Ishmael’s surprised to find the company of whalemen lodging at the Spouter Inn such quiet and evidently shy company over breakfast. He, a great spouter himself, was expecting stories. MK illustrates the line wherein Ishmael contrasts the “sheepish,” “bashful,” and “timid” manners of the whalemen at the “social breakfast table” with their unabashed bravery upon the high seas, where they have “duelled [great whales] dead without winking.” The canvas inspired by this line becomes the first of MK’s many illustrations of whales for his enterprise (excluding that “portentous, black mass” that occupies the dingy canvas in the entryway to the Inn), but this is only a partial view. Just the top of a leviathanic head breaches the bottom margin of the canvas and extends halfway up its length before tilting outward to the right; the curvature of its brow is just within frame near the middle of the right margin. The body of the whale is composed mostly of overlapping, variously sized lateral shapes like razor clam shells, outlined in black and shaded black-grey along their upper edges. The body of the whale is colorless, apart from this shading, so the printed text of the found page is visible behind it: fragments of histories of artillery fire and maneuvers asail read through. Just above curvature of the whale’s brow a black-and-white engraving of galleon warship is printed on the upper third of the found page, partially obscured by graphic clouds of grey and white over pink that originate spoutwise from the foremost point of the whale’s head where emanates a sloped column of grey and white bands with one pink band shot through it.
Standing astride the whale’s back, braced against its rise, is the broad figure of Bulkington, his green monkey-jacket buttoned up tight and a bulky silhouetted lance tilted to his side. Just below the tip of the lancehead is an overlarge lidless anthropomorphic eye drawn to one side of the great whale, its striated blue iris and watery black pupil rolled upward in its socket toward Bulkington. Upon the ponderous body of the whale the enlarged human eye looks oddly, its passive, dewy form juxtaposing the graphic spout emanating sharply from the whale’s head, that band of pink shot through the grey and white expelling the whale’s lifespot. But the eye isn’t so much the whale’s as it’s Ishmael’s, turned up into his own head and imagining the “war stories” he expected to be regaled with over breakfast. The wave formations atop the wedge of seascape painted behind Bulkington in the background of the illustration evoke the horizon-line of Ishmael’s own water-bag head. It’s funny that Ishmael, a greenhand to whaling at this point in his own story, jokes that you would have thought these “timid warrior whalemen” a fold of sheep upon the Green Mountains, sheepish as they were. Veteran soldiers, however, are often less embarrassed about remembering their past battles than about remembering how to be sociable animals once more.
In the light of day, and with a fair prospect of breakfast before him, Ishmael gets a better look at his fellow lodgers at the Spouter Inn, some of whom he saw arriving the night previous. In the text of MD Ishmael registers several precise physical characteristics of these specimen “whalemen” in his description – “a brown and brawny company, with bosky beards; an unshorn, shaggy set, all wearing monkey jackets for morning gowns.” These attributes are ellided out of MK’s isolated line from “Breakfast” which serves the title of his illustration, whose matter instead is a list of the whalemen’s ranks on the hierarchy of the whaleship or what form of labor they bring to the fishery: “They were nearly all whalemen; chief mates, and second mates, and third mates, and sea carpenters, and sea coopers, and sea blacksmiths, and harpooneers, and ship keepers.”
Notably absent from MK’s illustration of this company of whalemen upon the landscape-oriented canvas is the cylindrical peglike figure of the landlubber. Workers in whaling are differently drawn, imbued with either the elemental mediums native to their labor (primarily water, fire, and air) or the tools of their various trades. One of figures on this canvas is recognizable, the broadest of the 5 standing to the far right of the frame. It’s Bulkington (from 14); notable among the minor differences in his reappearance on this canvas: his brickwork cofferdam of a chest beneath his unbuttoned pea-green monkey jacket is painted over in pale blue and yellow stripes, his fluid-blue visor-eye has been replaced with a green-grey balene-band. The figure standing on the far left of the canvas is clearly the “chief mate” (aka first mate), as there’s a large black 1 painted on his red/blue silough-shaped body; even its head is drawn in the shape of a large blocked number one, colored white: three hashmarks about a mouth, a slouch of red for a cap, with a furl of ink black eddying from the top of it. Whereas the coffer-dam chest of Bulkington walls up water within (as previously shown in the depths of the visor-eye featured in his individual portrait), the silough-bodied chief mate keeps the air in or rather keeps it out, the excess of what it can’t contain – whether absence or presence of a certain air – excreting in the form of black cloud that briefly forms the shape of a whale before breaking apart and rejoining the sky.
