Ishmael’s dialogue with Peter Coffin, landlord of the Spouter Inn, is his first sustained engagement with another character in MD. Given the earnest learnedness (or learned earnestness) with which Ishmael has represented himself up to this point, it’s a relief to read someone freely sporting with him.
Coffin has a great deal of fun teasing Ishmael, especially when it comes to pairing him with a pagan harpooneer for a bedmate. Given his proprietorship of a low-end lodging establishment in the then whaling capital of the world, New Bedford, teasing Ishmael can be chalked up to a form of hazing that one can imagine him not infrequently doling out to those customers who seem particularly out of their element in his Spouter Inn. “Spouter,” following the usage in Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast, is synonymous with whalers and whalecraft; prior to this adoption, “spouter” was a common seaman’s moniker for a (south seas) whale. While Ishmael tries to rebuke Coffin’s gibes – assuring him: “‘I’m not green.’” – the landlord knows he’s never been shown a face like Queequeg’s. As the light of the next morning will reveal to Ishmael, however, he’s a less common breed in the streets of New Bedford than the “‘dark complexioned chap’” out in the bitter cold of a winter’s night trying to sell his last “‘‘balmed New Zealand head.’” Such “‘curios’” are not wholly uncommon sights in Coffin’s world, and he knows Ishmael doesn’t have the experience to fill in the gaps for himself about what might be meant by the harpooneer being unable to sell his head, so he doles out just enough discourse to keep Ishmael guessing and panicked – never lying precisely, but never giving the whole truth until he’s worked Ishmael into a “towering rage” and the latter has approached him coldly and wildly threatened “‘criminal prosecution.’” Coffin releases Ishmael from his yarn gently and puts him to bed.
MK’s illustrates a moment in this exchange prior to Coffin clearing up the matter of Queequeg being out late peddling the last of his curios (picked up on his last voyage to sell at port for profit before shipping out again). “…‘ain’t there too many heads in the world?’” Coffin wonders aloud when Ishmael seems affronted by the idea of selling one. On a found page featuring mostly text itemizing various sorts of hand needles, there are more than 80 different bodiless heads painted, inked, and sketched in a multitude of shapes, sizes, and colors. The heads’ eyes are their most prominent feature: some are anthropomorphic, some resemble the vizor-eye of Bulkington (in 14), some the balene-band of the young fellow (in 13), some are a series of dots or mere lines. Some of the heads are drawn rudimentarily – like the inverted yellow triangle with a line across its lower vertex for a mouth and two dashes below its uppermost, longest edge for eyes – and some feature abstract designs and markings. The only distinct feature of a red, tombstone-shaped head with two white dots for eyes is a golden cross with a four smaller lines extending from its center on the diagonals, like a Christmas star; the shape of this marking mimics the arrangement of the 80+ heads on the canvas as a whole. The heads are concentrated, converging and overlapping most along the X and Y-axes of the canvas, larger in size and greater in detail toward its center and smaller toward its margins, giving the illustration the vague look of a data visualization.
After Ishmael gets fed up with Coffin’s “‘mystifying and most exasperating stories’” regarding his prospective bedmate and threatens legal action on his host, given that the only logical conclusion he is able to come to with respect to the head-peddling harpooneer is that he’s mad and that Coffin would be therefore criminally liable if he forces Ishmael to share a room with him – after presenting this logic to the landlord in the span of two hundred words – Coffin replies (I’m paraphrasing): “that’s a whole lot of talk for a man who farts like everyone else.” He then provides Ishmael the context he requires to understand the dialogue he’s been having, and a subtext of his query about there being too many heads in the world comes into focus: “Here’s one head too many, or too much head for one head to hold. In all my years, never such a spouter in the Spouter!”