Race, Physiognomy, and Early Photography in “Moby Dick”

In January 1839, Louis Daguerre publicly announced the invention of the Daguerreotype – one of the first working cameras – to the French Academy of Sciences. In June of the same year, Herman Melville sailed from New York to Liverpool as a green-hand onboard the merchant ship, the St. Lawrence. When Melville published his first book, Typee, in 1846, photography had ‘threatened to monopolise representations of the visual’ such that writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne feared ‘the photograph’s ability to eclipse narrative’ (Williams, 2003). There has been little work done on the ways in which Melville was influenced by the aesthetic debates surrounding early photography, and so in my undergraduate dissertation I sought to remedy this.

The Daguerreotype

When Daguerre announced “his” invention (another inventor, Nicéphore Niépce, carried out most of the groundwork before dying in 1833) there was an explosion of interest in the new technology, especially in America. In The Corsair, a short-lived gazette edited by American writer Nathaniel Parker Willis, one article proclaimed, ‘here commences the democracy of art’, before going on to suggest that, ‘All nature shall paint herself.’ Amidst this enthusiasm, it also warned that soon ‘every thing and every body may have to encounter his double every where’ and ‘thus become his own caricaturist.’

It was this reduction in authenticity and the narcissistic obsession with self-image that Melville objected to in a letter to Evert Duycknick, a friend and publisher who had requested a daguerreotype of Melville in 1851:

The fact is, almost everybody is having his “mug” engraved nowadays; so that this test of distinction is getting to be reversed; and therefore, to see one’s “mug” in a magazine, is presumptive evidence that he’s a nobody. So being as vain a man as ever lived; […] I respectfully decline being oblivionated by a Daguerreotype (what a devel [sic] of an unspellable word?)

Here, Melville suggests that photography removes the ‘test of distinction’ provided by arts such as literature and painting, given the ‘power of selection and rejection’ inherent in such crafts, as Lady Elizabeth Eastlake would comment in 1857. For Eastlake, the ‘marriage’ of the artist’s mind ‘with the object before him’ was a key component of art, and one that photography in its objective anonymity failed to achieve — the custom was for early daguerreotypes to be stamped with the name of the studio, such that the actual photographer was not credited (Hirsch, 2017). Instead, this new technology ‘oblivionated’ relationships between artist and subject, rendering the body an unchanging artefact, devoid of the vitality of life, devoid of personality, and devoid of interaction.


This notion of the body as an artefact, an object for study, has its roots in physiognomy. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, Johann Kaspar Lavater’s Essays on Physiognomy (1789) reignited interest in the practice of analysing the body and face on the premise that one’s ‘character’ could be read in these external features. Photography, being a medium innately concerned with ‘documenting and classifying bodies’ (Hoffman, 2009), was inextricably tied to the study of physiognomy in the mid-nineteenth century, with Lavater’s writings appearing in photographic journals encouraging artists to discover ‘the interior of Man by his exterior’ (Hirsch, 2017).

These principles were adopted by photographers as a way of claiming a certain representational authority, but over the course of the nineteenth century physiognomy was increasingly used for reasons of scientific racism. For example, in Josiah C. Nott and George Giddon’s Types of Mankind (1854), they argued that human races were distinct species by studying the cranial capacity of skulls from across the globe, with the ulterior motive of justifying racial hierarchies and the institution of slavery.

Melville, himself, bought Lavater’s Essays in London in 1849 and addresses the study of physiognomy in Chapter 79 of Moby-Dick. Ishmael contemplates the face of a whale, noting that: ‘In profile, you plainly perceive that horizontal, semi-crescentic depression in the forehead’s middle, which, in man, is Lavater’s mark of genius’ (p. 311).

But how? Genius in the Sperm Whale?

In this ironic, rhetorical style, Ishmael undermines the answers physiognomy claims to provide, concluding that: ‘Physiognomy, like every other human science, is but a passing fable.’ For Melville, the reliance on technology and the movement towards an intensely visual culture which favoured a distanced, objective analysis over embodied interaction would ensure that ‘the data of bodily features are made to fit a schema that already exists in the observer’s mind’ (Hoffman, 2009).

