Sunday, June 01, 2014

`When We Talk Ontological Heroics Together'

About móbby, Dr. Johnson is characteristically laconic: “an American drink made of potatoes.” I found it in his Dictionary, where it came as news to me, and I wondered if it was news to Melville. The OED, as usual, describes the word’s origins as “uncertain,” but suggests it may have come from the Carib word mabi, “sweet potato.” The variants are numerous – mabby, mobbi, mobbie, mobby, mobee, et. al. (though no Moby).  Apparently it’s related to mauby, “a non-alcoholic drink made by fermenting or boiling the bark of trees of the genus Colubrina,” But mobby is the hard stuff: “An alcoholic drink made from sweet potatoes.” The first citation dates to 1638 and another is drawn from Six Months in the West Indies (1826, twenty-five years before publication of Moby-Dick), written by Henry Nelson Coleridge, the poet’s nephew: “Their suppers being a few potatoes for meat, and water or mobbie to drink.”

A second meaning is “drink made from ginger,” with an 1859 citation from John Russell Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms: “Mobee, a fermented liquor made by the negroes in the West Indies, prepared with sugar, ginger, and snake-root.” Finally, another mutation of word and beverage, this one labeled “N. Amer.”: “The juice of apples or peaches, often fermented and used to make brandy. Also: the brandy itself, or a punch made with it.” I find no mention of móbby by the author of Moby-Dick. Andrew Delbanco in his 2006 biography of the novelist states confidently that he was “among the most ardent lovers” of alcohol. In a letter possibly written on this date, June 1, in 1851, as he was completing Moby-Dick, Melville says to Hawthorne:

“Would the Gin were here! If ever, my dear Hawthorne, in the eternal times that are to come, you and I shall sit down in Paradise, in some little shady corner by ourselves; and if we shall by any means be able to smuggle a basket of champagne there (I won't believe in a Temperance Heaven).”

In the often-quoted June 29 letter to Hawthorne, in which Melville says, “This is the book's motto (the secret one), -- Ego non baptiso te in nomine -- but make out the rest yourself,” he also tells his friend: “Have ready a bottle of brandy, because I always feel like drinking that heroic drink when we talk ontological heroics together.”

In Chapter CI of Moby-Dick, “The Decanter,” Ishmael consults an “ancient Dutch volume” describing the provisions carried by Dutch whaling ships, including 10,800 barrels of beer and “550 ankers of Geneva” – that is, gin. An anker is a Dutch measure of volume equivalent to about 38.75 liters. Ishmael concludes that “old Dutch whalers of two or three centuries ago were high livers; and that the English whalers have not neglected so excellent an example.” The chapter concludes: “For, say they, when cruising in an empty ship, if you can get nothing better out of the world, get a good dinner out of it, at least. And this empties the decanter.”

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