“The Affidavit” is another of those chapters devoted to information about the history of whaling, with Ishmael once again adopting the lawyerly pose that he affected in “The Advocate” in order to make an argument about the verisimilitude of the narrative that he will, at some point, allow to run its course. In my comment on the previous chapter, “The Chart,” I noted that there Ishmael was depicting a scene that he couldn’t actually have seen. For some readers, this switch to omniscience might have the effect of undermining Ishmael’s trustworthiness as a narrator. So Ishmael proceeds to present evidence in “The Affidavit” to support the analysis he presents in “The Chart,” with the aim of making us see that “the foregoing chapter, in its earlier part” — the section depicting Ahab poring over his charts — “is as important a one as will be found in this volume.”
Ishmael is telling us, in other words, how to read the book he is narrating: we are meant to understand it as a realistic narrative no matter how far-fetched the events it relates seem to be. He wants us to Moby Dick as a real, palpable creature, not simply a writer’s device: “So ignorant are most landsmen of some of the plainest and most palpable wonders of the world, that without some hints touching the plain facts, historical and otherwise, of the fishery, they might scout at Moby Dick as a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory.” So Ishmael relates a series of historical anecdotes that demonstrate that sperm whales are dangerous not only because they are such inmense animals, but also because they have been known to act with intention and malice toward the ships that hunt them.
Here Ishmael mentions the story of the Essex, which was famously sunk in 1820 by a sperm whale that seemed to ram the ship intentionally. Ishmael notes that, “after the severest exposure, part of the crew reached the land in their boats.” He vouches for the truth of this version of the story, noting, “I have seen Owen Chace [sic], who was chief mate of the Essex at the time of the tragedy; I have read his plain and faithful narrative; I have conversed with his son; and all this within a few miles of the scene of the catastrophe.” This part of Ishmael’s career parallels Melville’s, who, as a sailor aboard the whaleship