WPA Guide Series

By Fern Nesson

Fern Nesson takes us on the road following the original WPA Guidebooks. Follow along as she re-enacts these journeys, discovering what’s old and what’s new.


Travels with the American Guide Series, A WPA Federal Writers’ Project: Massachusetts Whaling Towns – New Bedford Travels with Herman Melville

Whaling in Massachusetts ceased in the early 20th century, but the wharves, chandleries, captains, and customs houses remain, offering scenic and fascinating reminders of the trade.

Home of Benjamin Rodman, a whaling merchant, 1821

In 1939, the writers of the Massachusetts State Guide took a great interest in whaling and its history, especially when describing New Bedford. The town makes for a wonderful visit today for its bustling, deep-water harbor, its well-preserved classic architecture, and its museum showcasing whaling paraphernalia.

Customs House (1834)
Scrimshaw carved by sailors on whales’ teeth
Whaling ship log book
Fully rigged Whale Ship in New Bedford Whaling Museum
Whale skeletons in New Bedford Whaling Museum

In 19th century New Bedford, whaling was king. The Guide recounts the profitable history of the trade:

New Bedford, once a famous whaling port, has a nautical flavor, perpetuated by awhaling museum, a seaman’s Bethel and substantial old houses once the homes of captains and early traders. [As early as] 1760, Joseph Russell…was already engaged inwhaling and … by 1820… New Bedford … led the industry, gradually absorbing almostall the entire whaling fleet of the Atlantic Seaboard. The year 1845 saw New Bedford’s greatest receipts from its fleet—158,000 barrels of sperm oil, 272,000 barrels of whale oil, and 3,000,000 pounds of whalebone.

But the Guide’s statistics cannot possibly paint a complete picture of 19th century Bedford, especially when compared to Herman Melville’s description of the town. Melville knew it well. In December,1840, heshipped out from New Bedford as a sailor on a whaler named the Acushnet. He drew upon his adventures asa sailor for many of his novels—Redburn, Typee, Omoo—and for Moby Dick, one of the most renowned andnotable novels in all of American literature (1851).

New Bedford is a queer place. Had it not been for us whalemen, that tract of land would thisday perhaps have been in as howling condition as the coast of Labrador. As it is, parts of her back country are enough to frighten one, they look so bony.

The town itself is perhaps the dearest place to live in, in all New England. It is a land of oil,true enough: but not like Canaan; a land, also, of corn and wine. The streets do not run withmilk; nor in the spring-time do they pave them with fresh eggs.

Yet, in spite of this, nowhere in all America will you find more patrician-like houses; parks and gardens more opulent, than in New Bedford. Whence came they? how planted upon thisonce scraggy scoria of a country?

Go and gaze upon the iron emblematical harpoons round yonder lofty mansion, and yourquestion will be answered. Yes; all these brave houses and flowery gardens came from theAtlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. One and all, they were harpooned and dragged up hitherfrom the bottom of the sea.

Melville went on to describe the abundance that whaling bestowed on New Bedford:

In New Bedford, fathers, they say, give whales for dowers to their daughters, and portionoff their nieces with a few porpoises apiece. You must go to New Bedford to see a brilliant wedding; for, they say, they have reservoirs of oil in every house, and every night recklessly burn their lengths in spermaceti candles.

In summer time, the town is sweet to see; full of fine maples in long avenues of green andgold. And in August, high in air, the beautiful and bountiful horse- chestnuts, candelabra-wise, proffer the passer-by their tapering upright cones of congregated blossoms.

So omnipotent is art; which in many a district of New Bedford has superinduced bright terraces of flowers upon the barren refuse rocks thrown aside at Creation’s final day. And thewomen of New Bedford, they bloom like their own red roses. But roses only bloom in summer;whereas the fine carnation of their cheeks is perennial as sunlight in the seventh heavens.

Still more fun to read is Melville’s description of the whaling crews that roamed the town:

In thoroughfares nigh the docks, any considerable seaport will frequently offer to view the queerest – looking nondescripts from foreign parts. But New Bedford beats all [others.] Inthese last-mentioned haunts you see only sailors; but in New Bedford actual cannibals standchatting at street corners…It makes a stranger stare.

