Although The Big Read of Herman Melville's Moby Dick has just ended, I have some catching up to do before reaching the last chapter. Each audio chapter, read by a celebrated actor, a famous person, or an unknown amateur, is still posted online at the Plymouth University website linked above. You can also download each of the 135 chapters from iTunes. During the course of the daily reading project, the site had over a million downloads.
I have been listening to some whaling ditties lately, inspired by the audio performances of the novel. Many versions of "Greenland Whale Fisheries" can be found online. Probably an old Weavers recording was where I first heard Pete Seeger's arrangement of the song, but this one by The Pogues (1984) has energy and attitude. A fine version.
While listening to the Moby Dick readings, I have been looking at some of the paintings and illustrations Herman Melville describes in Chapter 55: "Of the Monstrous Pictures of Whales." Melville was underwhelmed by the unrealistic representations of whales he found in art, such as Guido's painting "of Perseus rescuing Andromeda from the sea-monster or whale. Where did Guido get the model of such a strange creature as that? Nor does Hogarth, in painting the same scene in his own 'Perseus Descending,' make out one whit better. The huge corpulence of that Hogarthian monster undulates on the surface, scarcely drawing one inch of water. It has a sort of howdah on its back, and its distended tusked mouth into which the billows are rolling, might be taken for the Traitors' Gate leading from the Thames by water into the Tower."
Fortunately, the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts posts the Hogarth engraving online. You can see Melville's point. That is one peculiar looking whale.
Melville continues: "Then, there are the Prodromus whales of old Scotch Sibbald, and Jonah's whale, as depicted in the prints of old Bibles and the cuts of old primers. What shall be said of these?" The less, the better, apparently.
At his blog, Words of the World, Bill Casselman says this is a paper print of Jonah and the Whale was drawn by Marten-Jacobsz van Veen, engraved by Philip Galle, 1566 CE, Heemskerk, Holland.
The scientists do not fare much better in the accuracy of their depictions, according to Melville.
"Nor are the most conscientious compilations of Natural History for the benefit of the young and tender, free from the same heinousness of mistake. Look at that popular work Goldsmith's Animated Nature. In the abridged London edition of 1807, there are plates of an alleged 'whale' and a 'narwhale.' I do not wish to seem inelegant, but this unsightly whale looks much like an amputated sow; and, as for the narwhale, one glimpse at it is enough to amaze one, that in this nineteenth century such a hippogriff could be palmed for genuine upon any intelligent public of schoolboys."
"Taken for all in all, by far the finest, though in some details not the most correct, presentations of whales and whaling scenes to be anywhere found, are two large French engravings, well executed, and taken from paintings by one Garnery."[Snip.]
"In the second engraving, the boat is in the act of drawing alongside the barnacled flank of a large running Right Whale, that rolls his black weedy bulk in the sea like some mossy rock-slide from the Patagonian cliffs. His jets are erect, full, and black like soot; so that from so abounding a smoke in the chimney, you would think there must be a brave supper cooking in the great bowels below. Sea fowls are pecking at the small crabs, shell-fish, and other sea candies and maccaroni, which the Right Whale sometimes carries on his pestilent back. And all the while the thick-lipped leviathan is rushing through the deep, leaving tons of tumultuous white curds in his wake, and causing the slight boat to rock in the swells like a skiff caught nigh the paddle-wheels of an ocean steamer. Thus, the foreground is all raging commotion; but behind, in admirable artistic contrast, is the glassy level of a sea becalmed, the drooping unstarched sails of the powerless ship, and the inert mass of a dead whale, a conquered fortress, with the flag of capture lazily hanging from the whale-pole inserted into his spout-hole.
"Who Garnery the painter is, or was, I know not. But my life for it he was either practically conversant with his subject, or else marvellously tutored by some experienced whaleman. The French are the lads for painting action."
Without access to the images on first reading Moby Dick, I experienced these chapters as a passing blur. Melville sounded merely pedantic and cranky. But no, he was dismayed at the neglect of truth in representation of whales. Some, such as the early illustrators of Jonah's sea monster, were imagining the animal, but others, especially the naturalists, should have known better.