Ishmael, the narrator of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, memorably noted “a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.” Hester Blum ’95 had the benefit of a Princeton education — plus a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania — but as a scholar of Melville and oceanic studies, she’s often yearned to experience a bit of Ishmael’s maritime schooling. Next week, she’ll have that opportunity.
Blum, an associate professor of English at Penn State University, will be spending two days at sea on the Charles W. Morgan, a recently restored 19th-century whaling ship, and writing literary reflections about her experiences. Mystic Seaport, where Blum has conducted some of her research on sea narratives, launched the months-long “38th voyage” of the Morgan to promote interest in America’s maritime heritage. “Where once the Morgan’s cargo was whale oil and baleen,” Mystic Seaport’s website said, “today her cargo is knowledge.”
Two days is a far cry from the two-to-four-year journeys of 19th-century whalers, but Blum said that the voyage is a rare opportunity to “inhabit the space of the artifact that I’m usually encountering on paper.” Her work often takes her to archives, to read out-of-print books or never-in-print manuscripts. This time, it will take her to the narrow perch of a night watchman, like the one Ishmael describes in “The Mast-Head,” one of Blum’s favorite chapters from Moby-Dick — and the inspiration for the title of her book The View from the Masthead, a study of the role that seamen played in American literature of the 1800s.