Thus, if we buy into the ideological deceit of physiognomy – if we ‘equate seeing with knowledge when we look at these photographs’ (Williams, 2003) – we reproduce whatever it was we thought we knew beforehand. As with the biological racism of Nott and Giddon, our prejudices are simply reasserted if we do not interrogate them thoroughly and look beyond the surface; in Moby-Dick, this is what Melville tries to do.


When Queequeg, the tattooed, Polynesian “cannibal”, climbs into bed with Ishmael, the latter’s response is one of fear. ‘Landlord! Watch! Coffin! Angels! save me!’ (p. 21) he exclaims, having worked himself up, ‘as if it was the devil himself who had thus broken into my room’ (p. 19). Eventually, the ‘kind and charitable way’ in which Queequeg motions Ishmael back into bed calms him down, as the chapter concludes: ‘I turned in, and never slept better in my life’ (p. 22).

Ishmael’s repulsion at the initial image of Queequeg and ‘his unearthly complexion’ (p. 19) is only challenged by his active engagement with the man, his aura and presence and tone. Rather than the objective facts of his appearance, these subjective impressions – especially contrasted with Ishmael’s initial prejudices – give us a better impression of Queequeg’s character. Leon Seltzer argues that Melville ‘saw the attempt to objectify life by depersonalizing it as falsifying the way life offered itself to man’ and so ‘in our being presented with a vivid impression of these characters, we may gain a better sense of them than would be possible through a more objective account.’ Thus, it is through motion, interaction, and bodily engagement that prejudices are laid to rest and the ‘truth’ exposes itself.

In his introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Moby-Dick, Tony Tanner builds on this notion, suggesting that for Melville:

the erotic impulse is crucial in generating instincts and impulses towards inter-connectedness, inter-subjectivity—indeed, inter-penetration.

Subjective accounts that provide a ‘vivid impression’ of a character allow us (as readers) to know the character more thoroughly than a mere description of their appearance would. For the characters in the fictional world, it is the aforementioned ‘[homo]erotic impulse’ that allows them to form relationships, most obviously in Chapter 94, ‘A Squeeze of the Hand’, in which the sailors extract the sperm oil from the whale – but also here, in Ishmael’s interactions with Queequeg.

Having become ‘bosom friends’ (p. 46) – a kind of eroticised version of ‘blood brothers’ – the two characters lay in bed, ‘a cosy, loving pair’ (p. 47). Previously, Ishmael criticised the ‘unbecomingness’ (p. 23) of having Queequeg’s ‘arm thrown over [him] in the most loving and affectionate manner’ (p. 22) but now, with Queequeg ‘affectionately throwing his brown tattooed legs over mine’ (p. 47), we can see that the tone has changed dramatically. The patterning of words (affectionate/affectionately, thrown/throwing) within the two passages draws attention to the fact that the two interactions are basically the same, but as the ‘[homo]erotic impulse’ is brought to fruition, it culminates in this sense of romantic bliss, seeing a fulfilment of the ‘inter-connectedness’ Melville advocates over the ‘depersonalising objectivity’ of the camera.

As the journey of The Pequod progresses, we move on from these moments of intimacy, seeing ‘the accelerating drift into disconnectedness’ of the ‘contemporary individual’, identified by Tanner, realised within the world of the novel. This sense of alienation is most thoroughly embodied in the character of Pip, a black cabin boy who has been stranded in the ocean, which ‘jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul’ (p. 371). One of the striking things about Moby-Dick is the way in which Melville uses dramatic techniques (playscript, stage directions, soliloquies) to capture the voices of his characters, with Pip having one particularly powerful soliloquy.

In Chapter 129, ‘The Cabin’, we see that Pip and the infamous Captain Ahab have struck up a relationship in which their shortcomings combine to create a kind of unity, as Pip insists, ‘use poor me for your one lost leg; only tread upon me, sir; I ask no more, so I remain a part of ye’ (p. 471). Later, ‘Ahab goes; Pip steps one step forward’ (p. 472) and it is here that the latter comes into his own and acknowledges the injustices he has been dealt:

Pass round the decanters; glad to see ye; fill up, monsieurs! What an odd feeling, now, when a black boy’s host to white men with gold lace upon their coats!—Monsieurs, have ye seen one Pip?—a little negro lad, five feet high, hang-dog look, and cowardly.

