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Mon October 18, 2004
Herman Melville's Whaling Years
It may seem odd, at first blush, to review a book on Melville's years aboard a whaling ship in a radio space devoted to Southern literature and, usually, Alabama literature.
By Don Noble
It may seem odd, at first blush, to review a book on Melville's years aboard a whaling ship in a radio space devoted to Southern literature and, usually, Alabama literature. After all, Melville never set foot in Alabama or for that matter any other part of the American South.
But this book has an unusual provenance, as the say on the Antiques Roadshow. The author, Wilson Heflin, brother of U.S. senator Howell Heflin, was born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Like his brother, he attended Birmingham-Southern College but then, rather than law school, took an MA and a PhD from Vanderbilt University. He then taught at the University of Alabama for a while, but made his career as a Professor of English at the US Naval Academy at Annapolis.
His passion was, appropriately enough for a professor at the Naval Academy, the voyages of Herman Melville, which lasted from 1841 to 1844. Wilson Heflin did research on this subject for forty years, publishing a great many scholarly papers on Melville as he went along, working on this book all the while, even locating the log of the Acushnet, out of New Bedford, Melville's first whaling ship.
But he never published his book, and it was still in manuscript at the time of his death in 1985. Why did he not publish in his lifetime? Because it was never, to his standards, "finished." He kept looking for and finding new information on Melville, whaling, the people of the South Pacific. There was no end.
Now two colleagues have edited and published Heflin's work, and it is not only intellectually, historically impressive, it is also a pretty good read. Anyone who knows who Melville was and has read a little Moby Dick will enjoy this book.
Heflin is strongest when discussing life aboard a whaling ship. The voyages sometimes lasted three or four years. Just imagine that. After heading south from New England, the ships went around Cape Horn and into the Pacific. There they would, in small wooden boats, chase, harpoon, kill, cut up, and render these leviathans, subjecting themselves to great danger. Many did not return.
Discipline on board these ships was extremely rigorous. The captain was god, and the criminal justice system had been left thousands of miles behind. The food was usually terrible and many men, including Melville himself, deserted. Of the twenty-six men who began the voyage, only eleven completed it.
Melville and his buddy, Toby Greene, went ashore in the Marquesas and hid out until the Acushnet had departed. Melville wrote this adventure up in the "novels" Typee and Omoo, and Heflin spends some time discussing what was invented and what really happened.
It turns out that much was true. The natives of the Marquesas Islands all did practice cannibalism, but they rarely ate non-islanders. They also practiced, until westerners and missionaries brought them smallpox, dysentery, venereal disease, sin, and guilt, a rambunctious variety of free love.
Heflin quotes from various sailors' journals. One writes: "When females visited the ship, which they never failed to do every evening, sometimes to the number of 190 [190!], they threw aside all articles of clothing." Another writes: "Our ship was now given up to every species of riot and debauchery. Not the feeblest barrier was interposed between the unholy passions of the crew and their unlimited gratification." These were three- and four-year voyages, remember.
When you leave this volume, you will feel that you could go a-whaling yourself. There is a wealth of information here on ships, whaling, naval justice, and nineteenth-century economics. Heflin, like most scholars, could not stand to leave out anything he had learned, so readers gets lists and details they don't really need. But, all in all, this is a lively book. With danger, death, whales, cannibals, and South Sea island maidens, how could it be otherwise?
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.