Melville on Motherhood

Moby Dick was first published in 1851. Not exactly the hey-day of involved fathering. Herman Melville’s epic—-with a central plot chronicling Captain Ahab’s monomaniacal pursuit of the Great White Whale, and numerous meandering asides which painstakingly detail aspects of the whaling industry—-is not where one would expect to find a deft observation by Melville on the delicate subject of breastfeeding.

In Chapter 87, The Grand Armada, Melville describes an enormous congregation of sperm whales, gathered in concentric circles on the ocean. The “immense caravans” of orbiting whales actually calm the few square miles of ocean in the middle so that the waters take on the tranquil qualities of a lake. Melville then writes this:

But far beneath this wondrous world upon the surface, another and still stranger world met our eyes as we gazed over the side. For, suspended in those watery vaults, floated the forms of the nursing mothers of the whales, and those that by their enormous girth seemed shortly to become mothers. The lake, as I have hinted, was to a considerable depth exceedingly transparent; and as human infants while suckling will calmly and fixedly gaze away from the breast, as if leading two different lives at the time; and while yet drawing mortal nourishment, be still spiritually feasting upon some unearthly reminiscence;—even so did the young of these whales seem looking up towards us, but not at us, as if we were but a bit of Gulfweed in their new-born sight.

As a new-ish father, this passage filled me with an enormous sense of recognition. Kudos to Melville, who, a century-and-a-half ago, so keenly observed and sensitively portrayed a moment that would have been of no interest to most men of the day.