Inspired by the sailors’ hearsay about ‘great admirals’ that had previously inhabited the cabin, Pip plays into this fantasy as he steps seamlessly into the role of ‘host’ or Captain: his words have a vigour and confidence, encapsulated in the joviality of the greeting ‘glad to see ye’ set between commands to ‘Pass round the decanters’ and ‘fill up’. His imperative tone denotes assurance and comfort, far removed from the sense of inferiority with which the chapter opened.

Megan Williams suggests that in Hawthorne’s fiction, the camera serves to create a ‘disposable past’ which sees a reduction in ‘the “depth” and “texture” that occur when narratives of the past are allowed to haunt and comfort the present.’ Though Pip, as a black boy, is denied power in the present, the flexibility of the ‘narratives of the past’ – here, the stories of ‘great admirals’ – that ‘haunt’ the cabin allow him to reinvent these narrative structures and create a fantasy which ‘comforts’ him. By allowing for an inversion of these hierarchies in which he can inhabit a position of power, these structures provide Pip with a language to express his discontent.

The turning point of the passage comes with the prosodic symbol of Ahab walking on deck directly above the cabin, ‘—Hist! above there, I hear ivory—’ (MD, p. 472). This sudden interruption sees the resumption of former hierarchies, emphasised in the binary between ‘above’ and below. Pip laments, ‘Oh, master! master! I am indeed down-hearted when you walk over me’, and we can detect the desperation in his voice as he is once more made to feel inferior. The fantasy of power and cheer Pip used to ‘toast’ away his guilt is brought to an end with this return to normality. But there is a notable shift, here, in which Pip is ‘down-hearted’ with his circumstances, no longer content for Ahab to ‘tread upon’ him; the narrative structures which permit a temporary inversion of hierarchies enable Pip to re-examine his position and hope for more.

In the examples of both Queequeg and Pip, we can see that active bodily interaction and the flexibility of narrative structures provide the most effective framework for engaging with the world and the people around us: they allow Ishmael to overcome his prejudices and Pip to realise his true potential and capabilities. Such flexibility is vital as we strive for the betterment of society. For Melville, the unerring rigidity and (purported) absolute objectivity of photography and the technological revolution failed to allow for this.


Photography has been identified as perhaps ‘the most pervasive’ technology of the twentieth century (Garner, 2013). In her groundbreaking collection of essays, On Photography, Susan Sontag identifies the dangers of this pervasiveness:

Cameras define reality in the two ways essential to the workings of an advanced industrial society: as a spectacle (for masses) and as an object of surveillance (for rulers).

In this analysis, photography effectively become means of control, turning the observation of behaviour into a tool for manipulating citizens; hence, the importance of being sensitive to the uses of photography and visual media in our day-to-day lives.

Melville’s responses to the then-new medium teach us the importance of being aware of these methods of control, and the dangers of allowing images to claim a position of absolute, unquestioned authority. Instead, by drawing on experience and interaction, by challenging prejudices borne of learned, racist ways of looking, and speaking out on the vital reality of human connections, we can come to a greater sense of unity and a greater conception of truth.


  • Davis, Merrell R., and William H. Gilman, The Letters of Herman Melville (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960).
  • Hershberger, Andrew E., ed. by, Photographic Theory: An Historical Anthology (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2014).
  • Hirsch, Robert, Seizing the Light: A Social & Aesthetic History of Photography, 3rd edn., (London: Routledge, 2017).
  • Hoffman, Anne Golomb, ‘Archival Bodies’, American Imago, 66:1 (Spring, 2009), 5-40.
  • Melville, Herman, Moby Dick, ed. by Tony Tanner (Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 2008).
  • Olsen-Smith, Steven, Peter Norberg, and Dennis C. Marnon, ed. by, Melville’s Marginalia Online, http://melvillesmarginalia.org/.
  • Peres, Michael R., ed. by, The Focal Encyclopaedia of Photography, 4th edn. (Oxon: Focal Press, 2013).
  • Seltzer, Leon F., The Vision of Melville and Conrad: A Comparative Study (Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1970).
  • Sontag, Susan, On Photography (London: Penguin, 1979).
  • Williams, Megan, Through the Negative: The Photographic Image and the Written Word in Nineteenth-Century American Literature (New York: Routledge, 2003).

Cover image: ‘Sperm whale on the beach of Noordwijk’ by Esaias van de Velde (1614).

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