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1 Hawthorne Literature- A to Z

The Voyage of the Narwhal


The Voyage of the Narwhal Cover




His Lists
(May 1855)

I try in vain to be persuaded that the pole is the seat of frost and desolation; it ever presents itself to my imagination as the region of beauty and delight. There...the sun is for ever visible; its broad disk just skirting the horizon, and diffusing a perpetual splendor. There...snow and frost are banished; and, sailing over a calm sea, we may be wafted to a land surpassing in wonders and in beauty every region hitherto discovered on the habitable globe....What may not be expected in a country of eternal light?
—Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (1818)

He was standing on the wharf, peering down at the Delaware River while the sun beat on his shoulders. A mild breeze, the smells of tar and copper. A few yards away the Narwhal loomed, but he was looking instead at the partial reflection trapped between hull and pilings. The way the planks wavered, the railing bent, the boom appeared then disappeared; the way the image filled the surface without concealing the complicated life below. He saw, beneath the transparent shadow, what his father had taught him to see: the schools of minnows, the eels and algae, the mussels burrowing into the silt; the diatoms and desmids and insect larvae sweeping past hydrazoans and infant snails. The oyster, his father once said, is impregnated by the dew; the pregnant shells give birth to pearls conceived from the sky. If the dew is pure, the pearls are brilliant; if cloudy, the pearls are dull. Far above him, but mirrored as well, long strands of cloud moved one way and gliding gulls another.

In the water the Narwhal sat solid and dark among the surrounding fleet. Everyone headed somewhere, Erasmus thought. England, Africa, California; stony islands alive with seals; the coast of Florida. Yet no one, among all those travelers, who might offer him advice. He turned back to his work. Where was this mound of supplies to go? An untidy package yielded, be-neath its waterproof wrappings, a dozen plum puddings that brought him near to tears. Each time he arranged part of the hold more of these parcels appeared: a crate of damson plums in syrup from an old woman in Conshohocken who'd read about their voyage in the newspaper and wanted to contribute her bit. A case of brandy from a Wilmington banker, volumes of Thackeray from a schoolmaster in Doylestown, heaps of hand-knitted socks. His hands bristled with lists, each only partly checked-off: never mind those puddings, he thought. Where were the last two hundred pounds of pemmican? How had half the meat biscuit been stowed with the candles and the lamp oil? And where were the last members of the crew? In his pocket he had another list, the final roster:

Zechariah Voorhees, Commander
Amos Tyler, Sailing Master
Colin Tagliabeau, First Officer
George Francis, Second Officer
Jan Boerhaave, Surgeon
Erasmus D. Wells, Naturalist
Frederick Schuessele, Cook
Thomas Forbes, Carpenter
Isaac Bond, Nils Jensen, Robert Carey,
Barton DeSouza, Ivan Hruska,
Fletcher Lamb, Sean Hamilton

Fifteen of them, all hands counted. Captain Tyler, Mr. Tagliabeau, and Mr. Francis, who together would have charge of the ship's daily operations, were experienced whaling men. Dr. Boerhaave had a medical degree from Edinburgh; Schuessele had been cook for a New York packet line; Forbes was an Ohio farm boy who'd never been to sea, but who could fashion anything from a few odd scraps of wood. Of the seven unevenly trained seamen, Bond had reported for duty drunk, and Hruska and Hamilton were still missing.

Their companions, invisible in the hold, waited for directions — waited, Erasmus feared, for him to fail. He was forty years old and had a history of failure; he'd sailed, when hardly more than a boy, on a voyage so thwarted it became a national joke. Since then his life's work had come to almost nothing. No wife, no children, no truly close friends; a sister in a difficult situation. What he had now was this pile of goods, and a second chance.

Still pondering the puddings, he heard laughter and looked up to see Zeke hanging from the rigging like a flag. His long arms were stretched above a thatch of golden hair; as he laughed his teeth were gleaming in his mouth; he was twenty-six and made Erasmus feel like a fossil. Everything about this moment was tied to Zeke. The hermaphrodite brig about to become their home had once been part of Zeke's family's packet line; with his father's money, Zeke had ordered oak sheathing spiked to her sides as protection against the ice, iron plates wrapped around her bows, tarred felt layered between the double-planked decks. In charge of the expedition — and hence, Erasmus reminded himself, of him — Zeke had chosen Erasmus to gather the equipment and stores surrounding him now in such bewildering heaps.