The tallest figure, standing center canvas and occupying its full height is one of the other mates, second or third: I’m inclined to think third. Standing next to this figure, which is colored mostly brown, is a black silhouetted lance, its line spiraling around its shaft and disappearing behind the figure’s back. The figure’s proximity to the lance might represent a recent promotion since the implement whose use was reserved for those aboard the whaleboats deserving the honor and glory of the kill (if not the dart that secured it) – the lance – is not the shape of the tool emblazoned in blue on its body and protruding like a finial out of the top of its tubular head – that’s a harpoon. I read a story in the beady eyes of this tall illustrated whaleman where a long-darter of whales finally ships out a mate. Like the newly minted mate the squat blacksmith to its one side is imbued with the icons of its trade: a squared off slag red body is cut across by a yellow lightning bolt, flecked black. Upon the flat terracotta head featuring a double row of white block teeth and a black visor-eye is a chalice-shaped vessel with a row of white bubbles rising from its middle, like a quench. The figure standing to the other side of the third mate stands taller than the blacksmith but shorter than the rest; it’s draped in a powder blue coat with golden, fringed epaulets, pinned large about its middle is an emblem: a circle of golden cordage frames a black anchor against a field of seafoam green. The rounded head of this figure is colored white but a pattern of lines and circles gives it the appearance of riveted metal plates cut across by a red visor-eye; atop its head is a golden fin or frond resembling the horn of a gramophone or an ear trumpet. This would be the ship-keeper, who bore the responsibility for the ship’s movements and communications between the crew when the captain was away. The anchor emblem on the figure’s chest is nearly identical to the one spouted before the face of that right whale of a captain who Ishmael foresees ordering him “GET!” when he ships (in 4); it signals the singularity in the hierarchy of the whaleship’s power structure whereby it must distribute itself incrementally down the ladder of command, with the captain on top, whose “complete dominion” can transfer and indeed does frequently transfer to another, even one upon its lowest rung.
Presumably, Ishmael would’ve discovered after a certain brief period of casual conversation and repeated meetings the respective positions and occupations of the various whaleman about the Spouter Inn and is not claiming to be able to distinguish at sight their positions in the whaleship’s hierarchy and its division of labor when he sees them before his first breakfast in New Bedford. MK is in the opposite position of having to make the duties and specialized labors of the whaleman visible. Of course, there is no real urgency of his doing so here; he might have illustrated any number of charming lines for this page. I would suggest he chose this moment as a sort of practice run along the rungs of the whaleship’s hierarchy for his portraits to come of the main cast of “knights and squires,” tradesmen, servants, and men-before-the-mast comprising the crew of the Pequod. Before we even know that ship to be hiring crew, MK is working out how to conjure them.
After his contemplation of the beguiling painting that hangs to one side of the entryway to the Spouter Inn, Ishmael turns to regard some “storied” retired tools of the trade the landlord Coffin has on display on the opposite wall. One of these implements is a lance reputedly wielded by one Nathan Swain to “kill fifteen whales between a sunrise and sunset” some fifty years prior (it’s said) to Ishmael’s visit to the Inn.
MK illustrates this lance – oriented vertically, just left of center canvas – with a marked realism: the head of the lance is spade-shaped and set atop a thinly tapered rod, which at a length about six times that of the height of the lancehead is bored into a thick rounded handle, complete with a handgrip and a stray span of whale-line corded haphazardly about the tool and dropped dangling out the bottom of the frame. The lance is painted in silhouette, all black, and cut off by the bottom edge of the canvas at about half the length of what the handle would measure in life. Apropos Ishmael’s description of this lance as “wildly elbowed,” the rod to which the lancehead is affixed is angled stiffly to the right at about a 40 degree angle relative to the vertical axis of the canvas, putting the diverted lancehead center-canvas in the upper third of the found page.
Most of the circuitry schematic that would be visible on the left hand side of this sheet is obscured by a crudely painted, dark ruddy backdrop to the lance, unevenly rounded off at the top and broader at its base; the blunted shape and coloring of this feature lends a stillness and deadness to the appearance of the lance that it might otherwise lack. The bent implement appears closeted in the redbrown cavity or rather embossed black on the face of a muddied, titled tombstone.
Movement and dynamism is brought to the canvas not by the bend in the retired lance but by the hot candy-red lightning-bolt entering the foreground of the illustration from the middle-right and extending to its lower-left extremity. The initials “N.S.” appear prominently on the broadest span of the red lightning-bolt on the far right side of the canvas, slightly askew. The effect is that of a flashing tag or pennant announcing that it’s the supposed “honor and glory” of Nat Swain that quickens Ishmael’s (and, in turn, MK’s) attention to this relic, more than the lance itself.
It would be very like Ishmael to say that this “‘once […] bravest boat-header out of all Nantucket’” inked his name to the beadroll of the immortal fishery in the blood of his monstrous foe (that is, before he “‘joined the meeting’” and got worried about his “‘plaguy soul,’” as Capt. Peleg later recalls Swain’s conversion to Quakerism and pacifism). MK is more sensitive and (perhaps like Swain) more attuned to the living legacy of all this bloodshed than the number of dead whales in one day that it happened to dart from. In his illustration, the initials N.S. aren’t written in the hot red flash but carved out of it as it were, nothing in themselves: an emptiness made legible by what surrounds it.