The Economics of Writing and Whaling

June 30, 2022 by Essay Writer

When Herman Melville began writing Moby-Dick, he felt constrained by his financial obligations. In a letter to his close friend and fellow author Nathaniel Hawthorne, Melville proclaims that “Dollars damn me” and clarifies, “What I feel most moved to write, that is banned,— it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot. So the product is a final hash, and all my books are botches” (“To Nathaniel” 539). Unfortunately, Melville found himself subject to the basic economic forces of supply and demand. Melville feared that the fiction he could not help but write would not be met by consumer demand, therefore preventing him from gaining any profit. As Melville may have expected, his final product was not widely purchased, and Moby-Dick did not become extensively studied until critics “[ignored] biographical evidence as irrelevant to criticism, and were committed to seeing any poem or novel as a perfect work of art, not as a botch” (Parker 714). New Criticism isolated the text to find meaning, and critics began comparing Melville to famous authors such as William Shakespeare. Melville’s personal life, however, does not need to be ignored for Moby-Dick to exist as a classic piece of literature. In fact, understanding significant biographical information provides a new way to understand the insightful function of economics in his famous work. Using his own experiences with economics, Melville unintentionally created a work that artfully portrays the complex principles of microeconomics including supply and demand, high risks and high costs, and what economists refer to as “positive externalities,” while it underscores the more elusive behavioral economics that impact an individual cost-benefit analysis. Specifically, a comparison of the economics of Melville’s authorship to the economics of whaling reveals that Moby-Dick exists as a literary representation of the individual’s relationship to an economic system. While Melville had written some successful novels before attempting Moby-Dick, they were not popular enough to prevent him from going into debt after purchasing a farm near his late uncle’s property. In Hershel Parker’s “Damned by Dollar: Moby-Dick and the Price of Genius,” Parker discloses that Melville turned to his publishers, Harper & Brothers, for an advance on his manuscript to help finance his farm in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Unfortunately, the publishing company denied Melville’s request: “On April 30 the Harpers sent their refusal, citing their ‘extreme and expensive addition’ to their plant and pointing out that Melville was already in debt to them for ‘nearly seven hundred dollars’” (Parker 717-718). According to Harper, the demand for Melville’s manuscript was not high enough to extract a price that would justify an advance, and therefore the publishers would not pay for Melville’s early copy, or supply. Although Melville is now recognized as an incredibly skillful writer, at the time his early works did not generate enough revenue to offset the costs of their publication. This personal familiarity with supply and demand allowed Melville to accurately portray Ishmael’s relationship with the supply and demand for whaling labor. In many ways, the indebted Melville is very similar to Ishmael, the narrator of Moby-Dick: Melville had a desire to write a manuscript about a whaling voyage, and Ishmael has a desire to join a whaling voyage. Ishmael admits that he cannot go to sea as a passenger, because “as a passenger you must needs have a purse, and a purse is but a rag unless you have something in it” (Melville, Moby-Dick 20). Ishmael does not face the imminent and financially crippling loans that Melville faced from his father-in-law Lemuel Shaw and his friend T.D. Stewart. The narration suggests, however, that, like Melville, Ishmael struggled with finances that shaped his career path. As a result, Ishmael chose to go sea “as a simple sailor” and understands he will be subject to a hierarchical authority that will “order me about some, and make me jump from spar to spar like a grasshopper” (20). Ishmael acknowledges that he lacks the human capital, or skill, necessary to hold the more profitable position of a Captain or harpooner. Melville did not expect the publishers to deny his monetary request, but Ishmael seems to fully comprehend his position within the market for whaling talent; Melville only understood his relationship with supply and demand after Harper refused his appeal. Ishmael supplies the Pequod with his skill set, and he joins the whaling ship as a rower. The Pequod has a demand, or need, for labor, and Peleg hires Ishmael with a “’three hundredth lay’” (76). Melville may not have intentionally created a correlation between himself