Where was all this to go? Salt beef and pork and barrels of malt, knives and needles for barter with the Esquimaux, guns and ammunition, coal and wood, tents and cooking lamps and woolen clothing, buffalo skins, a library, enough wooden boards to house over the deck in an emergency. And what about the spirit thermometers, or the four chronometers, the microscope, and all the stores for his specimens: spirits of wine, loose gauze, prenumbered labels and glass jars, arsenical soap for preserving bird skins, camphor and pillboxes for preserving insects, dissecting scissors, watch glasses, pins, string, glass tubes and sealing wax, bungs and soaked bladders, brain hooks and blowpipes and egg drills, a sweeping net...too many things.

Erasmus stroked the wolf skins his youngest brother had sent from the Utah mountains. Just then he would have given anything for an hour's conversation with Copernicus, who understood what it meant to leave a life. But Copernicus was gone, still, again, and the wolf skins were handsome, but where would they fit? The sledges, specially constructed after Zeke's own design, had arrived two weeks late and wouldn't fit into the space Erasmus had planned for them; and he couldn't arrange the scientific equipment in any reasonable way. Every inch of the cabin was full, and they were not yet in it.

Product Details

Barrett, Andrea
W. W. Norton & Company
Barrett, Andrea
New York :
Action & Adventure
Sea & Ocean
Historical - General
Polar Regions
Arctic regions
Sea stories
Historical fiction
Literature-A to Z
Series Volume:
Publication Date:
September 1999
Grade Level:
16 steel engravings and one map
8.2 x 5.5 x 1 in 0.71 lb

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Related Subjects

Featured Titles » Literature
Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z
Fiction and Poetry » Popular Fiction » Adventure
Fiction and Poetry » Popular Fiction » Nautical Fiction

The Voyage of the Narwhal Used Trade Paper
0 stars - 0 reviews
$5.50 In Stock
Product details 416 pages W. W. Norton & Company - English 9780393319507 Reviews:
"Review" by , "A meticulously researched and historical novel that breathes with a contemporary urgency, an exhilarating adventure novel that is also a critique of adventure novels, and a genuine page-turner that lingers in the mind."
"Review" by , "Authoritative and imaginative on all fronts, Barrett tells a gripping story shaped by masterful interpretations of the paradigms of science and the volatile nature of the mind, a wilderness every bit as challenging as the forbidding Arctic."
"Review" by , "[A] richly researched fictional tale....Despite the disappointingly pat finale, Barrett...masterfully navigates the waters of envy and egotism."
"Review" by , "Powerful....[T]he story's extreme conditions and harrowing experiences, which make for such gripping reading, are actually moral and spiritual tests that strip away the characters' public masks and expose their innermost drives and fears."
"Review" by , "Stunning....A meticulous grasp of historical and natural detail, insight into character and pulse-pounding action are integrated into a dramatic adventure story with deep moral resonance....The extremes of both human behavior and nature...are described with an accuracy that make one forget that this is not a memoir but a work of the imagination."
"Review" by , "While we ache for Erasmus to notice his own opportunities for love and for heroism, we get to luxuriate in the promise of retribution and in finely calibrated, persuasive prose."
"Review" by , "Barrett's impeccably researched and stunningly written tale of a star-crossed Arctic, simply, one of the best novels of the decade....[She writes in] a flexible, lucid prose that effortlessly communicates detailed information about navigation, natural history, and several related disciplines....The intellectual range exhibited by this magnificent novel places its author in the rarefied company of great contemporary encyclopedic writers like Pynchon, Gaddis, and Harry Mulisch."
"Review" by , "[Barrett's] Voyage is a brilliant reversal of Heart of Darkness: the danger is not that the characters will 'go native,' but that a lust for scientific knowledge and intellectual distinction will drive them to cruelties they would have been incapable of before."
"Review" by , "No sooner do we bemoan the dearth of ambitious American women novelists of ideas than Andrea Barrett delivers this grand, intelligent, wide-ranging work. With elegance and economy, she's pulled off a seemingly impossible feat: critiquing the complacent authority of the 19th century novel in a book that's just as much fun to read as an old-fashioned Victorian opus."
"Synopsis" by , "A luminous work of historical fiction that explores the far reaches of the Arctic and of men's souls."--
"Synopsis" by , Capturing a crucial moment in the history of exploration, the mid-nineteenth century romance with the Arctic, Andrea Barrett focuses on a particular expedition and its accompanying scholar-naturalist, Erasmus Darwin Wells. Through his eyes, we meet the Narwhal's crew and its commander--obsessed with the search for an open polar sea--and encounter the far-north culture of the Esquimaux. In counterpoint, we see the women left behind in Philadelphia, explorers only in imagination. Together, those who travel and those who stay weave a web of myth and mystery. And finally they discover--as all explorers do--not what was always there and never needed discovering, but the state of their own souls.
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