135 American Excep(ship)alism

Caitlin Andreasen

Melville really, really, really likes boats.

He describes them in great detail, using the most technical of terminology that is not easy to understand unless you yourself are familiar with ships. We still get the gist of the story so far: he finds a Spanish vessel in distress off the coast of Chile, and when he boards, things do not seem quite right. The slaves are loose on the ship and the sickly captain is very close with one of them. But the narrator takes far too much time to illustrate this ship for us to dismiss it as simple imagery.

“The  tops  were  large,  and  were  railed  about  with  what  had  once been octagonal net-work, all now in sad disrepair. These tops hung overhead like three ruinous aviaries,  in  one  of  which  was  seen  perched,  on  a  ratlin,  a  white noddy,  a  strange  fowl,  so  called  from  its  lethargic  somnambulistic character,  being  frequently  caught  by  hand  at  sea.  Battered  and mouldy, the castellated forecastle seemed some ancient turret, long ago taken by assault, and then left to decay. Towards the stern, two high-raised   quarter   galleries-   the   balustrades   here   and   there covered   with   dry,   tindery   sea-moss-   opening   out   from   the unoccupied   state-cabin,   whose   dead   lights,   for   all   the   mild weather,  were  hermetically  closed  and  caulked-  these  tenantless balconies hung over the sea as if it were the grand Venetian canal. But the principal relic of faded grandeur was the ample oval of the shield-like  sternpiece,  intricately  carved  with  the  arms  of  Castile and Leon.”

I keep wondering if the close detail of the San Dominick is there for a reason. The narrator goes from describing this grand elderly lady to a decrepit hag as he gets closer. Everything is old, moldy, and battered, but it used to be a beautiful ship. “A very large, and, in its time, a very fine vessel, such as in those days were at intervals encountered along that main…” The coat of arms boasts that it is from the central Spanish kingdom of Castile and Leon.

In contrast, Delano’s ship is described simply as a “large sealer and general trader.” His is the ship built for a specific purpose. It is a functional, no-frills, hardworking American vessel. The Spanish ship is very lucky that Delano came across them when he did, because he has plenty of supplies that he is willing to share to help his fellow mariner.

There is an air of superiority that arrives with Delano and his ship. He even comments when a slave attacks one of the Spanish men and Benito brushes it off that he would never allow such a thing to happen on his whaler. The author continually refers to these characters as “the Spaniard” and “the American” as if national identity were the most important distinctions to note since they are both far from home.

I see hints of American exceptionalism. The ships illustrate the contrast between the Old World and the New. The stylish Spanish vessel is past its prime, while the whaler, whose structure was likely inspired by such old ships, is sailing steadily along.

American Exceptionalism needs no national boundaries. In fact it excels when it has another country to compare itself to.


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The Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature: A PSU-Based Project Copyright © 2016 by Caitlin Andreasen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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