A minimalist collage is the first of many examples of MK’s deliberate effort to illustrate the relatively sparse references to women and femininity in MD. There are very few females assigned as characters in the book – only one with a speaking role – a few more women appear as minor shapers of the plot in their absence (wives back home, Ahab’s “‘crazy widowed mother,’” etc.), but the text’s figurative language abounds in passing references to women and female bodies. MK consistently highlights these features of the text in his choice of line to illustrate and often in the form of realistic collage elements. The aggregate effect of this stratagem is to amplify a dimension of femininity and womanism of the book that might easily go overlooked, as it is seemingly not a deliberate priority of Melville’s (or Ishmael’s).
The current page of MD offers a longer-than-average mention of women, and its placement at the very end of the chapter – given the flourish with which chapters generally expire in MD – should imply that it’s not so much a digression or diversion as a destination. After a passage where we are brought out of the perspective of the Ishmael who’s a newcomer to New Bedford, seeing its wild peopled streets for the first time, into that of an Ishmael who’s visited New Bedford in every season, tasted its sweet summer and smelled is budding fall, the blossoms terracing the exposed ancient rocks upon which the shoreline city is built provoke this parting thought from Ishmael:
And the women of New Bedford, they bloom like their own red roses. But roses only bloom in summer; whereas the fine carnation of their cheeks is perennial as sunlight in the seventh heavens. Elsewhere match that bloom of theirs, ye cannot, save in Salem, where they tell me the young girls breathe such musk, their sailor sweethearts smell them miles off shore, as though they were drawing nigh the odorous Moluccas instead of the Puritanic sands.Melville, Moby-Dick
The final paragraph of a chapter dedicated to “the street” of New Bedford is not just a nod to the women of the renowned whaling port and their better than “perennial” beauty but also a diminishing comparison between them and the women of Salem. Evidence that the latter “match” the former’s “bloom” is bandied about by Ishmael as sailors’ gossip: “they tell me.” Perhaps during his few tours in the merchant service Ishmael caught scent of “the odorous Moluccas” firsthand, but in all likelihood it’s Ishmael the veteran whaleman more than the greenhand making a knowing reference to the licentiousness of proto-colonial probes into the archipelagos of Southeast Asia.
MK’s illustration of the first line of this concluding paragraph of “The Street” consists of three main collage elements: a black-and-white photograph of a whaleship at full sail in the lower right corner, prow pointed center canvas, is cutoff at its mast-heads to expose an overlain black-and-white photograph (older method, daguerrotype maybe) of a body in long sleeved, white collared black dress, holding an open book, and sat sideways on a wooden slat back chair, oriented the same direction as the ship. This photograph occupies the majority of the canvas. A graphic rose is painted over the head of the seated figure: a circle outlined in black, with cross sections of thin black painted lines concentrically spiralizing toward the circle’s center, the resultant petals are blood red. Organic elements and textures are incorporated into the canvas but confined. A small segment of photographed shock green elegance coral is visible in the lower left corner of the canvas, cutoff at the top by the photograph of the seated reading person with a painted graphic rose for a head and then overlain by the modern-age photograph of a whaleship speeding asail, which is torn at the far left edge as if revealing the magnified coral beneath.
The figurative language of MD binds the beauty of the women of New Bedford to the natural world; their “bloom” – the “fine carnation of their cheeks” – is “perennial,” unlike the red roses they tend in summer. It endures like “sunlight in the seventh heaven.” That sounds nice. On the other hand, Ishmael implies that the commerce of the whaling port – control of which was hoarded by men – has nurtured blossoms in a place that would otherwise be an outcropping of “barren refuse rocks thrown aside at creation’s final day.” In MK’s collaged illustration the modern photograph of the speeding, tilted bowsprit of a whaleship overlays the more stationary photo of what I assume to be a woman reading, but the photograph made from a more archaic, time-consuming process dominates the canvas both in its size and owing especially to the painted feature that obscures the face of the reading person. Eclipsing the photographed woman’s head with a graphic, painted token of the transient beauty of a New Bedford summer rose, MK renders transient the supposed better-than-perennial beauty captured in the photo-realistic medium with a painted token of that beauty, made by women, which is said annually to fade. The zoomed-in, digital era photograph of green elegant coral confined to a small, uneven portion of the canvas’s far left corner is a minimized but striking reminder about how distant from nature these competing vantages of the canvas are.