THE HERPETOLOGY OFHERMAN MELVILLE'S MOBY-DICK
Department of Environmental, Population and Organismic Biology University of Colorado 334, Boulder, Colorado 80309For most biologists, the most intensive indexing they encounter or perform involves notation of all scientific names or key words occurring in all literature pertinent to given topics. However exhaustive - and exhausting - such levels or indexing may seem, they are crude indeed in comparison with the total recovery characteristic of modern concordances prepared in the field of humanities. An excellent example is Irey's recent (1982) Moby-Dick concordance, one of a series of the most sophisticated and thereby broadly useful concordances ever produced, emanating from the University of Colorado's Center for Computer Research in the Humanities under the direction of Dr. Michael Preston. Such concordances are tools for virtually limitless numbers of analyses. We here assay an appraisal of Melville's herpetological awareness as revealed by the only biological work he ever wrote, Moby-Dick.
The concordance from which we have sourced this analysis (Irey, 1982), in turn drawn from the text of the Mansfield and Vincent (1952) edition based on the original 1851 work, consists mostly (1897 pp.) of a list in brief context of every usage (with speech part indicated) of every one of the approximately 17,000 different "content" words, occurring in the some 208,000 total words of Moby-Dick, each with page, chapter and line citation. A few "function" words (articles, conjunctions, interjections, prepositions, pronouns) are listed separately without context or page references, although the number of occurrences of each is given (e.g. the, 14214; of, 6461; and, 6339; a, 4618). The work ends with unannotated lists of content words in each of several parts of speech, viz. nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs, a list of hyphenated words alphabetized by elements succeeding the hyphen, and a frequency list for all words except those occurring only once.
Our search for herpetological terms entailed perusal of the parts-of-speech lists and subsequent derivation of page and line references from the contextual list.
Only 12 different names pertaining to modern amphibians or reptiles occur in the work in singular, plural or possessive form. Of those 12, only two pertain to amphibians. "Dark green frogs" ([.22, line 7; all references to the Mansfield-Vincent edition) are called upon to characterize Queequeg's tattoo, appearing on his legs "as if.... (they)...were running up the trunks of young palms." The other amphibian reference (p. 336, line 35) is invoked in a very obscure philosophical statement that "...clear Truth is a thing for salamander giants only to encounter." The sense of this strange expression is fortunately clarified by Mansfield and Vincent (1952:770), who observe that "Melville here ignored the exploding of the vulgar error that salamanders live in the fire..." Presumably, Melville used the salamander fable in allusion to the enormous supernatural powers needed to attain "Truth." He might indeed not have been ignorant of the fallacy of the fable, but exploited it with narrative license to dramatize the desired imagery.
Three names were applied to turtles: terrapin, tortoise and turtle. Sea turtles, curiously, were mentioned but once (p. 62, line 12) in a facetious description of the desolation of Nantucket, so "...made an utter island of by the ocean, that to their very chairs and tables small clams will sometimes be found adhering, as to the backs of sea turtles." Barnacles commonly attach themselves to sea turtles, but no pelocypod (including clams and mussels) has ever been recorded attached to turtles. Neither mussels nor barnacles would occur on furniture, however, unless permanently or periodically submerged under water. Snails could well be found on furniture under highly humid condition, but they do not occur on sea turtles.
The same word is used (p. 297, line 25) in reference to various kinds of meat balls, comparing whale meat balls that, "...being well seasoned and spiced might be taken for turtle-balls or veal balls."
On of the four famed whales, the Chilean Don Miguel, was characterized as "...marked like an old tortoise with mystic hieroglyphics upon the back!" Presumably Melville had in mind one of the New England species of Clemmys, possibly C. Insculpta, which is famed for its intricately ridged carapace.
The only other reference to turtles occurs in a footnote (p.241), where it is stated that "Town-Ho" was "The ancient whale-cry [uttered] upon first sighting a whale from the mast-head, still used by whalemen in hunting the famous Gallipagos [sic] terrapin." At the time Melville wrote, the Galapagos tortoises were still being exploited by whaling vessels for long-lasting fresh meat.
Melville's only reference to a lizard (p. 473, line 8) refers to Queequeg working on the casks of food and water in his ship's hold, where he crawled ".... about amid that dampness and slime, like a green spotted lizard at the bottom of a well." Clearly Melville confused "lizard" with salamanders, no doubt the eastern race of the spotted salamander, Ambystoma maculatum, which at least is spotted although not particularly green as a rule.
