Like Captain Peleg, Captain Bildad was a well-to-do, retired whaleman. But unlike Captain Peleg—who cared not a rush for what are called serious things, and indeed deemed those self-same serious things the veriest of all trifles—Captain Bildad had not only been originally educated according to the strictest sect of Nantucket Quakerism, but all his subsequent ocean life, and the sight of many unclad, lovely island creatures, round the Horn—all that had not moved this native born Quaker one single jot, had not so much as altered one angle of his vest. Still, for all this immutableness, was there some lack of common consistency about worthy Captain Peleg. Though refusing, from conscientious scruples, to bear arms against land invaders, yet himself had illimitably invaded the Atlantic and Pacific; and though a sworn foe to human bloodshed, yet had he in his straight-bodied coat, spilled tuns upon tuns of leviathan gore. How now in the contemplative evening of his days, the pious Bildad reconciled these things in the reminiscence, I do not know; but it did not seem to concern him much, and very probably he had long since come to the sage and sensible conclusion that a man’s religion is one thing, and this practical world quite another. This world pays dividends. Rising from a little cabin-boy in short clothes of the drabbest drab, to a harpooneer in a broad shad-bellied waistcoat; from that becoming boat-header, chief-mate, and captain, and finally a ship owner; Bildad, as I hinted before, had concluded his adventurous career by wholly retiring from active life at the goodly age of sixty, and dedicating his remaining days to the quiet receiving of his well-earned income.
Port-captain. High poetics aside, the vast bulk of this book is pure description of the world in which we find ourselves, and the representatives of various higher concepts take the shape of shingled roofs, broken boots, the fetid air of low tide, and most importantly the men of the whale fishery. Captains Bildad and Peleg are the representatives of the whaling industry at large, spoken to and dealt with in the flesh by both Ishmael and Queequeg, and indeed all the men who signed for this voyage aboard the Pequod, of which both Peleg and Bildad are part-owner. Peleg, cantankerous, and Bildad, fastidious, are the retired captains charged by themselves, their fellow owners, and even by God himself to outfit whaling ships with Christian men (whenever possible), and turn the most efficient profit in a fair and equitable way, where a shark may eat a shark, no matter what is preached in the chapel.
Peleg, a sharkish man, a Quaker with not much penchant for religion, is more a pragmatist, even capitalist, though not immune to moralist passions. When Bildad objects to the hiring of pagan harpooneers, Peleg responds wearily, from hard experience and dry New England wit, that pagan harpooners bring in more money than Christian ones, and wouldn’t Captain Bildad agree that this is the business at hand? Fair’s fair, however, and Peleg comes to Ishmael’s defense when the less passionate though more devout Bildad offers the new hire a horribly tiny share in the profits of the voyage. An ancient yet vigorous man (he kicks Ishmael in the rear for being lazy), if aboard your boat in the game, he has surely seen any and all trickery a whale can attempt to evade capture and counters it with his own worldly wisdom.
Bildad, less one of Melville’s ‘fighting Quakers’ and more an apostolic businessman, must at least inform shipped men that he is a true religious man, and in the safekeeping of their very souls when aboard his ship, and so on and so forth. All this despite the immutable fact that for both Bildad and Peleg, profit is King. It is also in line with his religious duties to waste not want not, and run as economically responsible an operation as is possible, given the circumstances. Quakers, in Melville’s opinion, make formidable businessmen. Bildad’s cold reasoning on this front strikes Peleg as amoral and the two bicker endlessly, but it is Bildad’s efficiency that will yield more profit when a whale is taken. The argument taken up by these men, between these two faces of American religious thought, both of which must bend to American economy, is seated among much similar and variant critique of religious structures throughout mid-19th century American art and philosophy.
Original Image Courtesy of the Library of Congress.