For sailors, though they have their jokes,
Still feel and think like other folks.
—BENJAMIN MORELL JR.
When Ishmael ascends the ship’s mast to sight whales in Moby-Dick, he admits that he is a poor lookout. He views his time in the masthead as an opportunity for contemplation rather than vigilance, for when sent to such a “thoughtengendering altitude,” Ishmael claims he cannot help but consider what he calls the “problem of the universe.” Yet the risks he faces in contemplating metaphysical questions too deeply are not simply disciplinary measures from officers who might feel that a meditative sailor does not take a proper interest in the economic demands of a whaleship. More immediately, Ishmael’s philosophizing puts him in mortal danger. Part of the attraction of standing in the masthead is the lure of losing his “identity” while lulled into a reverie by the “elusive thoughts” that come to the solitary man on a watch. But the lookout must never forget the tenuous physical position he occupies when absorbed by such thoughts. Herman Melville’s novel cautions a sailor dreaming aloft not to “move your foot or hand an inch; slip your hold at all,” lest “your identity comes back in horror.”1 If he is not attentive to his job, in other words, the sailor will fall from the masthead and drown. In this scene the sailor’s productivity and survival seem to depend on his working body, not his thinking body. Yet labor and contemplation can be productively aligned, Melville suggests. Metaphysical questioning—Ishmael’s “problem of the universe”—is in fact the result of a tension between the thinking body and the material conditions of labor.2
In its attention to the risks a workingman faces in striving to maintain both his working and thinking selves while at sea, Moby-Dick is the best known analogue to the sizable and critically untapped archive of narratives written by laboring sailors. This vibrant body of American popular sea writing concerns