I have a soft spot for “Schools and Schoolmasters,” which is one of two chapters that mentions my alma mater. The other is “The Advocate.” (Both chapters also mention another school somewhat further down the east coast of the U.S.A., but I suppose the two institutions are intertwined like Ahab and his whale.) Ishmael being Ishmael, he can’t resist literalizing the idea of the “school” of whales, “school” being the term that fishermen use for large groups of of fish or whales.

Literalizing and then metaphorizing: although it’s called “Schools and Schoolmasters,” the chapter could also be described with the phrases “Harems and Colleges.” Ishmael discusses two types of whale schools, one consisting predominantly of females but led by one large male, the other a grouping of young males only.

Writing as I am from NYU’s campus in Abu Dhabi, this chapter also interests me as example of Melville’s use of imagery drawn from the Islamic culture. He describes the school of females as a harem led by a “Grand Turk,” drawing on a prevalent 19th-century American stereotype of Turks as sensualists.  In his study The Cultural Roots of American Islamicism, Timothy Marr, argues that

The place of the Islamic world in the cultural consciousnesses of Americans from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries was more prominent than today’s citizens and scholars have previously supposed. This was in part because the Ottoman (or Turkish) Empire, the political center of the first orient to be encountered by Westerners moving east, was still a formidable political reality in world affairs – even if its power rested more on its past grandeur than on its declining contemporary clout. Indeed, the Ottoman Empire was losing territory and military power at a corresponding rate to the expansion of the size and power of the United States. American Protestant agents sought to establish their republican system and moral culture, linked in many minds with a clear sense of political destiny and religious mission, as one fit to replace (even if only symbolically) the decadent and outmoded Turks, whom many viewed as a despotic and satanic opposition.

One could indeed read Ishmael’s comments as a commentary on the decline of Ottoman empire, as he goes on to depict the Grand Turk’s career as inevitably marked by decline and impotence:

In good time, nevertheless, as the ardor of youth declines; as years and dumps increase; as reflection lends her solemn pauses; in short, as a general lassitude overtakes the sated Turk; then a love of ease and virtue supplants the love for maidens; our Ottoman enters upon the impotent, repentant, admonitory stage of life, forswears, disbands the harem, and grown to an exemplary, sulky old soul, goes about all alone among the meridians and parallels saying his prayers, and warning each young Leviathan from his amorous errors.

It’s worth remembering, too, that Ishmael and his shipmates often compare Ahab to a “Grand Turk,” frequently referring to him as “the old Mogul.” If the whale’s harem is a model of “domestic bliss,” then Ahab, like the old whale past his prime, has left behind his domesticity — his wife and daughter — preferring the company of “Nautre” with all her “moody secrets.”

What does it mean that, in order to draw out “the strong contrast” that he sees between the harem schools and “the schools composing none but young vigorous males,” Ishmael turns back to the metaphor of education and likens the young males to “riotous lad[s] at Yale or Harvard”? We remember of course that neither school admitted women during Melville’s day, and it’s hard not to see the chapter as a defense of the superiority not only of New England intellectual culture over the world of the “luxurious Ottoman,” but also a defense of masculine sphere over above the sphere of feminine domesticity celebrated by writers like Harriet Beecher Stowe and Susan Warner.

Moby-Dick was published in the United States in November 1851, about five months after Stowe begins serializing Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the National Era. (It’s published in book form in 1852.) Stowe’s novel advocates the reformation of the male sphere of politics and economics through the Christianizing “influence” of the feminine, domestic sphere. In the final chapter of her novel, Stowe sums up the novel’s belief in the power of Christian charity and submission:

But, what can any individual do? Of that, every individual can judge. There is one thing that every individual can do, — they can see to it that they feel right. An atmosphere of sympathetic influence encircles every human being; and the man or woman who feels strongly, healthily and justly, on the great interests of humanity, is a constant benefactor to the human race. See, then, to your sympathies in this matter! Are they in harmony with the sympathies of Christ? or are they swayed and perverted by the sophistries of worldly policy?

 Christian men and women of the North! still further, — you have another power; you can pray! Do you believe in prayer? or has it become an indistinct apostolic tradition? You pray for the heathen abroad; pray also for the heathen at home. And pray for those distressed Christians whose whole chance of religious improvement is an accident of trade and sale; from whom any adherence to the morals of Christianity is, in many cases, an impossibility, unless they have given them, from above, the courage and grace of martyrdom.

The end of “Schools and Schoolmasters,” however, suggests that Ishmael has little patience for the kind of self-sacrifice that Stowe celebrates, as he describes a “point of difference between the male and female schools” that he considers to be “characteristic of the sexes”:

Say you strike a Forty-barrel-bull — poor devil! all his comrades quit him. But strike a member of the harem school, and her companions swim around her with every token of concern, sometimes lingering so near her and so long, as themselves to fall a prey.

“Schools and Schoolmasters” is read by artist Tania Kovats. The illustration is a photograph of a piece entitled Whale Migration: Oxford, Ohio (2010)by Neil Hartman (the photograph is Brent Simoneaux). The piece is part of a project called Whale. His description of the project includes an invitation:

Some time ago, I spent a bit of time drawing pictures of sperm whales. The other day I decided that it was time to let the whales go and see how far they might travel. If you would like a whale drawing then please email me with your address and I will send it to you. Feel free to send your whale on to any friend you have living overseas, if you like. All I ask is that you take a photograph of the whale in its new home / location when you receive it and email me the photo. I will try to send out all the whale drawings that I have, the further away the better.

His e-mail address is:


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[Cross-posted with Patell and Waterman’s History of New York]