Saturday July 7th was the day that I was to give my talk at the Nantucket Whaling Museum. The event began at 7pm and that was still some time off, so my wife and I had time to wander around the island together. After a quick breakfast, the first place I wanted to go to was that very same Whaling Museum though. I had been dying to spend more time there since our first brief experience there the night before. I simply cannot say enough about how magnificent this museum is. I know that sometimes niche museums can seem kitschy and silly, appealing to only a very narrow group of people. Nothing could be farther from the truth with the Whaling Museum, and it truly is a fascinating place with something to offer everyone. Their collections are remarkable and very accessible. Their staff is amazing, friendly, and most important, deeply knowledgeable. There is a great sense of pride there, but there is also a sense of great joy and generosity, and you can tell that those connected with the museum truly enjoy sharing it with all who come to the door.
Almost immediately upon entering, we saw this vast fresnel lighthouse lens. It dominates the lobby, and it is astounding to think of this mass of glass and crystal magnifying the light of a single torch or lantern for ships as far away as 10 miles. Here is a view from slightly below...
While here you can see it, and the lenses, from slightly above...
Also in the lobby, the Museum has displayed this original copy of the Arion Press edition of Moby-Dick, a book I have long coveted and fully realize I will never, ever be able to afford. But what a thing of magnificence! It is absolutely massive, hand-printed on wonderful, thick, creamy paper in a new font, Leviathan, devised specifically for this edition. Full of powerful woodcuts by Barry Moser, this wonderful object is truly a Book.
(An aside. In looking at their site, I notice that the Arion Press is soon to issue an edition of The Poetry of Sappho, with a suite of prints and new illustrations by artist Julie Mehretu. It will cost $11,750. It is almost embarrassing to admit how desperately I would love to contribute art to the production of an amazing book like this. In fact, when I allow myself to daydream, I imagine creating 10 or 20 illustrations for a special edition of something like David Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus from a press like Arion or The Folio Society or someplace similar. Sadly, I have no BFA or MFA, I am not a member of any society of illustrators, and the possibility seems highly unlikely, at best. Still, I can dream.)
One of the most consistent challenges for me in reading and re-reading Moby-Dick has been my inability to see, in my mind's eye, some of the more mundane details of whaling. For example, I never had a clear idea what spermaceti oil looked like. Was it black? Was it creamy? Was it thick? My questions were answered at the Whaling Museum and here are three large bottles of pure spermaceti oil.
You can tell how excited I was.
One of the most unexpected thrills though was seeing four stunning oversize watercolors by one of my favorite artists, Claus Hoie. His painting The Pursuit of the White Whale graces the cover of my battered Signet Classics paperback edition of Moby-Dick...
...and that piece has long been a huge part of what continues to draw me back to the book. So many editions of Moby-Dick have historically accurate paintings or photographs on their covers, and eventually those start to blend together. What has always thrilled me about this Signet edition is that in choosing a more modern painting, the publishers are saying very overtly that this is a book which still has great importance. It is a living thing, outside of time, and it remains crucial despite its age.
I got carried away. Sorry.
In any case, I am smitten with Hoie's watercolors, and never expected to have the privilege of seeing any of them, mere inches from my eyes. But the Whaling Museum has a collection of them, and while I was there four of them were on view. First, Ahab.
Next, I am unsure of the title, but in some ways this resembles the piece used for the cover of the Signet Classics edition. Awe-inspiring.
I could not resist taking closer, more detailed photos of this one.
Here is Hoie's Daggoo. So very different from my own.
And finally, another piece showing the hunt for the White Whale.
One of the museum's staff was kind enough to take this photo of me in front of the pieces. This gives you some indication of the sheer size of these paintings, which are on heavy paper. Also, Cleveland Indians!
A new wing of the museum is called the Candle Factory, and it contains actual historic machinery that was used to press and process spermaceti oil into candles. This press was simply staggering in its size and mass. My photos really don't do it justice.