and his publishers and Ishmael and Captain Peleg, but the similarities suggest that Melville innately recognized that all men are subject to the economic forces of supply and demand.Melville’s financial relationship with his publishers refined his understanding of the individual’s relationship to the supply and demand of authorship, but his own voyage on the whaling ship Acushnet gave him economic experience for the entire whaling market. In “Blubber Capitalism,” Laura Saunders explains that sperm whale oil drove the economic activity of nineteenth-century America. She states, “Consumer demand for it prompted the most dangerous big-game hunts ever known” (96). This was particularly true for Melville. In Tyrus Hillway’s biography on Herman Melville, Hillway concedes that Melville was plagued by family debt, and as a result, he “was at length driven to make one of those crucial decisions that shape men’s destinies” (35). On January 3, 1841, Melville left the New Bedford harbor and boarded the Acushnet for his eleven-month whaling voyage. The author of Moby-Dick took advantage of the economic need for whalers. In fact, the demand for whale oil was so high that port cities such as New Bedford, Massachusetts became “home to perhaps the greatest concentration of wealth in America” (Saunders 96). Melville’s novel directly illustrates this accumulation of wealth when Ishmael travels to Nantucket and he passes through New Bedford. The narrator observes that the city’s thriving economy relies on whaling and proclaims, “Yes; all these brave houses and flowery gardens came from the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. One and all, they were harpooned and dragged up hither from the bottom of the sea” (Melville, Moby-Dick 42). Melville’s voyage confirmed his recognition of whaling’s significance for the American economy. In turn, he is able to portray a literary example of the free-market capitalism that drove individuals to join three or four year expeditions to produce an oil supply that met the rising demand among national and global consumers. By analyzing Melville’s familiarity with both high risks and high costs, the economic and literary relationship between authorship and whaling, though unintentional, becomes more defined. Not only did Melville draw from his years spent on the Acushnet, Lucy Ann, and Charles and Henry, but he also spent a large amount of his earnings on books about whaling. Parker explains, “He began buying books that he needed if he were to write books, eating up his profits in advance” (714). For Melville, writing generated high costs, because he had to spend a considerable amount of money purchasing books before he could even write Moby-Dick. Additionally, writing has high risks because there is no guarantee that a new book will be successful, so authors rely on publishers to help finance and promote their books. While the correlation is unconscious, the inescapable economic liabilities that Melville faced while writing his novel mimic the larger economic risks and costs that affected the entire whaling industry. Saunders clarifies this point: “Whaling was both capital intensive and highly risky. It took $20,000 to $30,000 to launch a venture, at a time when the average farm was worth $2,500” (97). In Melville’s novel, Ishmael reveals that the whaling industry dealt with the high capital investments and high risks in a similar manner. When Ishmael meets Bildad, the financer explains that he is a captain of “a ship in which some thousands of his hard earned dollars were invested” (Melville, Moby-Dick 95). Essentially, whaling relied on investors like authors relied on publishers. Both Melville’s financial relationship with his publishers and Ishmael’s financial relationship with Bildad imply that individual economic activity often depends on external investments. More important than simply having high risks and high costs, however, authorship and whaling share a similarity in the way costs are shifted from publishers to authors and from merchants to crew members, respectively. In 1853, Melville became very familiar with publishers deferring costs. Parker relates, “Much of the Harper stock of printed books and sheets was destroyed by fire, and the brothers charged Melville all over again for costs before giving him royalties on his books…They charged him twice for their expenses” (721). In order to offset the high costs and risks of authorship, publishers charged authors before paying them royalties on their successful books. Unfortunately, this also meant that authors still owed expenses even if their works were not successful. Similarly, investors diffused the high costs and risks of whaling by withholding wages from workers. Saunders explains that instead of earning wages, whalers would receive a “’lay,’ a share of net