Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Moby Dick Ch. 2: The Carpet-Bag

The following is from a work-in-progress called "Moby Dick: a Book Report" in which I read each chapter of Herman Melville's classic novel Moby Dick, and write about what I read.  This will (hopefully) culminate in a large book report on the whole book.  I will also include illustrations I find on the internet or in books.

“Such dreary streets!  Blocks of blackness, not houses, on either hand, and here and there a candle, like a candle moving about in a tomb.”

Ishmael leaves his hometown of Manhattan (New York) and travels, carpet bag in hand, to New Bedford, where he hopes to find lodging before seeking employment on a whale-ship sailing from Nantucket.  The title of the chapter, “The Carpet Bag,” is (I think) a sly reference to the political practice of “carpetbagging” in which people from outside a town travel to a new place, hoping to benefit form their political resources.  It’s a pejorative term, and I think the narrator sees himself as a kind of carpetbagger because he’s not from Nantucket or New Bedford, but he hopes to benefit from what they have to offer (i.e. whaling opportunities).  The chapter begins with a little digression in which the narrator pontificates on the historic significance of Nantucket to the whaling industry in America.  Moby Dick is full of such interesting digressions.

Ishmael arrives in New Bedford on a cold, dreary evening.  Because he is poor, he tries to find a cheap, shabby-looking inn.  He dismisses “The Crossed Harpoons” and “The Swordfish” as too expensive-looking, before entering a building called “The Trap.”  As it turns out, this is not an inn, but a “negro church.”  Melville wrote Moby Dick in the 1850s, at the height of the Abolitionist Movement in America, and the town of New Bedford was actually an important center of Abolitionist activity (Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison hung out there).  Though he does not pontificate much on the meaning of “The Trap,” the book (again, subtly) acknowledges that slavery is still a thing at this time.  Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison wrote a very interesting chapter about Moby Dick and race in her book Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination.

Eventually, Ishmael finds a shabby and cheap inn with this mysterious sign out front: “The Spouter Inn: —Peter Coffin.”  Presumably, Peter Coffin is the proprietor, but this somber name (Coffin) leads the narrator into another digressive reflection on the biblical character of Lazarus, the man who died, and whom Jesus raised from the dead.  Perhaps, like Lazarus, Ishmael will be revived from his melancholy.

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