Nantucket! Take out your map and look at it. See what a real corner of the world it occupies; how it stands there, away off shore, more lonely than the Eddystone lighthouse. Look at it—a mere hillock, and elbow of sand; all beach, without a background. There is more sand there than you would use in twenty years as a substitute for blotting paper. Some gamesome wights will tell you that they have to plant weeds there, they don’t grow naturally; that they import Canada thistles; that they have to send beyond seas for a spile to stop a leak in an oil cask; that pieces of wood in Nantucket are carried about like bits of the true cross in Rome; that people there plant toadstools before their houses, to get under the shade in summer time; that one blade of grass makes an oasis, three blades in a day’s walk a prairie; that they wear quicksand shoes, something like Laplander snow-shoes; that they are so shut up, belted about, every way inclosed, surrounded, and made an utter island of by the ocean, that to their very chairs and tables small clams will sometimes be found adhering, as to the backs of sea turtles. But these extravaganzas only show that Nantucket is no Illinois.
Lands visited. The island of Nantucket holds much significance for Melville, and of course for the history of American whaling and fishing in general. Originally the territory of the Wampanoag tribe, of which the character Tashtego is a member, Nantucket, Eastern Massachusetts and other islands were settled by the English in the mid-17th century, and the American whaling industry began there. There is little doubt that the colonists in Nantucket learned much from the practices of the Wampanoag, and even in the time of Melville’s writing, when the Wampanoag lands had been utterly seized and the tribe itself tiny and spread thin, native harpooneers were coveted by American whaling captains.
By the time of Melville’s writing of Moby-Dick, Nantucket had been surpassed in its industry by the town and port of New Bedford, on the coast of Massachusetts, as the leading whale oil producer, though Melville maintains that Nantucket bears a far more poetic significance to his grand story, due to its isolation, its people, and its history. It is from this elbow of sand that the fleets of Melville’s grand imaginings departed to stake some claim over the landlessness of the open sea, and did so.
(see The Azores, Tahiti)