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3. Utopian Promise   

3. Gothic Undercurrents

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Activities: Context Activities

America on the Rocks: The Image of the "Ship of State"

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A Squall off Cape Horn

[7261] Currier & Ives, A Squall off Cape Horn (1840-90),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-5632].
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Writers often create coherence in their writing by employing literary motifs--themes, characters, or verbal patterns that recur throughout the work. Sometimes writers draw these motifs out of their imagina tion, but other times they are popular symbols from a writer's era. One important cultural motif for nineteenth-century political discourse was the image of America as the ship of state and its history as a voyage. As David C. Miller observes, this is an ancient trope, reaching back at least to Sophocles, in whose Antigone Creon says to the chorus that "our Ship of State, which recent storms have threatened to destroy, has come safely to harbor at last, guided by the merciful wisdom of Heaven." And in the United States, the figure goes back at least to Roger Williams and John Winthrop, in the seventeenth century, who exploited its association with the Israelites' journey into the wilderness toward the promised land of Canaan. But in the years around Moby-Dick's composition, as the nation seemed more and more headed toward sectional conflict over the issue of slavery, many voices warned that the ship of state was threatening to strike the rocks of civil war. For many Americans, America was not so much sailing into harbor as nearly foundering in treacherous socio-political seas. In 1850, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote his poem "The Building of the Ship," which became popular with Unionists as it reminded Americans of the "blood and tears" that went into the creation of the Union. Significantly, in the same year Daniel Webster defended the Compromise of 1850 in these terms: "The East, the North, and the stormy South combine to throw the whole sea into commotion, [. . .] I have a part to act, not for my own security or safety, for I am looking out for no fragment upon which to float away from the wreck, if wreck there must be, but for the good of the whole, and the preservation of all." The Compromise was meant to unite once and for all the North, the South, and the West, newly acquired in the Mexican War of 1848-49. Among other provisions, it allowed the admittance of California into the Union as a free state but required northern states to return escaped slaves to their former masters. However, it eased tensions between North and South only temporarily, and the Civil War came eleven years later. In fact, in 1851 Melville's own father-in-law, Lemuel Shaw, enforced the Fugitive Slave Act, putting the law officially into practice. One commentator responded to abolitionists who decried this law by figuring slavery as an implacable force: "Did you ever see a whale? Did you ever see a mighty whale struggling?"

It is possible to argue, then, as Alan Heimert did forty years ago, that Melville's epic consciously allegorizes America as the ship of state. He points out not only that the Pequod is manned by thirty isolates all "federated along one keel" (there were thirty states in the Union by 1850), but also that each of the three mates stands for one of the three major regions of the country: North, South, and West. Moreover, each one employs as harpooner the precise racial minority that the region he represents was built upon: a Pacific Indian serves Starbuck, the Yankee; a Native American throws for Stubb, whom Melville describes as "essentially Western"; and the African Daggoo carries Flask, who represents the South.

But even if the symbolism is not as tight as Heimert suggests (many readers might find this reading a little claustrophobic), there is no question that the spirit of the "ship of state" was in the air as Melville wrote. Other important literary texts of the time to evoke this image are Edgar Allan Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym and Henry David Thoreau's Walden. Of course, the other symbolically prominent vessel of the age was itself horribly literal: the slave ship. Its significance can be seen in images like The Africans of the Slave Bark '"Wildfire," which was the kind of visual rhetorical statement that abolitionists seized on to decry the cruelties of slavery. The two ships were symbolically inextricable, as the repeated but direct voyages of the one had much to do with the single but tumultuous journey of the other.

  1. Comprehension: Why was there national tension in the 1850s?

  2. Comprehension: In what sense might Melville's Pequod be allegorizing America?

  3. Context: What aspects of a country are emphasized when it is thought of as the "ship of state"?

  4. Context: How did the outcome of the Mexican War add to anxiety about the "voyage" of America?

  5. Context: How do you imagine a typical northern white American of the mid-nineteenth century would react to the image of the slave bark Wildfire? A typical southern white American?

  6. Exploration: Do you see any way to have avoided the Civil War? What advice would you have given Americans about the ship of state in 1850?

  7. Exploration: In what ways is a country not like a ship? Why might employing the image of the ship of state actually be politically dangerous?

  8. Exploration: Closely examine the details of the Pequod as described in Chapter XVI of Moby-Dick, "The Ship." What details support the idea that Melville intended this novel--at least in part--to represent America's voyage in the mid-nineteenth century?

[1541] Unknown, Ship William Baker of Warren, in the South Atlantic Ocean (1838),
courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling Museum.
Page from a ship's logbook. Whaling ship logbooks provide insight into the whaling industry's impact on the international market, the changes in population and behavior of whale species, and the cultural changes whaling brought to different social and ethnic groups.

[1666] Anonymous, The Harpers Ferry Insurrection--The U.S. Marines storming the engine house--Insurgents firing through holes in the doors (1859),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-126970].
This illustration from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper depicts the end of the raid led by John Brown on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. The raid deepened beliefs in both the South and the North that there could be no compromise over slavery.

[603] Harper's Weekly, The Africans of the Slave Bark "Wildfire"--The Slave Deck of the Bark "Wildfire," Brought in to Key West on April, 30, 1860--African Men Crowded onto the Lower Deck; African Women Crowded on an Upper Deck (1860),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-41678].
Importation of slaves from Africa was outlawed in 1820, but continued illegally until the Civil War. Such depictions of the inhumanity of slavery helped strengthen the abolition movement in the United States.

[7261] Currier & Ives, A Squall off Cape Horn (1840-90),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-5632].
This print captures the popular ideal of America as "ship of state," as well as the sense of nationalism and exploration that fueled the expanding physical and economic borders of the country.

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