Herman Melville was mesmerized by a mysterious white whale. A new movie in town, In the Heart of the Sea, recounts the more or less true story of a whale ramming a ship in 1820. The Essex from Nantucket was stove in, in the South Pacific. Moby Dick is a distant relative of that event.
It turns out that Melville was fascinated by a white whale and also by an ominous white meteor streaming through the sky — not unlike Moby Dick streaming through the sea.
Both whale and meteor were interruptions of the commonplace natural order, fascinating and frightening to behold, in imagination if not first hand. Whether hopefully auspicious or fearfully ominous, they aroused passions in the extreme.
The giant meteor appeared along the East Coast in 1850 startling viewers by its brightness and size. It appeared midday, which made its luminescence even more otherworldly. There were no photographs, but for authentication the papers turned to trusty corner policemen, one of whom said it was as big as a house.
This was a minutes-long phase of communication from the heavens to awed street-bound witnesses and to those citizens who came upon hyperbolic, even hysterical accounts in the papers over the next few days and weeks. Prophets and seers had a field day.
Christmas, if not Hanukkah, commemorates wise men responding to a striking, message-bearing star in the East. Perhaps they were not wise before witnessing it, but became wise in retrospect because they noticed — and interpreted, and acted on their interpretation.
But not all meteors are welcome. The startling luminescence of Trump or a terrorist presages unwelcome disaster. — Do I need to add, “for some”?
For Melville, this call of the meteor parallels the call of the white whale. The whale, as the illustrator Rockwell Kent knows, addresses the stars who address him in return. The whale also famously addresses Ahab, who addresses him with a curse and harpoon.
The Whale and Ahab and Stars also address we who are readers of Ishmael’s tale of Ahab’s obsession. Those who fail to sail the South Pacific with Melville in search of a white whale nevertheless can witness the whiteness of a meteor falling over an Eastern seaboard — and be mesmerized by its cleaving brilliance and portents.
Apart from learning of the Essex or reading Moby Dick there is today’s fraught address at the cinema, where you can find In the Heart of the Sea giving you two hours of awe and adventure, disaster and concluding cannibalism.
The whiteness of the whale prompts Ahab to fury; the whiteness of the meteor awakens both Melville and Thoreau to an otherworldly cleaving of the commonplace natural, political, and social order of things. For both, the meteor marks the luminous appearance and plummeting death of the abolitionist and insurrectionist, John Brown.
Brown was hanged December 2, 1859. For Thoreau, “the meteor John Brown” is a Christ in the midst of the rabble who would crucify him. For Melville, John Brown is a meteor of war and “weird.”
elville publishes his slim Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War in 1866, seven years after Brown’s hanging in Charleston in 1859, and one year after the war ended. Brown anticipates those slaughters and begins them— without authorization. Meteors are nature’s loose cannons. Brown was the North’s loose cannon.
Melville opens his book with a poem, “The Portent.”
Hanging from the beam,
Slowly swaying (such the law),
Gaunt the shadow on your green, Shenandoah!
The cut is on the crown (Lo, John Brown),
And the stabs shall heal no more.
Hidden in the cap Is the anguish none can draw;
So your future veils its face, Shenandoah!
But the streaming beard is shown
(Weird John Brown),
The meteor of the war.
Melville and Thoreau encountered Brown as a flash of illumination associated with prophecy and doom. Thoreau makes him a saint and doomed hero; Melville makes him a portent of war and quite “weird.” The prophet is as weird as the prophecy — unmanageable, quixotic, troubling, perhaps demonic.
The meteor is a source of startling address that troubles and puzzles. Its meaning is unfinished and fraught.
Not unlike the years anticipating the Civil War, we live today in a world of violence, portents, and prophecy. Jeremiah would give a knowing nod.
Our passions are stirred and left stirring. Stark, striking events invade and unleash passions, desires, and imaginations of good or ill to come. Let’s hope Trump and Cruz are a flash in the pan, easily doused.
But I should add, why pick on them rather than the crowds they galvanize? They are but the tip of an iceberg, the flash of a fin, threatening the ship.
Drownings, hangings, car rammings, bombings, stabbings, ship-wreaked states, thousands of Ishmaels cast into the wilderness — these dark lights from the Middle East are also the tip of an iceberg, the flash of a fin, threatening the ship and fit for Jeremiads.
— Ed Mooney, Zeteo Contributor
Credits: Chris Hemsworth (top image) plays the first mate on the Essex (he was recently voted “the sexiest man alive”); Rockwell Kent produced pen, brush, and ink drawings for a 1930 edition of Moby Dick; the illustration here lets sea and stars interpenetrate, and has the whale ascending to heaven. I found no Google images of daylight meteors. Thomas Hovenden painted The Last Moments of John Brown, 1882-4; it is now housed in The Metropolitan Museum of Art; the image here is less than the full canvas . The painting of Brown with a tornado behind him is a knock-off (I’m nearly certain); I’ve been unable to trace its provenance. Michelangelo’s Jeremiah is a fresco from the Sistine Chapel.
Mind if I throw a little Whitman in your mix? He wrote a beautiful little poem about the Year of Meteors:
and there is a funny story regarding him and John Brown never told in his biographies. A Manhattan photographer, perhaps Brady, once decorated his studio windows with enlargements of his portraits, including a life-sized colored photo of Whitman. Two boot-blacks begin to insist that it’s a picture of “Old John Ossalwatamie Brown,” and this draws a crowd. Someone who knew Whitman passes by and explains, which disperses the crowd, but not before the entrepreneurs have snagged a few extra customers.
“Old John Brown in Broadway — Black Your Boots, Sir?” New-York daily tribune, November 11, 1859, 7.
Shows how widespread the news of John Brown was! Wonderful tidbit! Thanks a lot, Mitch.