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Professor Ryan Cordell
Introduction to Literature
April 4, 20–
“Mapping Melville” Reflection
The world in the 1850s looked much different than today. Countries had different borders, islands had different names, and the navigation technology of the 1850s seemed archaic to the technology used in the 21st century. Whaling is not a common occupation or practice today, which made reading Moby-Dick difficult. I could not wrap my mind around the idea of being at sea for three or more years without stopping for food or supplies. I also underestimated how far the Pequod traveled. I knew the crew started in Nantucket, sailed around Cape of Good Hope, and traveled through the Japan Sea. However, those locations seemed random and insignificant because the narrators of the story did not provide a definite timeline or path for the voyage. Traditional students and scholars would analyze the text and write many papers about the various themes, plot, and motifs within the novel. However, this digital humanities project looks at the text in a more practical, tangible, and realistic manner, for students can manipulate the voyage in their own way to create a deeper understanding of Moby-Dick.
Mapping out the significant points of the voyage through this digital humanities project showed how extensive the trip was for Ahab and the crew. The crew traveled thousands of miles without encountering anyone or anything, but after rounding the Cape of Good Hope the Pequod encountered the Albatross, the Town-Ho, and the Virgin one right after the other. The transition from the lack of excitement for months, to constantly encountering whales, ships, and landmarks must have taken a great emotional toll on the crew members. The novel minimally mentioned the downtime the crew had, and what they did to occupy their time outside of killing whales. The boredom must have been excruciating, but the camaraderie on the ship, despite the obstacles, is a testament to Ahab’s leadership and the crew’s unity.
The importance and significance of Ahab’s immense knowledge and skills for navigating the ship did not occur to me until after I constructed the digital map of the voyage. He kept the ship on track for more than three years, and navigated immensely long distances with minimal benchmarks to guide him, especially from the Arroz Islands in the Atlantic Ocean to the Cape of Good Hope; however, after the cape, Ahab carefully navigated through the many small islands in Indonesia. During their travels through Indonesia the crew encountered the Samuel Enderby and the Great Armada. Ahab also knew where Moby Dick would be to ensure a definite encounter with the whale based on his previous experience with the whale and his knowledge of common whale patterns.
The visual representation of the voyage clearly exemplifies the efficiency and reality of Ahab’s route. Visually seeing the route gives the reader confidence in the story by making the adventure more realistic. If the route seemed illogical or did not use pertinent landmarks, the novel would lose some of its value. To me, the novel’s value and significance come from its realistic depictions of the Pequod’s course and the obstacles encountered by the whalers. The realism of the text continues in Ahab’s cabin when he “[brings] out a large wrinkled roll of yellowish sea charts … you would have seen him intently study the various lines and shading … and with slow but steady pencil trace additional courses over spaces that before were blank … some invisible pen was also tracing lines and courses upon the deadly marked chart on his forehead” (Melville 187). The wrinkled and yellowed charts signify years of use, and the lines on Ahab’s forehead symbolize his years of stress and focus over the charts. A captain who did not know the sea, ship, or crew as well as Ahab could not have drawn his own routes or navigated the ship off course without losing sight of their destination. Ahab’s strong and confident demeanor aboard the Pequod also helped the crew feel that they traveled in the right direction.
The longevity and distance the Pequod covered greatly surprised me. I knew the voyage traveled an excruciatingly long distance, but I did not think the crew almost circumnavigated the globe. The time needed to almost circumnavigate the globe in 1850 was much longer than the time needed today, due to the rapid advances in technology. In this regard, the very idea of whaling seems ridiculous to me. I related traveling in a car with my family to traveling aboard the ship with the crew. Traveling with my family can be difficult at times, since our moods and dynamics change constantly. However, our trips are much shorter than the voyage of the Pequod, and we do not face the same challenges that the crew did—for example, racial tensions. I can better appreciate the difficulties of the crew’s voyage now that I have seen it take on a visual form.
The transfer of points and locations from a flat map to a spherical map posed the greatest difficulty as I completed my project. A flat version of the globe visually distorts the longitude and latitudinal points, which makes the continents and oceans seem closer together than they actually are. By putting the points on a map from the text, I demonstrated the varying distances between the points. The challenges the crew faced due to the distance or land masses can further be investigated with greater accuracy based on this digital map.
The actual text of the novel did not provide all the concrete points for the voyage. The start of the voyage in Nantucket was easily identified, for the text read, “I stuffed a shirt or two into my old carpet-bag, tucked it under my arm, and started for Cape Horn and the Pacific. Quitting the good city of old Manhatto, I duly arrived in New Bedford. It was on a Saturday night in December” (Melville 26). By knowing the specific location of New Bedford, I knew exactly that the start of the voyage occurred of America’s east coast in Nantucket, Massachusetts. Other points Ishmael, Ahab, or other crew members mentioned included the Cape of Good Hope, The Indonesian Islands, and the Japan Sea. However, generally the points of the voyage were not explicitly stated, but rather embedded in the text.
The length and expense of the voyage would not have been as realistic or important with only the few points stated in the novel. The reader may become lost in the text and events of the story due to its complexity, but by plotting each event and landmark, the text became clearer. With each discovered point, I felt closer to the capture of Moby Dick and felt a part of the voyage in a way that I was not able to by simple reading the text. The map resource in the back of the novel helped me to plot the other, less explicitly stated points. I carefully looked at the specific longitudes and latitudes of the points on the flat map in order to correlate a given position with the landmarks associated with the point on the globe. I carefully selected and placed each point to ensure accuracy and precision while constructing the digital map of the voyage.
Most people, including students and researchers, learn most effectively by looking at visuals. Therefore, a visual representation of the Pequod voyage would greatly benefit the majority of readers. The reader or scholar clearly knows the chronological order of events, the route used, and the distance covered by the ship and crew by looking at this digital map. The density and style structure of the novel can confuse the reader, for Melville incorporates many detailed chapters about the ship, the whale, or the sea that do not directly pertain to the voyage. The reader may become lost and forget where the ship is; however, with this digital map, the reader can clearly see the pertinent events that occurred in a specific area of the world, as well as give a greater clarity to the ship’s next destination. The points labeled on the globe also correlate with its corresponding chapter title, which helps the reader understand the voyage more quickly and efficiently.
An interesting function of the Google Earth application allows a scholar to apply different maps to the same voyage path. The legitimacy of the route taken, the events, or encounters with other ships may be validated or dismissed depending on the formation of the earth at different time periods. A scholar could use the path I made along with other maps to plot a modern day voyage of the Pequod and assess which types of obstacles or differences a ship today would encounter, compared to the 1850 representation.
An idea discussed in class encompassed the making of a virtual Pequod voyage, similar to the Oregon Trail game. A game programmer could use the path to make a template for the route and areas of the voyage. Based on the path, the game programmer could determine possible outcomes, dangers, or scenarios. This virtual game could be an interactive and fun way to motivate the younger generation to read Moby-Dick and experience the novel in a modern day context. The digital humanities field for literature opens up a less traditional approach to looking at a text. The applications, modifications, and tools used to create and adapt Google Earth to simulate the Pequod voyage will greatly help any reader.