Bulkington – Ishmael’s soon-to-be shipmate whose “apotheosis” punctuates the poetic rhapsody marking the Pequod’s passage from harbor to open ocean in The Lee Shore – is first spotted by our narrator in the Spouter Inn. In this canvas MK spots him first spotting this specimen whaleman.
In MD, Bulkington is described as dark complexioned – “face… deeply brown and burnt” – phrasing which has lent support to interpretations of him as dark-skinned by birth and sunbaked by his career asea. Melville’s text does not identify this brief character as Black so unambiguously as those inhabitants of the “negro church” Ishmael trips into and degrades in The Carpet-bag, but if Bulkington is Black, then he’s only the second individual Black person described in their individuality in MD, after the “black Angel of Doom.” In MK’s illustrations, Bulkington’s is the third black face, after the Angel of Doom and the “young fellow” illustrated just prior in 13.
Bulkington’s head – painted small in the upper-left corner of the canvas, facing right, with an undersized, tufted pea green sailor’s cap perched aloft – is not given the elongated peglike appearance of a landsman but appears rather like that shape hammered down to a stump, a brow-like formation overhanging in the silhouette of his face at the base of which another tunnel-like mouth is filled-in with two even rows of shock-white blocks for teeth. The prominence of these teeth is a detail from Ishmael’s description of Bulkington that, notably, does not derive from the titular quote for this canvas; another such detail is reflected in MK’s representation of Bulkington’s eyes as a single elongated band of deep blue, like a helmet’s vizor rendered fluid. In MD, Bulkington’s eyes are described as shadowed, and “floating” in them Ishmael espies “reminiscences that did not seem to bring him [Bulkington] much joy” before he quietly retreats from the raucous society of his fellow, recently-landed shipmates, and they go out into the dark streets hollering after him. In MK’s illustration, Bulkington’s brawn and bulk are given a more enduring presence.
Bulkington’s “coffer-dam” of a chest is the most prominent feature of his physical characterization in this canvas, occupying more than the whole left half of the found page upon which it’s painted: the first sheet of a “Glossary of hand stitches,” rotated 90 degrees right. His pea green monkey jacket – markedly out of proportion to his small, black head – is geometrically shaped with a long sloping corner forming the shoulder, which mimics the contour and placement of the yellow-gold illustration of a featherstitch still visible on the found page just to the right. The billowing visual effect of Bulkington’s jacket is buttressed by two more details of the canvas: 1) the topmost part of the green jacket is painted so as to just overlap the lower row of white teeth, making the figure appear neckless or as if viewed from below, and 2) a waist-belt comprised of a grey-black band sandwiched between two thin lines of blue paint, below which the jacket appears to angle out sharply. Bulkington is swole, but in a fashion rather heavy and static than airy. Indeed, MK adds a feature to the canvas to concretize this bulk: where the found page has been painted over white to accommodate the subject, from below the waving tapered front hem of the monkey jacket, a brick wall extends composed of neatly patterned black lines.
The way MK illustrates him, it would be a wonder for Bulkington to slip from a crowded room unseen, much less to fall into water only to evaporate into thin air. A coffer-dam is a structure designed to enclose and contain great water pressure while submerged. What force, then, could break this body and release the native element therein – brimming just below its surface, as seen by that narrow channel of a vizor-eye – so as to transmogrify it to air? Spoiler: Moby Dick.