Besides the Feegeeans, Tongans, …and [other] wild specimens of the whaling-craftwhich unheeded reel about the streets, you will see other sights still more curious, certainly more comical. There weekly arrive in this town scores of green Vermonters and New Hampshire men, all athirst for gain and glory in the fishery. Many are as green as theGreen Mountains whence they came. In some things, you would think them but a few hoursold. Look there! that chap strutting round the corner. He wears a beaver hat and swallow-tailed coat, girdled with a sailor belt and a sheath knife. Here comes another with a sou’-wester and a bombazine cloak.

New Bedford’s age of opulence is long past. But plentiful evidence of the trade has been preserved aswell, if not better, than it was in 1937. The Guide recommends visits to the Whaleman Statue on the Harbor, the Bourne Building on School Street (which opened in 1842, collected whale oil in barrels on the wharf, and sold whaling supplies and sails), the 1830’s granite Customs House on North Second Street, the numerous captains’ and merchants’ houses of the whaling era, and the Whaling Museum. All of these are still openfor visitors and the harbor and the cobblestoned streets surrounding them have a distinctly 19th centuryfeel.

In many ways, whaling is still king here. Each January, the Whaling Museum holds a round-the-clock community reading of Moby Dick. Tickets to the event are always sold out far in advance and theopportunity to participate in reading the text is considered to be quite an honor. The Museum’s website describes the event:

One of the world’s best known live readings of Herman Melville’s iconic American novelMoby-Dick takes place every January at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. The Moby-Dick Marathon draws readers and enthusiasts from around the globe to the Museum’s campus and to the livestream reading online. Obsessive literary aficionados, local school children, and everyone in between travel back in time toaccompany narrator, Ishmael, on the epic whaling journey and hunt for the elusive whitewhale.

But most interesting and moving attraction in New Bedford is The Seaman’s Bethel. Several whaling ports have whaling museums—Sag Harbor, New York, New London, Connecticut, Nantucket—but none have the Bethel. Nor did any of the others have the honor of being visited and described by HermanMelville.

The guide’s description of the Bethel is accurate today:

“Dedicated on May 2, 1832 to give moral and religious inspiration to the thousands of sailors, foreign and native-born,who frequented the city. It was immortalized by Herman Melville in Moby Dick and has been little changedsince Melville’s time. Still adorning the walls are the black-bordered cenotaphs inscribed in terms of bitter andhopeless grief; still from the ship’s prow resound the chaplain’s salty sermons

Melville’s own whaling voyage began with his visit to the Seaman’s Bethel. On Sunday December 27, 1840, he attended services at the Bethel and heard the Reverend Enoch Mudge preach to the assembled congregation.

In Moby Dick, he brings the scene to life:

But the Bethel is best seen through Melville’s eyes:

In this same New Bedford, there stands a Whaleman’s Chapel, and few are the moody fishermen, shortly bound for the Indian Ocean or Pacific, who fail to make a Sunday visit to the spot. I am sure that I did not. …

Entering, I found a small scattered congregation of sailors, and sailors’ wives and widows. A muffled silence reigned, only broken at times by the shrieks of the storm. Each silent worshipper seemed purposely sitting apart from the other, as if each silent grief were insular and incommunicable.

Next, Melville turns our attention to those lost at sea:

The chaplain had not yet arrived; and there these silent islands of men and women sat steadfastly eyeing several marble tablets, with black borders, masoned into the wall on eitherside the pulpit. Three of them ran something like the following:

SACRED OF JOHN TALBOT,

Who, at the age of eighteen, was lost overboard, Near the Isle of Desolation, off Patagonia,November 1st, 1836.

THIS TABLET Is erected to his Memory BY HIS SISTER.

SACRED to the memory of ROBERT LONG, WILLIS  ELLERY, NATHAN COLEMAN, WALTER CANNY, SETH MACY,

AND SAMUEL GLEIG,

Forming one of the boats’ crews OF THE SHIP ELIZA,

Who were towed out of sight by a Whale, On the Off-shore Ground in the PACIFIC,

December 3lst, 1839.

THIS MARBLE Is here placed by their surviving Shipmates

SACRED to the memory of the late

CAPTAIN EZEKIEL HARDY,

Who in the bows of his boat was killed by a

Sperm Whale on the coast of Japan,

August 3d, 1833. THIS TABLET

Is erected to his Memory BY HIS WIDOW.

