Peleg

Meantime, overseeing the other part of the ship, Captain Peleg ripped and swore astern in the most frightful manner. I almost thought he would sink the ship before the anchor could be got up; involuntarily I paused on my handspike, and told Queequeg to do the same, thinking of the perils we both ran, in starting on the voyage with such a devil for a pilot. I was comforting myself, however, with the thought that in pious Bildad might be found some salvation, spite of his seven hundred and seventy-seventh lay; when I felt a sudden sharp poke in my rear, and turning round, was horrified at the apparition of Captain Peleg in the act of withdrawing his leg from my immediate vicinity. That was my first kick.

“Is that the way they heave in the marchant service?” he roared. “Spring, thou sheep-head; spring, and break thy backbone! Why don’t ye spring, I say, all of ye—spring! Quohog! spring, thou chap with the red whiskers; spring there, Scotch-cap; spring, thou green pants. Spring, I say, all of ye, and spring your eyes out!” And so saying, he moved along the windlass, here and there using his leg very freely, while imperturbable Bildad kept leading off with his psalmody. Thinks I, Captain Peleg must have been drinking something to-day.

—Merry Christmas

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.

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