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Moby-Dick | Context

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Melville's Moby-Dick is informed by the booming whaling industry, an emerging American identity, and the religious values of 19th-century New England.

Whaling and the American Identity

The first European settlers in North America learned whaling methods from Native Americans. Over time they expanded these methods. Beginning in the 17th century, American whaling ships traveled farther and farther offshore in pursuit of their gigantic prey. By the 19th century, whaling had progressed from near-shore whaling to deep-sea whaling, and whalers would voyage for years at a time in an effort to bring home supplies of whale oil and other valuable whale products. Nantucket, Massachusetts, the American center of the whaling industry, prospered as the industry grew. Whaling, however, was deadly work, as crews chased whales in small boats for miles over the open ocean. The Nantucket whaler Essex famously and tragically sank due to an encounter with a whale. Against this backdrop of adventure, danger, and profit, Herman Melville grew into adulthood.

The whaling industry was a success story of American capitalism, and the values of the whalemen were American values—strength; courage; and the triumph of human ingenuity over the forces of nature, adventure, and profit. The supreme confidence of Ahab in the novel Moby-Dick reflects the way that Americans at the time viewed the natural world: something to be conquered. The whaling industry's success was connected to another success story in America and other industrialized nations, the Industrial Revolution, which changed human societies drastically and permanently.

Quakerism

The Quaker movement began in England in the 17th century as part of the Protestant Reformation, and quickly spread to North America where Quakers became an integral part of early American society. They were part of a pacifist Christian tradition that took root on Nantucket when Mary Coffin Starbuck, the first English woman to be married on Nantucket and a wealthy citizen of the island, converted to Quakerism. Quakers, like most Christians, believed that God had given them dominion over the creatures of land and sea, so they had no moral issue with whaling as a way of life. Thus, Quakerism and whaling grew side by side in Nantucket.

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