Chapter 6: The Street

What’s this? Two in one day? Sure, why not. Let’s knock another one down!


This chapter is another short one, I actually fit the notes for it and the last one on the same page. It does have a bit more meat for us to chew on, though, in terms of blog writing. I probably won’t have to go off on a Melville-esque digression of my own to get to a decent length this time.

SUMMARY: Ishmael wanders around town, and Old Ishmael, the writer of the book, reminisces about New Bedford.

That’s it! Nothing really happens in this chapter, in terms of the narrative following the younger version of Ishmael. He just goes out and sees what this town is all about, since he’s never been there before. But then we are treated to some remembrances of the older Ishmael, to whom New Bedford is quite familiar.


In a way, you could call this a little non-narrative diversion in this early section of the book. In my memory, this part, before the voyage commences, is all narrative, but this is more of a reflection on the whaling industry, rather than telling the story.

Melville is actually very skilled when it comes to the narrative portions, he gets across action well and is adept at crafting dialog, so these non-narrative digressions are not from laziness or a lack of ability. It’s hard for me, sitting here in the year of our lord two thousand and nineteen, to determine how much of this is the genuine remembrance of Melville himself, and how much is in character as Ishmael. And, I suppose, it doesn’t really matter, at th’ end o’ th’ day.

Anyway, the actual content of this chapter: some of it is just totally incomprehensible to me. Not because it’s written in an old-timey way, as is often the problem with books of this vintage, but because it’s just a list of locations that I have absolutely no idea where they are. A bunch of places in New York where you can see “exotic” folks of various description… which don’t hold a candle to New Bedford. Where there are people from a bunch of South Pacific islands that are spelled in a way that makes it impossible for me to guess what he’s even talking about. I can figure out “Feegeeans” but “Brighggians”? I don’t even know, man.


The long and short of it is that New York is diverse, but New Beford has a whaling fleet so it has people from ALL over, literally. It goes to this theme of whaling being very international, people seek it out from all over the world, because whalers go all over the world in search of their quarry. Also Ishmael refers to “cannibals” again, which, yikes.

Even farmers from rural America are drawn to the whale fishery, not just those exotic specimens from far off lands. Ishmael really likes making fun of these country bumpkins who wander into town totally unprepared. And I love this paragraph from this chapter, where he does so:

No town-bred dandy will compare with a country-bred one—I mean a downright bumpkin dandy—a fellow that, in the dog-days, will mow his two acres in buckskin gloves for fear of tanning his hands. Now when a country dandy like this takes it into his head to make a distinguished reputation, and joins the great whale-fishery, you should see the comical things he does upon reaching the seaport. In bespeaking his sea-outfit, he orders bell-buttons to his waistcoats; straps to his canvas trowsers. Ah, poor Hay-Seed! how bitterly will burst those straps in the first howling gale, when thou art driven, straps, buttons, and all, down the throat of the tempest.

This is also where we get another theme that runs throughout the whole book, especially in the non-narrative chapters: Whaling as a very important, even noble, industry. That is why it attracts people from all over, even people from rural America, and the town of New Bedford is so rich and fancy, despite being situated on a blasted, awful stretch of New England coastline.

Whaling simply brings in a lot of money, because whale oil is worth a lot, because it burns very cleanly for light. Ishmael will go into probably too much detail about this later on, and other lionizing facts, but for now it is enough to know that New Bedford is a rich town. Despite everything, it is a sort of paradise in the middle of a wasteland, transformed by the bounty they reap from the seas.

That’s about all Ishmael has to say about this town. He clearly doesn’t like it as much as Nantucket, as we’ll see when he reaches that vaunted island with his companion in a few chapters. In terms of whaling towns, it’s new money, so to speak. The up-and-comer, who is stealing all the business from the old, traditional port, the originator of the industry.

But he does admit, it is very pretty in the spring.

Another short little chapter, tryin’ to get to the meat of this book. But we’re already starting to build up some themes that will show up time and again later in this old monster of a tome of a book.

As always, you can follow along on the gute. Until next time, shipmates!

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