proceeds” (97). In another biography on Herman Melville, Leon Howard reveals that Melville’s own whaling voyage used the same share of proceeds, so investors would not have to pay the workers for an unsuccessful whale voyage (42). In turn, Melville uses Ishmael to relate this unusual system of payment to his readers. The narrator states, “All hands, including the captain, received certain shares of the profits called lays, and that these lays were proportioned to the degree of importance pertaining to the respective duties of the ship’s company” (Melville, Moby-Dick 75). This correlation between the economics of Melville’s writing and Ishmael’s whaling demonstrates the application of man’s function within an economic system. Specifically, the economic dilemma for an individual author and publisher can be used to understand the more complex economic workings for an entire industry.The correlation between authorship and whaling extends beyond the technical aspects of supply and demand and capital intensive ventures to highlight the more significant concept of positive externalities. Although it is unlikely that Melville was aware of the discussions concerning economic externalities, his work expertly demonstrates the complex theory. Essentially, positive externalities are unintended benefits that result from an economic transaction, but are usually recognized by those not engaging in the transaction. While whaling directly benefited the whalers and those buying the sperm whale oil, there were also external benefits that were recognized by the rest of society. For example, Saunders explains that “U.S. whaling captains literally charted the Pacific Ocean” (96). Similarly, Ishmael explains that “the whale-ship has been the pioneer in ferreting out the remotest and least known parts of the earth” (Melville, Moby-Dick 99). Whaling, both real and literary, opened the door for cartography, and society benefited from the substantial increase in knowledge concerning their globe. Moreover, the focus on economic efficiency made whaling “an almost color-blind outlet that was rare at the time” (Saunders 97) Individuals of color directly benefited from a capitalist system that did not discriminate against them based on race, but society as a whole benefited from a system that financially recognized colored individuals as equal or superior to whites. While aboard the Acushnet, Melville was in the “presence of the usual mixture of free Negroes, Portuguese, and strays from the north of Europe” (Howard 42). He portrays this common racial integration, an unrecognized positive externality, in his harpooners Queequeg, a “’dark complexioned’” cannibal, Tashtego, an “unmixed Indian,” and Dagoo, a “coal-black negro savage” (Melville, Moby-Dick 28, 106). In fact, Melville emphasizes the acceptance of non-whites in free-market whaling when the hesitant Captain Peleg and Captain Bildad change their mind about hiring Queequeg. Peleg yells, “’Get the ship’s papers. We must have Hedgehog there, I mean Quohog, in one of our boats. Look ye Quohog, we’ll give ye the ninetieth lay, and that’s more than ever was given a harpooner yet out of Nantucket’” (85). Even though a racist society may not accept non-whites, a system driven by efficiency and profits becomes blind to arbitrary skin differences, and the cannibal Queequeg earns a higher lay than the white Ishmael. In addition to benefiting the buyer and seller of sperm oil, individuals within society benefit from maps charting the world and an increased acceptance of the racially diverse. In fact, Melville’s own association with whalers suggests that the economic activity of whaling has the short-term positive externality of providing resources for literature. As Ishmael attempts to describe the great sperm whale, he recognizes his limitations and remarks, “The only mode in which you can derive even a tolerable idea of his living contour, is by going a whaling yourself” (Melville, Moby-Dick 218). If whaling is not possible for an artist, however, Ishmael admits that he or she can simple have a close relationship with a whaler. For example, when describing a painting of a whale by the French artist Ambrose Louis Garneray, Ishmael assumes that the man “was either practically conversant with his subject, or else marvelously tutored by some experienced whaleman” (220). Although Melville had personal experience with whaling, to compose his novel he took advantage of other whalers’ experiences at the high seas. In Melville’s manuscript notes to Owen Chase’s “The Essex Wrecked by a Whale,” Melville relates, “I had no opportunity of conversing with Owen (tho’ he was [6] on board our ship for two hours at a time) nor have I ever seen him since” (“[Manuscript Notes]” 572). Melville did have the opportunity, however, of meeting Chase’s son, and the young man