“The Truth of the Thing”
In August 1834, 19-year-old Richard Henry Dana, Jr., went to sea. Though he was of respected New England ancestry and had been a promising Harvard student, in response to poor health, he sought a change in his life. In Boston Harbor, he signed on as an ordinary seaman aboard the Pilgrim for a voyage that took him to the south Atlantic Ocean, around Cape Horn, and as far north in the Pacific as modern-day California.
Two years later, he arrived back in Boston, self-described as a “‘rough alley’ looking fellow, with duck trousers and red shirt . . . [and] long hair.”1 He returned to school, became a successful lawyer, defended the rights of sailors and fugitive slaves and those who had aided them, and later served as a U.S. attorney. In 1840, Dana published a memoir of his voyage, Two Years Before the Mast. With a meticulous attention to the detail of the seafaring experience and the peoples and places he encountered, it seized the imagination of readers and became a bestseller for its time.
This book was so influential, in fact, that while Herman Melville was writing his classic Moby Dick, the monumental story of the great white whale and the obsessive sea captain who pursued the mythic creature to his own destruction, the two authors corresponded about Melville’s project. Apparently responding to Dana’s encouragement to ground his book in a faithful account of the day-to-day realities in maritime life, Melville wrote in May 1850 that he intended a somewhat different tack: “I am half way in the work. . . . It will be a strange sort of a book, tho’, I fear; blubber is blubber you know; tho’ you may get oil out of it, the poetry runs as hard as sap from a frozen maple tree; . . . to cook the thing up, one must needs throw in a little fancy. . . . Yet I mean to give the truth of the thing, spite of this.”2
Though Moby Dick, published in 1851, was not particularly well received in Melville’s own lifetime, it has since come to be considered, in scholarship and in popular culture, a most significant piece of literature. “Call me Ishmael,” the narrator’s self-introduction, has become one of the most famous opening sentences in American literature. Melville’s sources have long been recognized to include his own seafaring experience, a range of nautical literature (including Dana’s Two Years), Shakespeare, and the Bible.
One of the biblical topics that would seem inevitable in such a subject would be the story of the Old Testament prophet Jonah, and it recurs in several places throughout the plot of Melville’s book. In addition to the occasional allusion, two of the 135 chapters, “The Sermon” (9) and “Jonah Historically Regarded” (83) address directly the biblical account of Jonah’s flight from God’s calling and his ultimate ministry to the people of Nineveh.
In the chapter entitled “The Sermon,” Ishmael is attending a worship service just before departing the port of New Bedford, Massachusetts, for the fateful voyage. While a storm is raging outside the chapel, Father Mapple, a former harpooner, is in the pulpit. Repeatedly addressing the congregation, men and women, as “shipmates,” he centers his message for the morning on the Book of Jonah, and it sets the tone throughout the rest of the book. Except for a liberal sprinkling of seafaring terminology, it would resonate well as a 21st-century narrative sermon.3
“‘What is this lesson that the book of Jonah teaches?’” asks Father Mapple as he introduces his topic. “Shipmates, it is a two-stranded lesson; a lesson to us all as sinful men, and a lesson to me as a pilot of the living God.’”4 And then, before he proceeds through an imaginative retelling of the story of Jonah, which includes an entertaining scene in which a guilty-looking Jonah inquires about gaining passage to Tarshish and the captain and crew suspect him to be a fugitive from legal authorities, Father Mapple states the central point: “‘If we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists.’”5 What follows, right through to its thundering conclusion of the sermon, is an earnest—though sometimes whimsical—call to responsibility before God. Those in the pews must respond to God’s call in everyday life; Father Mapple, believing himself to have received a more specific call to ministry similar to that of Jonah, must forsake the sea for the proclamation of the gospel to the people of New Bedford and beyond.
Then, many chapters later, just after the narrator has referred to figures from various cultures—Perseus, St. George, Hercules—engaged in heroic struggles against whales or other outsized creatures, the book returns to the Old Testament story of the fugitive prophet in “Jonah Historically Regarded.” Here, through the depiction of a skeptical old whaleman called “Sag-Harbor,” Melville examines some of the reasons that “some Nantucketers rather distrust this historical story of Jonah and the whale.”6
These reasons include a pictorial representation of the story in some old Bibles that show a whale with two spouts in its head, the relatively small throat of most whales that would prevent the swallowing of an adult human, the effects of the gastric juices on any contents in the stomach of a whale, and the distance between where Jonah was spewed up anywhere in the Mediterranean being much greater than only three day’s journey from Nineveh.
The narrator of the book, Ishmael, answers all these objections at least to some degree of explanation based on scholarship of the time. He concludes consideration of any of the mythic stories of various cultures by saying that “doubting those traditions did not make those traditions one whit the less facts, for all that.”7 He concludes that Sag-Harbor’s particular skepticism of the biblical story of Jonah and the whale “only shows his foolish, impious pride, and abominable, devilish rebellion.”8
Whether the author, of course, was writing from his own heart or was representing through the narrator a worldview of others, belief in the miraculous recounted in Scripture has been a subject of skepticism or outright rejection particularly since the Enlightenment. Even though they may have been two uneducated seamen, Sag-Harbor’s doubt and Ishmael’s response represent a debate that has gone on also in the halls of learning. And, to be candid, it sometimes even besets the heart of the believer.
Seventeenth-century mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal said: “There is enough light for those whose only desire is to see, and enough darkness for those of the opposite disposition.”9
And Scripture itself observes that “he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind” (James 1:6).10 This is an image that surely would have appealed to sailors. And the psalmist adds, “The word of the Lord is right, and all His work is done in truth” (Ps. 33:4).
And this is surely “the truth of the thing.”