bob Wallace would be aboard.
After all, the Morgan embarked on 37 whaling voyages between 1841 and 1921, and is the sister ship to the Acushnet, which Herman Melville sailed from New Bedford in 1841.
Melville’s time on the Acushnet inspired his novel Moby-Dick. And when it comes to Melville and the book, Wallace is an expert. He has taught Moby-Dick and the arts for 40 years, published four books and dozens of essays on Melville, curated several art exhibitions responding to the book, is past president of the Melville Society, and is a founding member of the Melville Society Cultural Project at the New Bedford Whaling Museum.
And his expertise doesn’t end there. “I have also been a tugboat deckhand for six summers in Puget Sound,” he wrote in his application for the voyage, “and done first-hand research on the history of whaling by the Makah Indians on the Olympic Peninsula. I have been deeply concerned with teaching Moby-Dick and with understanding artistic representations of the natural world, the world of whaling, and related cultural issues extending into our own century throughout my professional career.”
Wallace will bring all of those perspectives into play as a participant in the Morgan’s 38th Voyage this summer. The vessel will sail to seven New England ports to engage communities with their maritime heritage, raise awareness of the changing perceptions about whales, and inspire further research into whales, whaling and whaling peoples.
“My entire professional life has been a preparation for this voyage,” Wallace said. “So much has happened since Melville sailed the oceans and wrote his novel that my mind will be flooded with all of the ways in which our current understanding of whales and the ocean, of human and natural ecology, and of global society and commerce have changed in ways that make Moby-Dickeven more relevant as a literary document, artistic achievement and social critique than it was when it was written.”
He will be joined by fellow voyagers with a wide range of backgrounds, skills and project ideas.
Wallace’s was one of nearly 300 project proposals submitted for consideration. A selection committee chose 79 proposals, including his, to ensure that experts from around the world collect, record, interpret, create and share Voyage-inspired research, artwork, lesson plans and publication pieces from a variety of perspectives on this historic public-history project. Those experiences will be shared online as well as through exhibits, publications and public programs.
The 38th Voyagers will sail aboard one voyage leg (one night plus the following day) and work alongside staff from the New Bedford Whaling Museum to examine every aspect of the voyage to better understand the past experiences of those who sailed this ship and others like it. Wallace said his primary goal is simply to experience the scale and thrill of sailing a whaling ship like the one Melville sailed on in the 1840s.
“To climb the mast, descend into the forecastle, examine the try-works,” he said, “And to do all of these while moving on the open ocean would of course enhance my understanding of Moby-Dick and of the way Melville represented the whaling ship in a way nothing else would do.”
He said he will bring a journal and camera to capture his immediate thoughts and sensations while also being attentive to the experience of his fellow voyagers. After the trip, he plans to expand his raw journal entries into a substantial essay that will embed his experience on the voyage itself within a mediation on what Melville’s novel means today to citizens of the world.
The Charles W. Morgan is the last remaining vessel of an American fleet that once numbered more than 2,700. The USS Constitution is the only older American ship in existence. Built for durability, not speed, the Morgan roamed every corner of the globe in her pursuit of whales. She is known as a “lucky ship,” having successfully navigated crushing Arctic ice; hungry cannibals; countless storms; Cape Horn roundings; and, after she finished her whaling career, even the Hurricane of 1938.
The whaleship typically sailed with a crew of about 35, representing sailors from around the world. It measures 113 feet, with a 27-foot 6-inch beam and depth of hold of 17 feet 6 inches. Her main truck is 110 feet above the deck; fully-rigged, and she is capable of carrying approximately 13,000 square feet of sail. The huge try-pots used for converting blubber into whale oil are forward; below are the cramped quarters in which her officers and men lived.
After her whaling days ended in 1921, the Morgan was preserved by Whaling Enshrined Inc., and exhibited at Colonel Edward H.R. Green’s estate at Round Hill in South Dartmouth, Mass., until 1941. In November of that year, the Morgan came to Mystic Seaport where she has since dominated the waterfront at Chubb’s Wharf.
The whaleship was designated a National Historic Landmark by order of the Secretary of the Interior in 1966, and she is also a recipient of the coveted World Ship Trust Award. Since her arrival at Mystic Seaport more than 20 million visitors have walked her decks. Where once she hunted and processed whales for profit, her purpose now is to tell an important part of our nation’s history and the lessons that history has for current generations.
When the vessel returns to Mystic Seaport in August, she will resume her role as an exhibit and flagship of the Museum.
Written by Ryan Clark who works in web marketing and communications at Northern Kentucky University where this story originally appeared.
Photo: The Charles W. Morgan was undergoing preparations in February for its 38th voyage in June. (Photo from mysticseaports.com)