gave Melville a “complete copy… of the Narrative.” Chase did not engage in his whaling voyage with the sole purpose of providing background information for Melville’s literature; most likely, Chase joined the Essex for his own economic self-interest. Regardless, Melville internalized the benefits of Chase’s travels at sea, and the author unintentionally utilized whaling’s positive externalities to help him create his famous novel. Melville’s work most vividly demonstrates whaling’s and authorship’s long-term positive externalities, however, when he contemplates the metaphoric representations of whales. When Melville wrote Moby-Dick in 1850, not many people had the opportunity to join a voyage and see whales themselves. Melville’s in-depth physical description and spirited representation of whales transported readers of the time to the Pequod and allowed them to experience a whaling voyage in their own homes. On the other hand, as modern readers are more familiar with the anatomy of a whale, Melville’s text has long-term benefits beyond the simple explanation of an unfamiliar animal. Contemporary audiences have either seen a picture of a whale, or seen a whale on television, and many have even seen a whale in captivity. The familiarity of the mammal allows current readers to look beyond the physical description of the whale and find deeper connections to metaphors within the text. Most likely, Melville did not anticipate every reader’s connection to his text, so every metaphor that helps individuals find new meaning is an unintended benefit, or positive externality, of both whaling and authorship. For example, when describing the sperm whale’s tail, Ishmael states, “Real strength never impairs beauty or harmony, but it often bestows it; and in everything imposingly beautiful, strength has much to do with the magic” (Melville, Moby-Dick 294). It would be more difficult for an individual unfamiliar with the anatomy of a whale’s tail to make significant metaphorical meaning from Melville’s literary description. Through Melville’s metaphor, however, contemporary readers can make thousands of insightful connections to help them understand complex and intangible ideas. In “Moby-Dick: Work of Art,” Walter Bezanson illustrates the infinite possibilities with phrases in Melville’s famous work. He states, “Find a key word or metaphor, start to pick it as you would a wild flower, and you will find yourself ripping up the whole forest floor. Rhetoric grows into symbolism and symbolism into structure; then all falls away and begins over again” (Bezanson 656). The whaling industry helped Melville create his work of literature, and Melville’s novel helped individuals find personal and relevant meaning in the profound description of the whale; both whaling and authorship worked together to highlight the microeconomic principles of positive externalities. Melville’s work highlights many of the microeconomic principles that economics struggle to explain, but a comparison of authorship and whaling reveals that Melville intrinsically understood and demonstrated the significantly more complex behavioral economics. While microeconomics focuses on efficiency, behavioral economics analyzes the psychology of an individual’s decision making process. Within the decision making process, men and women conduct a cost-benefit analysis to help them make their choices. People, however, do not always use economic self-interest as the framework for their cost-benefit analysis. For example, when Melville was informed that his late uncle’s farm had been sold, a piece of land that is described as Melville’s “’first love,’” he “was filled with an absolutely unreasonable jealousy” (Parker 716). Melville then made an irrational decision; he purchased a smaller farm near his late uncle’s property for $6,500. Instead of purchasing a modest home he could afford, Melville was driven by interests outside of financial stability, and he purchased the farm in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. For the author, the benefit of owning a personally sentimental farm outweighed the costs of going into severe debt. Melville experienced firsthand the relevance of using behavioral economics to study individuals, because he found himself compelled by desires besides economic self-interest to make financial decisions. Melville uses this intuitive comprehension of behavioral economics to portray Ahab as an individual that is psychologically motivated by ambitions other than economic self-interest. Ahab’s inspiration for hunting Moby Dick is contrasted with the desire of his stakeholders, or investors. As Captain Bildad sees the Pequod off to sea, he exclaims, “’Be careful in the hunt, ye mates. Don’t stave the boats needlessly, ye harpooners; good white cedar plank is raised full three per cent. within