One of my favorite sections of Moby Dick occurs long before Harman Melville introduces us to Queequeg or Capt. Ahab or Moby Dick himself. In fact, the passage occupies the second, third, and fourth paragraphs of the book and introduces us to the real protagonist, the sea itself. Melville describes a scene in Manhattan that he must have seen hundreds of times, and which I saw reeanacted, so to speak, in Seattle yesterday evening. In chapter one, “Loomings,” Melville writes:
There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs- commerce surrounds it with her surf. Right and left, the streets take you waterward. Its extreme downtown is the battery, where that noble mole is washed by waves, and cooled by breezes, which a few hours previous were out of sight of land. Look at the crowds of water-gazers there.
Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon. Go from Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip, and from thence, by Whitehall, northward. What do you see?- Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries. Some leaning against the spiles; some seated upon the pier-heads; some looking over the bulwarks of ships from China; some high aloft in the rigging, as if striving to get a still better seaward peep. But these are all landsmen; of week days pent up in lath and plaster- tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks. How then is this? Are the green fields gone? What do they here?
But look! here come more crowds, pacing straight for the water, and seemingly bound for a dive. Strange! Nothing will content them but the extremest limit of the land; loitering under the shady lee of yonder warehouses will not suffice. No. They must get just as nigh the water as they possibly can without falling And there they stand- miles of them- leagues. Inlanders all, they come from lanes and alleys, streets avenues- north, east, south, and west. Yet here they all unite.
1. “Belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs- commerce surrounds it with her surf…”
(You know you want to!)