American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

CHEEVER, HENRY T[HEODORE]. (1814-1897). Editor of the New York Evangelist (1849-1852), Henry T. Cheever was born and educated in Maine. In the early 1840s he voyaged as a passenger on the whaleship Commodore Preble and in late 1849 or early 1850 published The Whale and His Captors, a major source for Herman Melville’s* Moby-Dick* (1851).

Like Richard Henry Dana, Jr.,* Cheever began his book of maritime experience with a reference to Virgil’s Aeneid and claimed daguerreotypical realism for his work. Cheever did not hesitate to weave “moral hints” into his work, and thus The Whale and His Captors became exactly the kind of work the brothers Harper sought as they attempted to provide the country with inspirational reading. The book was instantly reprinted in England as The Whaleman’s Adventures (part of the American subtitle) with an introduction by William Scoresby the younger, Melville’s “Captain Sleet.”

Cheever’s book was advertised in The Literary World when Melville returned from England early in 1850. Howard Vincent’s observations in The Trying-out of Moby-Dick (1949) do not suggest that Melville turned to the work for any structural guidance: instead, he seems to have gleaned from the work metaphors, definitions, and occasional bursts of nationalism or piety that Melville would rework late in the process of composition. Perhaps Cheever’s diction was more important to Melville than his subject matter. But except for J. Ross Browne’s* Etchings of a Whaling Cruise (1846), which Melville already owned, Cheever’s book may have been the most readily available of Melville’s major sources. From Cheever’s preface onward Melville would have read of the delights of sea meditations, Matthew Fontaine Maury’s* study of whale migration, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1798), and the piety of the younger William Scoresby, who had himself at one time served as the chaplain of the mariners’ church at Liverpool. Even Cheever’s running heads read like the chapter titles of Moby-Dick.

Cheever also published Life in the Sandwich Islands (1851) and edited the travel books of Chaplain Walter Colton of the U.S. Navy. He died in Worcester, Massachusetts.

R. D. Madison