Back in Gosnell Hall now, with more images of the whale skeleton and this amazing wall of whaling tools, which included harpoons, lances, flensing knives and more. Some of you may know that I have a harpoon of my own, a gift that was given to me upon the publication of my book by my very good friends the Savage family. I love that thing dearly, and seeing all of these beautiful brutal instruments on the wall made me want to start a harpoon collection of my own.
Closer looks, and notice how some of these are twisted by ferocious combat with the whales or, even stranger, becoming embedded in the whale's skin for years or decades.
This photo shows the sailors peeling the blubber off of the whale using their flensing tools.
I actually used that photo, which I had seen in some earlier book about whaling, as the basis for my own drawing for page 295 of Moby-Dick.
Below are three views of the small boats that the sailors, mates and harpooneers would set out it to hunt and kill the whale. We watched a fascinating presentation, complete with still images and historical footage, of how the whales were hunted. First, the sailors would have to row, sometimes miles away, toward a spouting whale. Then, getting the boat as close as possible ("Wood to blackskin"), the harpooneer would dart not one but two harpoons deep into the whale's body. These would hold the whale fast to the boat and the hunt was on. Often, the whale would begin swimming frantically, dragging the boat bouncing madly on the waves for miles and miles on a "Nantucket sleigh ride." Eventually, the whale would either dive (necessitating the use of the small hatchet that can be seen in the third image below, to cut the harpoon lines free) or exhaust itself. At this point, the harpooneer in the front of the boat would switch places with the mate in the back and the mate would be given the honor of killing the whale with a lance. Lances were longer than harpoons, with a long thin metal shank and a razor sharp leaflike blade. This lance would be plunged deep into the chest and swept back and forth until the heart and lungs were pierced and the whale drowned in its own blood. A brutal business, to be sure. These boats were around 20 to 25 feet long, they say 5 or 6 men, and contained harpoons, lances, and almost a half mile of rope. The notched board in the last image is for the harpooneer to settle his thigh into, to steady himself in the choppy, heaving boat before throwing the harpoon. It is called the clumsy cleat.
I've made no secret of the fact that I did no historical research when creating my own Moby-Dick illustrations. It was more important to me to represent the novel as I had always imagined it, whether that was accurate or not. So compare the three images above to my own depiction of a whaling boat with some of its equipment.
Quite a difference.
Here, for comparison, is the whaling boat more or less as it would compare to the whale in terms of size. Imagine rowing this thing for miles, to do battle with a leviathan this massive with little more than spears and rope.
Here is a real blubber hook. These would be used to hook into the whale's blubber as it was slowly peeled away. The blubber hook would hoist ten foot sections of the blubber in sheets up to the main deck of the ship.
My lovely wife, for a size comparison. She's about 5'3".
And finally, the blubber hook as Matt Kish sees it. Quite a difference, again.
Here are the two cauldrons from the try-works. These cauldrons would be on the oil soaked, wooden deck of the ship, over a roaring blaze, boiling down and rendering strips of blubber into oil. If it sounds almost suicidally dangerous, reeking, filthy and hellish, it was.
Here, from my own illustrations, are two sailors cleaning the inside of the cauldrons while gossiping about other crew members.
As one would probably expect, the Whaling Museum had a dazzling collection of scrimshaw. I have to confess that I had never really understood just how amazing these works of art could be, but seeing so many of these drawings etched by hand into the teeth and bones of the whale was astonishing. I liked this one in particular because it included what I learned was a kind of mantra to early whalers, the verse "Death to the living / Long life to the killers / Success to sailors' wives / & Greasy luck to whalers." I am actually going to work the first part of that, "Death to the living / Long life to the killers," into the Moby Dick tattoo I am going to cover my entire left arm with.
Also, in case you hand't noticed, look at that gorgeous hand-painted log book, the journal of the whaleship Susan, behind the scrimshaw. I absolutely love journals and sketchbooks like this, and to see one this old and this authentic was majestic.
A bit more scrimshaw before we move on.
This piece below was massive, having been carved into a whale's jawbone.
