Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick; or, The Whale” is synonymous with New Bedford, the 19th century center of the world’s whaling industry. You probably know it’s about the obsessed (many would say “possessed’) Captain Ahab and his pursuit of a great white sperm whale, one that cost him a leg, his sanity and his life — along with the lives of all but one of his crew.
Here’s some stuff that you might not have known but that could help you impress your literary friends over a round of Quick Eternity or Stove Boat poured here at the Moby Dick Brewing Co.’s international headquarters.
• Melville was born in New York City, tried to be a teacher, then at 21 decided to seek adventure as an ordinary seaman on a whale ship — just like the novel’s narrator. (You can call him Ishmael.)
• New Bedford was to 19th century whale oil what west Texas was to petroleum a century later. At its height, New Bedford sent forth more than 300 whaling vessels and employed nearly 10,000 men from all over the world. Whaling made New Bedford one of the wealthiest cities in the world.
• Melville only spent a few days in New Bedford before shipping out on January 3, 1841, but used its rowdy nightlife and a visit to the Seamen’s Bethel on Johnnycake Hill to create the novel’s setting.
• Melville actually didn’t sail from New Bedford. The whaleship Acushnet was berthed across the harbor in Fairhaven.
• Whaling aboard the Acushnet was slow, so Melville and another crew member jumped ship. He signed on with another vessel, where the crew mutinied, and Melville spent some time in a Polynesian jail.
• His five years of adventuring in the South Seas led him to write five seafaring novels in five years. “Moby-Dick,” which Melville believed was a great novel, was neither a commercial nor a critical success until a generation after his death.
• “Moby-Dick” was inspired by real events. In 1820, a massive sperm whale rammed into the Nantucket whaling vessel Essex, sinking it about 2,000 nautical miles west of South America. The 20 crew members took to lifeboats and tried to sail to safety. Only eight survived, and their tale of three months adrift and having to resort to cannibalism horrified all who heard it.
• Although his sister lived in New Bedford in a gracious home at 100 Madison Street, Melville didn’t return here for 17 years after shipping out in 1841. When he came back, it was not as a simple sailor, but as a lecturer for the New Bedford Lyceum. His topic? Not whaling, but Roman statues!
• Melville didn’t write “Moby-Dick” in New Bedford. When he quit sailing, he lived for a time in Boston and then moved his young family to Arrowhead Farm near Pittsfield, where he wrote the book.
• The New Bedford Whaling Museum just across Union Street hosts a marathon reading of “Moby-Dick” each January. It takes about 25 hours and involves more than 100 readers.