Features: Literature & Language Arts
The Whaleman Statue (New Bedford, Massachusetts)

Pursuing Melville: “A Dead Whale or a Stove Boat”

Yes, the world’s a ship on its passage out, and not a voyage complete….

—Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

On January 3, 1841, twenty-one year-old Herman Melville boarded the Acushnet, a New Bedford whaler, heading for the South Seas and the Pacific whaling grounds. He would spend 18 months on the Acushnet, learning to be a whaler. This would also be his coming-of-age passage and an education. As he later wrote about his character, Ishmael, "... a whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard." On this voyage, Melville would take part in all aspects of the hunting, harvesting, and processing of whale oil aboard the ship. He would absorb the lore of the veteran seamen who made up the Acushnet's diverse and colorful crew. His first-hand experiences on this and several subsequent voyages would percolate to become the basis for his later seafaring novels, most notably his masterpiece, Moby-Dick.

New Bedford Whaling Museum

Each year to observe the occasion of Melville’s embarkation, the New Bedford Whaling Museum holds a marathon reading of the novel the first weekend of January. Readers include Melville descendants; national, state, and local politicians; fishermen; librarians; and scores of other Moby-Dick enthusiasts. This ritual takes just over a full twenty-four hours to complete and continues through the dead of night, when dedicated listeners may come and go or forego sleep and remain for the full reading! Livestream: The entire reading will be broadcast here, allowing Moby-Dick enthusiasts around the globe to follow along.

The New Bedford Whaling Museum is the hub of the National Historical Park, New Bedford Whaling, operated by the National Park Service. The website contains an array of valuable interdisciplinary resources for teachers, including online games, history and culture, the products and business of whaling, and much more of interest to students of all ages.

“A Dead Whale or a Stove Boat”

In the mid-19th century, New Bedford was the undisputed whaling capitol of the world, with an international commerce in whale oil so robust that the city can aptly declare: “We lit the world!” According NEH’s Humanities magazine article, “Whaling the Old Way,” the “universal motto” of nineteenth century whale men originates in a pep cry issued by Captain Ahab in Chapter 36 of Moby-Dick:

Lower away, and after him! And what tune is it ye pull to, men?

A dead whale or a stove boat!

This fatalistic expression describes the reality of the nineteenth century whale hunt, which resulted in either a slaughtered whale or a smashed boat. Carved into granite on The Whaleman's Memorial, Bela Lyon Pratt's statue of a fierce harpooner marking the front of the New Bedford Public Library, the words “A Dead Whale or a Stove Boat” convey the all-or-nothing mentality of the quest for “liquid gold.”

The NEH-funded American Experience film, Into the Deep: America, Whaling & the World, documents the history of America’s whaling industry over three centuries. This Ric Burns production tells the story of American capitalism on the rise through a case study in maritime culture: the story of the Essex whale ship and the life of young Herman Melville. The film’s website offers biographical material on Melville, a timeline on the history of whaling, a teachers’ guide, and other unique resources to use in the classroom such as the audio of whale songs and sea shanties.

Melville and Hawthorne

“What a book [Moby-Dick] Melville has written! It gives me an idea of much greater power than his preceding ones. It hardly seemed to me that the review of it, in the Literary World, did justice to its best points.” —Nathanial Hawthorne’s letter to Evert Duyckinck, December 1, 1851

The relationship between Herman Melville and Nathanial Hawthorne is the stuff of literary legend. Hawthorne was a profound influence and inspiration to the younger Melville during the writing of Moby-Dick as evidenced by the dedication of the novel: IN TOKEN OF MY ADMIRATION FOR HIS GENIUS, THIS BOOK IS INSCRIBED TO NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE. The story of how these two 19th-century American men of letters met and became kindred spirits can be found in their correspondence in The Life and Works of Herman Melville. Their lively exchanges make for fascinating reading, including one in which Melville discloses Moby-Dick’s secret motto to his confidant! EDSITEment-reviewed Hawthorne in Salem discusses the friendship between Hawthorne and Melville, which continued until they drifted apart in 1852.