Snakes are relatively well represented, although only two specific kinds are mentioned. Surprisingly, the anaconda is one, the word occurring three times. He compared a giant squid (p.276, line 19) with its undulating arms to "a nest of anacondas," and noted that a Hindu figurine, "half man and half whale," had a wrong tail (p.262, line 7) that "Looks more like the tapering tail of an anaconda, than the broad palms of the true whale's majestic flukes." The other usage of the word is a metaphor for treachery: "...that anaconda of an old man swore 'em in to hunt him!" (i.e., to hunt the great white whale, Moby-Dick).
The "boa" is mentioned in the context of description of the flensing (skinning) of a whale ([.417, line 30), removing ".... its dark pelt, as an African hunter the pelt of a boa." Boas do not occur in Africa, but pythons do and presumably that is what Melville meant.
One of the most frequently used herpetological words is "reptile". Melville argued for several pages that St.George battled not with a dragon on land, but with a whale (p.360, line 32): "...it would much subtract from the glory of the exploit had St.George but encountered a crawling reptile of the land, instead of doing battle with the great monster of the deep." He did not explain how this might have been done on horseback.
In addition, Melville recounted the discovery of a fossil whale skeleton in Alabama (p.453, line 35,38), where "...doctors declared it was a huge reptile, and bestowed upon it the name of Basilosaurus. But some specimen bones of it being taken across the sea to Owen, the English Anatomist, it turned out that this alleged reptile was a whale, though of a departed species..." now assigned to the genus Zeuglodon.
The only other mention (p.460, line 21) of "reptile" is in the context of "...miserable events that do naturally beget their like": "...the most poisonous reptile of the marsh perpetuates his kind as inevitably as the sweetest songster of the grove."
The generic term "snake" was used three times, once in the St.George context where he states that "any man may kill a snake, but only a Perseus, a St.George, a Coffin, have the heart in them to march boldly up to a whale."
He mentioned (p.323, line 30) that one of the whaler crew, Fedallah, possessed a "...tusk...carved into a snake's head." The final usage pointed out the hazards of harpoon lines, so that the oarsmen in the small whaleboats, "...to the timid eye of the landsman...seem, as Indian jugglers, with the deadliest snakes sportively festooning their limbs."
"Serpents" are also mentioned, indeed more frequently than any other herpetological term. The dangers are mentioned of travel to the interior of Africa, from "...serpents, savages, tigers, poisonous miasmas, with all the other common perils incident to wandering in the heart of unknown regions" (p.201, line 19). Melville likened "...the waves curling and hissing around...(the whaleboat).... like the erected crests of enraged serpents" (p.223, line 32). As strips of blubber are removed from a whale and lowered by block and tackle into a processing room in the whaling vessel, "...sundry nimble hands keep coiling away the long blanket-piece as if it were a great live mass of plaited serpents." (p.303, line 22). Similar imaginative imagery is invoked in the description of ball lightning on the tip of a harpoon during a severe electrical storm, as it"...burned there like a serpent's tongue..." (p. 501, line 22). Referring to the magnitude of the task were one to attempt a phrenology of the head of a sperm whale, Melville notes that "Still, in that famous work of his, Lasater not only treats of the various faces of men, but also attentively studies the faces of horses, birds, serpents, and fish..."(p.343, line 23). Lasater was, according to Mansfield and Vincent (1952: 773) the author of a book on Physiognomical Fregments for the Promotion of a Knowledge of Man and of Love of Man, published in sections from 1775 to 1778. Melville bought a copy of that book in November 1849.
The most far-fetched imagery was incorporated in an exhortation by Captain Ahab for his crew to share a flagon of liquor he passed among them: "Drink and pass!...It spiralizes in ye; forks out at the serpent-snapping eye" (p.163, line 26).
Surprisingly, Melville used the usually adjectival word, "serpentine" as a verb on two occasions. Describing how the harpoon line is disposed in the whaleboat, he states (p.381, line 5): "so the graceful repose of the line, as it silently serpentines about the oarsmen before being brought into actual play - this is a thing which carries more of true terror than any other aspect of this dangerous affair." Again (p.414, line 12), he described how it feels to squeeze lumps of ambergris in water to dissolve them: "After having my hands in it for only a few minutes, my fingers felt like eels, and began, as it were, to serpentine and spiralize."
The adjectival form of "snaky" was also pressed into service in two contexts: Tashtego, one of the crew members, with".... his lithe snaky limbs..." (P.117, line 34); and in description of the rendering of the whale blubber in pots as the crew (p.420, line 27)"....stirred up the fires beneath, till the snaky flames darted, curling out of the doors to catch them by the feet."