the year’” (Melville, Moby-Dick 96). Bildad reveals that the investors are focused on their economic self-interest, and they do not want the whalers to take unnecessary risks, because it is a financial liability. Similarly, Starbuck uses money to guide his cost-benefit analysis, and he proclaims, “’I came here to hunt whales, not my commander’s vengeance’” (139). Starbuck simultaneously uncovers that his own psychology is driven by financial gain and Ahab’s psychology is driven by vengeance. Starbuck cites the economic interest of the investors to justify stopping the Pequod so the crew can address the leaking sperm oil. Ahab’s response, however, affirms that the Captain’s desires differ from those using financial gain for their decision making process. Ahab articulates, “’Let the owners stand on Nantucket beach and outyell the Typhoons. What cares Ahab? Owners, owners? Thou art always prating to me, Starbuck, about those miserly owners, as if the owners were my conscience’” (362). Ahab intentionally sets himself apart from the owners, suggesting that he is not driven by economic self-interest. Ahab is motivated, like Melville, by an irrational desire. Ahab recognizes that his selfish ambition has skewed his cost-benefit analysis when he confides in Starbuck shortly before giving chase to Moby Dick. The Captain mourns, “’What a forty years’ fool—fool—old fool, has old Ahab been! Why this strife of the chase? why weary, and palsy the arm at the oar, and the iron, and the lance? How the richer or better is Ahab now?’” (406). Ahab acknowledges that he is making a choice that will not benefit him financially, but, nonetheless, he is driven by a passion he cannot control. It is unlikely that Melville studied behavioral economics, but his own irrational choice to purchase the farm gave him insight into the psychology of the decision making process. In turn, Melville was able to use his own experience to create the ulterior motivation for Ahab’s decision to follow the White Whale to his destruction. It is true that Melville was “damned by dollars,” but instead of making his work a botch, the economic difficulties that he faced actually amplified the brilliance of Moby-Dick. As representatives of a somewhat technical field, economists often have difficulty in relating their complex ideas to a broader audience. Melville’s personal experience as both an author and a whaler, however, helped him write a piece of literature that expertly portrays the microeconomic principles of supply and demand, capital intensive ventures, and positive externalities. Furthermore, the author’s own irrational desires allowed him to unintentionally explore the elusive behavioral economics in his main character, Ahab. Comparing the economics of writing and whaling in Melville’s most famous work uncovers the individual’s relationship to an economic system. The natural and inevitable relationship of individuals to economic systems is best expressed by Moby-Dick’s narrator. Ishmael states, “Seldom have I known any profound being that had anything to say to this world unless forced to stammer out something by way of getting a living. Oh! happy that the world is such an excellent listener!” (291). Melville was forced to “stammer out” the whaling manuscript, but the novel exists as a classic work of art as long as the world is an “excellent listener.”Works CitedBezanson, Walter E. “Moby-Dick: Work of Art.” Moby-Dick. Ed. Hershel Parker and Harrison Hayford. Norton Critical Editions. 2nd ed. 1967. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2002. 641-657.Hillway, Tyrus. Herman Melville. Ed. Sylvia E. Bowman. Revised Ed. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1979.Howard, Leon. Herman Melville. 1951. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1967. Melville, Herman. “[Manuscript Notes on Owen Chase].” Moby-Dick. Ed. Hershel Parker and Harrison Hayford. Norton Critical Editions. 2nd ed. 1967. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2002. 571-574.Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. Ed. Hershel Parker and Harrison Hayford. Norton Critical Editions. 2nd ed. 1967. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2002. 8-427. Melville, Herman. “To Nathaniel Hawthorne.” Arrowhead Early May 1851. Moby-Dick. Ed. Hershel Parker and Harrison Hayford. Norton Critical Editions. 2nd ed. 1967. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2002. 538-541.Parker, Hershel. “Damned by Dollars: Moby-Dick and the Price of Genius.” Moby-Dick. Ed. Hershel Parker and Harrison Hayford. Norton Critical Editions. 2nd ed. 1967. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2002. 713-724.Saunders, Laura. “Blubber Capitalism.” Forbes 174.7 (2004): 96-100. Business Source Premier. Web. 23 Apr. 2013.

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