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NEH Connections

NEH has sponsored a number of projects of interest to students and teachers engaged in the study of Moby-Dick, Herman Melville, and whaling history:

    • Melville's Marginalia Online is a virtual archive devoted to the recovery and documentation of Herman Melville’s books that introduces the influence of Thomas Beale's The Natural History of the Sperm Whale on the novel Moby-Dick.
    • American Icons, a documentary radio series, debuted with a program on Moby-Dick that covers a range of stories and explores the historical and social context of the novel, how and why it gained enduring significance within our culture, and how other artists have been influenced by the work since its creation.
    • Manifold Greatness: The Creation and Afterlife of the King James Bible Timeline: Literary Influences—1851 Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, or, The Whale provides an overview of the influence of the King James Bible of 1611 on Moby-Dick as well as other significant works of literature. It recognizes Melville’s “deep and radical engagement” with the Bible in this novel.
    • Laura Jernegan: Girl on a Whaleship is a website that traces the voyage of Laura Jernegan, a six-year-old girl from Edgartown, Massachusetts in 1868, who set out on a three-year voyage with her family to the whaling grounds of the Pacific Ocean. Read Laura’s story of the adventure in her own words, create your own map about whaling, explore the ship, meet the crew, find out what “grub” they ate, and more!
    • Restoration of the “World’s longest painting,” Purrington-Russell's 1848 Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage ‘Round the World is a conservation project for a painting created from 52-inch-wide lengths of cotton fabric and measuring 1,275 x 8.5 feet. This site contains a narrative video which unfurls the painting to illustrate every aspect of a whaling voyage from beginning to end including exotic ports of call and landfalls.  The painting not only documents details about whaling and the maritime world of the mid 19th century, but also survives as a nationally important artifact of American culture.
    • From Pursuit to Preservation: The Global Story of Whales and Whaling is a permanent exhibition of the New Bedford Whaling Museum that includes an audio tour about the human fascination with whales and the history of whaling in New Bedford within a global context.

EDSITEment Connections

Introduce students to the novel with Melville's Moby-Dick: Shifts in Narrative Voice and Literary Genres (a three lesson curriculum unit). More than a chronicle of Ahab’s quest for the great white whale, Moby-Dick offers insight into the whaling industry that lit the 19th-century world and is widely recognized as one of the centerpieces of the American Renaissance. Though seldom praised during Melville’s lifetime, the novel remains relevant today, helping to build our perceptions of America’s unique maritime culture. This unit is a study of the shifts in narrative voice and literary genres that Melville makes throughout the text.

  • Lesson 1 has students explore Melville’s development of his first person narrator Ishmael through a close reading of chapter 1. Students will consider Ishmael’s positioning of the Fates in the novel and the extent to which this positioning makes a narrative shift necessary to understand the perspective of other characters. The next two lessons serve to orient students to several of the genres in this novel.
  • Lesson 2 has students perform a close reading dramatic script as it surfaces in chapter 37 to examine Melville’s characterizations of Ahab as a foil to Ishmael. Students then analyze the shifting perspectives on character that this chapter elicits within the novel, and delve deeply into Melville’s complex protagonist—the multifarious character of Captain Ahab.
  • Lesson 3 guides students through examples of Melville’s seamless integration of several literary genres—hymn, sermon, scientific writing, and drama into the novel. It moves into an analytical discussion of Moby-Dick as a masterwork that goes above and beyond the appeal of its fictional genre.

Two Closer Readings+ articles offer additional insights into the primary sources and first-hand experiences Melville drew upon to write Moby-Dick:

A student resource Launchpad serves as a guide to navigating through Herman Melville's short story, “Bartleby, the Scrivener”: A Story of Wall Street. It is augmented with video discussions based on Leon and Amy Kass’s What So Proudly We Hail curriculum series’ conversations, Compassion: Toward Neighbors. See EDSITEment’s introduction to the series, The Meaning of America: A New Approach to Civic Education.

Asian Pacific Heritage Month features the story of a shipwrecked boy, Manjiro, brought to America by a whale ship. The first Japanese national to immigrate, Manjiro was influential in ending Japan’s centuries of isolation. In this feature, students follow an interactive map of Manjiro’s voyage around the Pacific with a supplemental narrative timeline aligning his adventures with those of Herman Melville.

Related Websites

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The Whaleman Statue, by Bela Lyon Pratt: a symbol of the city of New Bedford. Image courtesy Wikimapia. Inscribed:

A Dead Whale Or A Stove Boat --- In Honor Of The Whalemen Whose - Skill Hardihood And Daring Brought - Fame And Fortune To New Bedford - And Made Its Name Known In Every - Seaport The Globe