Friday, November 20, 2015

Wahle* + Whale* (for Whale* or Wahle*)

Moby Dick. The great white whale. Okay, I'll admit that (unlike Woody Allen's tragicomic poser Leonard Zelig) I've never actually read the book. But a good friend of mine just did, and now he can't shut up about it. Moby-Dick was inspired, at least in part, by an 80-ton sperm whale that on November 20, 1820, attacked a ship from Nantucket called the Essex while it was sailing in the South Pacific. This led to an awful ordeal for the surviving crew, but the amazing tales told in its wake are believed to have formed the basis for Herman Melville's famous novel published in 1851. There are at least two other contenders for that honor, though: one Mocha Dick, the storied "White Whale of the Pacific"; and yet another one that the Dutch settlers of Albany (which was then called Fort Orange) swear they once saw floating up the Hudson River. According to a report by Antony de Hooges, taken from the Van Rensselaer Manor Papers held at the New York State Library: "On the 29th of March in the year 1647 a certain fish appeared before us here in the colony, which we estimated to be of a considerable size. He came from below and swam past us a certain distance up to the sand bars and came back towards evening, going down past us again. He was snow-white, without fins, round of body, and blew water up out of his head, just like whales or tunas. It seemed very strange to us because there are many sand bars between us and Manhattan, and also because it was snow-white, such as no one among us has ever seen; especially, I say, because it covered a distance of 20 [Dutch] miles of fresh water in contrast to salt water, which is its element. Only God knows what it means. But it is certain, that I and most all of the inhabitants [watched] it with great amazement. On the same evening that this fish appeared before us, we had the first thunder and lightning of the year..." Herman Melville was born in 1819 in New York City and moved to Albany with his family at the age of eleven, where he continued to live throughout the 1830s. So it certainly seems conceivable that our very own "white whale" could have been the same one that animated Albany's budding young writer. Finding a typo to go with today's story, much like the hunt for Moby Dick himself, proved to be a rather elusive quest, but I finally harpooned three of these in OhioLINK and 110 in WorldCat—most of them for proper names like Whalen or Whaley. One which especially caught my eye was for James Whale, the 1930s filmmaker who brought another 19th-century literary leviathan to life.

(Mocha Dick, by Jeremiah N. Reynolds, 1870 UK reprint, in the public domain.)

Carol Reid

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