“We account the whale immortal in his species, however perishable in his individuality” An Exploration of Social Knowledge in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick

Ellen Jamieson


Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, or, The Whale is a book about ways of knowing. The authority of experience is front and centre: the author had been to sea and several times and had seen great whales close up, and his novel places the reader in a whaleboat within reach of a whale’s powerful flukes. But Moby Dick opens with a long list of quotations, “higgledypiggledy whale statements,” giving the reader fair warning that the author’s reading will be as important as his whaling. Bookish science blends with the practical knowledge of men whose job is to transform whales into a valuable commodity. Ellen Jamieson compares the collective, cultural knowledge of whalers to the behaviour, and culture, of whales, exploring the analogies, in some cases very deliberate, that Melville constructs.  She concludes: “Perhaps by showing both the whales and the men as social units in their respective species, and subsequently depicting their interspecific interactions and responses to each other, Melville is anticipating an environmentalist claim about the importance of preserving the diversity of the natural world to the maximization of various forms of knowledge.”        —Dr. Bruce Greenfield

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