This was not just Melville’s creative imagination. Here are photos of some of the actual tablets on the Bethel’s walls:

Next, Melville brings in the preacher:

I had not been seated very long ere a man of a certain venerable robustness entered …. It was the famous Father Mapple [who] had been a sailor and a harpooneer in his youth, but for many years past had dedicated his life to the ministry […]

And what would a Sunday service be without prayers and hymns?

Father Mapple rose, and in a mild voice of unassuming authority ordered thescattered people to condense. ‘’Starboard gangway, there! side away to larboard; larboardgangway to starboard! Midships! midships!“

There was a low rumbling of heavy sea-boots among the benches, and a stillslighter shuffling of women’s shoes, and all was quiet again, and every eye on thepreacher.

He paused a little; then kneeling in the pulpit’s bows, folded his large brown handsacross his chest, uplifted his closed eyes, and offered a prayer so deeply devout that he seemed kneeling and praying at the bottom of the sea.

This ended, in prolonged solemn tones, like the continual tolling of a bell in a ship that is foundering at sea in a fog. In such tones he commenced reading the following hymn; but changing his manner toward the concluding stanzas, burst forth with a pealing exultation and joy:

The ribs and terrors in the whale Arched over me a dismal gloom,

While all God’s sun-lit waves rolled by, And lift me deepening down to doom.

I saw the opening maw of hell, With endless pains and sorrows there; Which none but they that feel can tell Oh, I was plunging to despair. In black distress, I called my God,

When I could scarce believe him mine, He bowed his ear to my complaints No more the whale did me confine. With speed he flew to my relief,

As on a radiant dolphin borne; Awful, yet bright, as lightning shone The face of my Deliverer God.

My song for ever shall record That terrible, that joyful hour; I give the glory to my God, His all the mercy and the power.’

Nearly all joined in singing this hymn, which swelled high above the howling of the storm.

And did you think you’d escape without a sermon? Not a chance! Here, much shortened, is the dramatic conclusion of the chapter:

“ Beloved shipmates, clinch the last verse of the first chapter of Jonah “And God had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah.”

“Shipmates, this book, containing only four chapters, four yarns is one of the smallest strands in the mighty cable of the Scriptures. Yet what depths of the soul does Jonah’s deep sea-line sound! what a pregnant lesson to us is this prophet! What a noble thing is that canticle in the fish’s belly! How billow-like and boisterously grand! We feel the floods surging over us; we sound with him to the kelpy bottom of the waters; sea-weed and all the slime of the sea is about us! […]

But the sea rebels; he will not bear the wicked burden. A dreadful storm comes on, the ship is like to break. […]

The indignant gale howls louder; then, Jonah is dropped … seething into the yawning jaws awaiting him and the whale shoots-to all his ivory teeth, like so many white bolts, upon his prison.

Then Jonah prayed unto the Lord out of the fish’s belly.

But observe his prayer, and learn a weighty lesson. For sinful as he is, Jonah does not weep and wail for direct deliverance. He feels that his dreadful punishment is just. He leaves all his deliverance to God, contenting himself with this, that spite of all his pains and pangs, he will still look toward His holy temple.

And here, shipmates, is true and faithful repentance, not clamorous for pardon, but grateful for punishment. And how pleasing to God was this conduct in Jonah, is shown in the eventual deliverance of him from the sea and the whale.

[…]

Then God spake unto the fish; and from the shuddering cold and blackness of the sea, the whale came breaching up toward the warm and pleasant sun, and all the delights of air and earth ; and ” vomited out Jonah upon the dry land “; when the word of the Lord came a second time ; and Jonah, bruised and beaten his ears, like two sea shells, still multitudinously murmuring of the ocean Jonah did the Almighty’s bidding. And what was that, shipmates? To preach the Truth to the face of Falsehood! That was it!

This, shipmates, this is the … lesson; and woe to that pilot of the living God who slights it. Woe to him whom this world charms from Gospel duty! Woe to him who seeks to pour oil upon the waters when God has brewed them into a gale! […]

With church service over, we leave New Bedford, chastened but uplifted.

Herman Melville
Plaque in the Seaman’s Bethel

New Deal Maps

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