As previously mentioned, Melville was entranced by the idea that the mythical dragon killed by St.George was a whale, and in that discussion "dragons" were frequently mentioned (p.360, lines 25,27,28; p.361, line 9).
The term was used once also in religious context, connoting evil, as Captain Bildad in an evangelical orgy exhorted Queequeg to turn from his pagan ways (p.89, line 32): "Spurn the idol Bell, and the hideous dragon...steer clear of the fiery pit!" Bell was, according to Mansfield and Vincent (1952:654) a Babylonian god (also spelled Bel), derived from the Tyrian god Baal: both sun gods and false in Christian eyes.
The only other word of possible herpetologica; connection used in Moby-Dick is the name of a British "sloop of war Rattle: (p.441, line 9,11) that was sent "on a whaling voyage of discovery into the South Seas," where earlier, in 1778, the British whaler Amelia first exploited South Pacific whale populations. Whether the rattle was named for a rattlesnake is not certain, but seems very likely since it was a war ship.
Moby-Dick is a classic of English literature that even thirty years ago, when the Mansfield-Vincent edition was published with a 24-page introduction and some 260 pages of explanatory notes (for 567 pages of text), had attracted a vast commentary. Much attention has been given to the underlying messages of the book, which can be interpreted in as many different ways as there are reviewers to interpret the overwhelmingly symbolic context of this work of art. Melville was not wholly comfortable with his obsession to write a whaling book, which actually first appeared under the title, "The Whale", for he lamented in mid-1850 that "...the poetry runs as hard as sap from a frozen maple tree..."(Mansfield and Vincent, 1952:ix), and although he promised his publisher to have the first draft done by August, 1850, unexpectedly the writing and revision dragged on for another year --to August 1851. That October it was finally published.
Melville frankly exploited the unparalleled symbolistic potential of his mysterious, inscrutable subject, noting that "It will be a strange sort of book, tho', I feel...& to cook the thing up, one must needs throw in a little fancy, which from the nature of the thing, must be ungainly as the gambols of the whales themselves. Yet I mean to give the truth of the thing, spite of this." (Mansfield and Vincent, 1952:ix).
Very likely that "search for truth" was responsible to a large degree for the unexpected protraction of the book's composition, for although Melville had had, by his account, much earlier "personal experience, of two years and more, as a harpooner"(Mansfield and Vincent, 1952:x) he by that means knew only the "romance of adventure" and "certain wild legends of the Southern Sperm Whale Fisheries" (ibid.). He wanted the book also to be factually sound in other ways, and that required research that he actively pursued right up to the completion of the book, as is known by records of acquisition of source materials (reviewed by Mansfield and Vincent, 1952:x-xiii).
The combination that entered into the book of fact, fancy, symbolism, legend, observation, hyperbole, extrapolation and imagination has much to do with the fascination it has maintained for generations, and makes any analysis tenuous.
Yet it is obvious that Melville was not a naturalist, however astute an observer he was of people and their customs. His mastery of whale lore was arduous for him, and was single-tracked, not a product of cosmopolitan interest in biology. Thus, astonishingly little knowledge is revealed of marine life other than whales - no more than of terrestrial life, which was itself meager. The exotic had some appeal, as evidenced by mention of anacondas and boas, but to Melville reptiles and amphibians were largely symbolic creatures little connected with flesh and blood. Their symbolism was, to him, largely of evil, repulsiveness, fearfulness, and dread; nothing admirable or appealing about them was made evident. The one factual relation was the exploitation of Galapagos tortoises by whalers, who indeed were responsible for extermination of several taxa. Sea turtles were mentioned but once, in the questionable context of association with "clams," by which he may have meant mussels or barnacles. Snakes were said to erect crests when enraged, whereas none do although many, like the cobra, can spread the body.
Of course, Melville's purpose was not to treat biology or zoology as a whole, even of oceans. Had he wished to do so he would have done it. His objects were to convey a concept of the flavor, the emotional impact, of whaling as practiced in his time and to enlarge upon some possible philosophical lessons that might be derived from such considerations. Those objectives were superbly achieved, but in the process no notable herpetological awareness was revealed.
Irey, Eugene F. 1982. A concordance to Herman Melville's Moby-Dick. New York, Garland. xvi, 2005 pp.
Mansfield, Luther S. and Howard P. Vincent, eds. 1952.
Moby-Dick or, The Whale, by Herman Melville. New York Nendricks House, xxxiii, 851pp.
Published in the Bulletin of the Philadelphia Herpetological Society, Vol. 30, 1982 [ISSN 0553-9587]
This site maintained byMark F. Miller , webmaster at herpetology.com