Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Contrasting the American Fishers


From the reading Ishmael presents a representation of the people of the United States as a wild, untamed, and enticing place to a degree but p that pales in comparison of the unknown wonder of the people of the rest of the Americas and Africa.
                With regards to the United States and the English, perspectives into the difference in fundamental character can be seen when Ishmael describes a hypothetical interaction between a passing Yankee and Englishman at sea.  This interaction, though specific to whaling, is relevant to understanding Melville’s perspective on the United States as everything, really in Moby Dick is unified through the lens of whaling, including this perspective on countries.  He begins by saying “your Englishman is rather reserved, and your Yankee he does not fancy that sort of thing in anybody but himself” (286).  This description draws a great contrast between a less talkative assumingly more polite and possibly refined Englishman with an unbridled and self-concerned American.   He continues in this description by expressing the fact that the English whaleman tend to look down on the Yankee fisherman viewing  them  as unrefined.  The fact that the Englishman looks down on the Yankees seems to come from more of an inherent fundamental sense as notes Ishmael “the Yankees in one day, collectively, kill more whales than all the English, collectively, in ten years”(286).   These quotations together hint at an opinion of the English which is more conservative and cultured contrasted with the Yankee who is unabashed and adventurous.   And importantly, Ishmael stresses the fact that in the end, the American is the much better and more efficient fisherman.  In terms of whaling in the end it’s the number of fish that matters most in terms of money and in terms of respect so here a sense of admiration can possibly inferred. And indeed especially with the descriptions of Ahab, an example of a Yankee fisherman, Melville through Ishmael paints a heroic picture of a gritty tormented adventurer facing certain death.
                At the same time that there is a contrast presented between the Englishman and the Yankee, an even greater contrast is presented between the sailors from the United States and those from the Americas and Africa.  An example of a description of a shipmate from Nantucket, Flask, is described as a “short, stout ruddy young fellow, […] ignorant, unconscious [ly] fearless [which] made him a little waggish in the matter of whales” (153).   Daggoo, in contrast, a harpooner is described as “a gigantic, coal-black negro-savage, [with a] corporeal humility in looking up at him; and a white man standing before him seemed a white flag come to beg truce of a fortress” (155).   Paralleling these two descriptions, a picture is painted of a na├»ve and earnest white man versus a quietly strong regal African man.  It can be inferred that the narrator has the deeper respect for Daggoo which can also be seen in a scene when Daggoo holds Flask up on his shoulders to see with better ease in the pursuit of a group of whales. Ishmael says “ the sight of little Flask mounted upon gigantic Daggoo was yet more curious; for sustaining himself with a cool, indifferent, easy, unthought of, barbaric majesty, the noble negro to every roll of the sea harmoniously rolled his fine form.  On his broad back, flaxen-haired Flask seemed like a snow-flake.  The bearer looked nobler than the rider” (267) In this description, though Flask is in charge and actually the one looking in the distance to the whales, he is literally useless without Daggoo’s form and obedience.  It is explicitly stated that Daggoo is more noble, useful, and invaluable to the voyage.  To further the comparison between the members of the Pequod in general, the harpooners, the ones who do the actual job of killing the fish are all of an ethnic origin while those in the higher ranks on the ship are all white Americans.  And here a connection is drawn from the whaling industry to the rest of the industry in the United States as stated “it is the same with the American whale fishery as with the American army, military and the merchant naives, and the engineering forces employed in the construction of the American Canals and Railroads.  The same, I say, because in all these cases the native American liberally provides the brains, the rest of the world as generously supplying the muscles”(155).  This revealing quotations shows a perspective in which the Americans are the ones who are in charge or guiding the work, while the rest of the world or those from the Americas and Africa provide the more physically demanding support.
                To bring the two comparisons together, it can be suggested that America according to Ishmael may be a sort of bridge between the modernized Europe of the day and the newly colonized lands.  Americans, descendents of Europeans, are presented as a having a sense of order to a degree but still a bit of wild and untamed desire for adventure.   Perhaps the opinion is that the American are better able to relate to the other cultures being from a colony themselves and able to get the others to cooperate and ultimately work within their will to progress their own economy.

1 comment:

  1. I think you understate what you're doing here, or maybe you don't realize the full potential of what you're doing.

    Point 1: Melville gives us a lot of nationalist language about the U.S., its power, its achievements re: whaling, etc.

    Point 2: Melville undercuts "the West" broadly speaking in comparison with "primitive" or "aboriginal people." Your comparison of Dagoo and Flash is a great starting point, but is only the tip of the iceberg.

    Question: What does it mean that Melville is seemingly (on the surface) a fervent nationalist, but also a fervent critic of "white, civilized man"?

    Your final paragraph gives a muted answer to that implicit question. I actually like the answer, in part because it recognizes the value or worth Melville sees in America. But it quiets down a raging critique perhaps too much - you downplay the seriousness of Melville elevating Dagoo while bringing Flash down.

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