There were so many other wonders in the Nantucket Whaling Museum from strange figureheads...
...to carved whales of almost every size on almost every surface...
...to massive mobiles of serenely floating wooden leviathans...
...to a frightening display of whale jawbones...
...to this perfect chair designed by Adam W. Hofford, Furnituremaker, which I covet quite thoroughly...
...and finally to seeing my own book on the shelf in the gift shop of this most important museum.
This experience in Nantucket has been deeply transformative. Let me see if I can somehow put this into words. In August of 2009, when I began this attempt to illustrate every page of Moby-Dick I had two goals. The first was to give myself one final artistic challenge, to try and determine whether making art had a place in my life or if it was time to put down the pens and brushes for good. The second was to create, for myself and myself alone, the illustrated version of Moby-Dick I had always wanted to see. That was all. I never, ever expected to see this thing grow into a beautiful published art book, and I never, ever expected that this book would take me all over the country. Over time though, after I finally completed the art and finished what at times were exhausting responsibilities to promote the book, I began to wonder if it would ever end. It seemed like the book that would not die, and long after I had been ready to move on, it seemed to keep coming up again and again. I see now that it was all a matter of perception. I have come to accept the role that this art, my own book Moby-Dick in Pictures, and that greatest of all books Moby-Dick will continue to play in my life. In somee ways, this work will forever define me and while that used to trouble me, it is now something I have come to embrace. I think that comes from seeing how warmly and enthusiastically this work has been embraced by readers and teachers and professors and artists from Portland, Oregon to New York City to Columbus, Ohio to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to this most hallowed of all places, Nantucket Island. Because of Herman Melville, because of Moby-Dick, because of my own 18 months of solitary effort, I have gone from being a completely obscure librarian who draws in a closet to someone who has created something that is very worthy of being added to that great body of work that clusters around Melville's book. This work has given me the opportunity to continue to illustrate and to continue to bring great stories to life, and that is an honor and a privilege beyond words. I've come to accept that Moby-Dick will forever be a part of me, a part of who I am, and something by which people come to know me. And rather than allowing that to limit me, I choose to embrace it and enjoy it. Rather than box me in, it has opened many many doors for me, and I hope to continue opening more and more of those doors.
Near the close of Nathaniel Philbrick's wonderful book Why Read Moby-Dick? he includes a poignant passage from near the end of Herman Melville's life. I've been thinking about this passage since I returned from Nantucket, and I see great wisdom in it's simplicity. It goes like this:
After Melville's death, his family found a possible clue as to how he managed to survive the forty-year backwash left by the creation of Moby-Dick and, indeed, how he came to write that novel in the first place. Atop a table piled high with papers was a portable writing desk. Taped inside the desk, which had no bottom, was a piece of paper with a motto printed on it: "Keep true to the dreams of thy youth."
The phrase comes from the German poet and dramatist Friedrich Schiller, but what was its relevance to Melville? Late in life he wrote his brother-in-law, "[A]t my years, and with my disposition, or rather, constitution, one gets to care less and less for everything except downright good feeling. Life is so short, and so ridiculous and irrational (from a certain point of view) that one knows not what to make of it, unless - well, finish the sentence for yourself." I propose that Melville would have finished the sentence with the words taped inside his writing desk."
Those words - "Keep true to the dreams of thy youth." Each and every time that I talk about my book, whether it is at a bookstore or a college or a museum, I begin with my childhood. A childhood that was filled with books and stories and images. Ever since I was that child, I have dreamed of giving life to stories through pictures. Those were the dreams of my youth, those were the dreams that have driven me to this point, and those are the dreams that, in spite of the occasional tumult and chaos of this journey, have been rekindled in me. By Philbrick's book, by the Whaling Museum, by Nantucket, and ultimately by Melville and Moby-Dick. Hopefully, my upcoming Heart of Darkness book will only be the second of many many more stories I can illuminate with my work. Hopefully.
Keep true to the dreams of thy youth.