The Hunt for the Cranberries in Moby-Dick, An Adventure Story

Sometimes one just can’t get to the bottom of where a misquotation began. This might be one of those times, although it isn’t for lack of trying to find that bottom. This story begins with a phone call from an author who wanted to use a quote from Moby-Dick in a book she is writing. Her hunch was that the quotation was not from Moby-Dick, and wanted to know if we could help.

So I started with Project Gutenberg (a digital library of free ebooks.) I brought up the text of Moby-Dick, and did a quick search for the word cranberries as that was the most distinguishing word, in the possibly Melville quotation. The quotation in question is:

“Go out with the crazy Captain Ahab? Never! He flat refused to take cranberries aboard. A man could get scurvy, or worse, whaling with the likes of ‘im.”

No indication in Project Gutenberg that the word cranberries ever existed in the text (or scurvy or ‘im for that matter.) I did some more searching on the web, and came to an article by Steven Raichlen (Writer, author, and host of BBQ University and Primal Grill on PBS) that was published by the Los Angeles Times in 1989. That article is called “Humble Cranberry a Big Dollar Industry” and, yes, has the same quotation, except with the word “him” instead of “’im” and a period instead of an exclamation point. This was the oldest article I could find.  I tried to contact Steven Raichlen via twitter with no luck, but I did get a response from another twitter account.  @DicktheGame, which is the twitter account run by the creator of a card game based on Moby-Dick, tweeted to us:

“@falpublib @sraichlen The only berries mentioned in Moby-Dick are straw- (ch. 87), black- (ch. 99), and mul- (ch. 133).”

This seemed like more evidence that the quote was not written by Melville. So who might write such a quote? I kept searching for other places the quotation had been used, and came across Rooted in America: foodlore of popular fruits and vegetables edited by David Scofield Wilson and Angus Kress Gillespie (published in 1999). At last! A citation! (Almost as good as finding a white whale.) The citation reads in its entirety: “Cranberry World plaque, Plymouth, Mass.”

And thus I began investigating Cranberry World in Plymouth. As it turns out Cranberry World closed in 2001, and according to an article in South Coast Today, was moved to Edaville Railroad in Carver. While investigating the origins of Cranberry World, I discovered (thanks to the amazing Internet Archive) the wonderful Cranberries: the national cranberry magazine, which had several articles about title Cranberry World.  However, no mention of Moby-Dick.

As I kept searching for the origins of this quote, I kept finding other books that cited the quotation as a passage from Moby-Dick. In Never Eat Your Heart Out by Judith Moore (published in 1997) I found this:

“(Later, talking to a well-read friend about cranberries, I learned that Melville mentions them in Moby-Dick: “Go out with that crazy Captain Ahab? Never! He flat refused to take cranberries aboard. A man could get scurvy, or worse, whaling with the likes of ‘im.”) No bibliography, no citation, no footnote.

In 2002, Nancy Cappelloni in her book Cranberry Cooking For All Seasons wrote:

“Before long, cranberries were being loaded aboard ships embarking on long voyages. It was a staple item for American whaling and clipper ships. In Herman Melville’s classic Moby-Dick, a Nantucket seamen (i.e.) parlays the significance of cranberries to the inexperienced Ishmael: “Go out with that crazy Captain Ahab? Never! He flat refused to take cranberries aboard. A man could get scurvy, or worse, whaling with the likes of ‘im.”

Moving onward, in 2012, Robert S. Cox and Jacob Walker wrote a book called Massachusetts Cranberry Culture: a history from bog to table. They wrote:

“Carried aboard ship as a preventive against scurvy, the sailors themselves helped spread a taste for the favored fruit. It is not coincidental that one of the indicators of Captain Ahab’s addled state of mind in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick was his refusal to take stores of the fruit aboard. ‘Go out with that crazy captain Ahab?’ one whaler exclaimed. ‘Never! He flat refused to take cranberries aboard. A man could get scurvy, or worse, whaling with the likes of ‘im.’ Like a good Windsor chair or wicked bottle of rum, cranberries spoke of New England, and in good New England fashion they came off not as a luxury or decadent delicacy but as a tart and useful thing.”

In 2014 the National Geographic blog “The Plate” wrote an article by Rebecca Rupp called Bitter Berries: the Historic Battle for Cranberry Power Bars, and yes they too repeat this so-called Melville quotation!  Adding: “They [cranberries] were popular enough among sailors for lack of cranberries to be cause for complaint.”

And one last example, from a book published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2015, and called The Carrot Purple and Other Curious Stories of the Food We Eat by Joel S. Denker.

“A store of cranberries was considered essential for sea journeys. Kept in barrels of spring water, they were eaten to prevent scurvy. In Melville’s Moby-Dick, a sailor was angered by Captain Ahab’s objection to carrying them on his ship: ‘Go out with the crazy Captain Ahab? Never! He flat refused to take cranberries aboard. A man could get scurvy, or worse, sailing with the likes of ‘im.”

Another reference librarian, who has been helping with the investigation, did get a response from Steven Raichlen, via his webpage, who responded: “Thanks for writing. Sorry, I don’t have that reference offhand.  I may have gotten it from a secondary source.” An inquiry to the Ocean Spray Company has yet to get a response, although I am still hopeful they will find a mention of the guy that got the idea to misquote Melville somewhere in their company archives. I have been told that Ocean Spray no longer has a librarian or an archivist anymore (which breaks my heart for a whole variety of reasons.)

The author who began this question contacted the New Bedford Whaling Museum, and their senior maritime historian thought that there was some possibility that the quotation came from some spurious edition of Moby-Dick. Thus, I sent a note off to Melville scholar, Thomas Tanselle, to see if he might have ever come across this quotation somewhere other than on a plaque in Cranberry World. Much to my delight, Mr. Tanselle replied, and writes:

“I think you must be right that this quote was made up by Ocean Spray. It certainly isn’t in Moby-Dick. And while some editions of the book are less reliable textually than others, I can’t imagine that this line got into any of them.”

The one thing I am sure of is that Edaville USA opens on May 28th this year, and I am hoping to be there and discover that the Cranberry Museum is still there and still featuring the quotation on a plaque! What advertising copywriter wouldn’t want their product mentioned in Moby-Dick?! In the meantime, if you are planning to write another book or article about cranberries, please don’t credit Melville with this cranberry quote!

If you have any photographs of the Cranberry Museum plaque, please let me know! I would love to see it! You can reach me at info@falmouthpubliclibrary.org.

12 April 2016

I have an update, and an answer from Ocean Spray!

They write: “Unfortunately, we were unable to find a picture of the actual plaque. However, we were able to find a page with the quote you are looking for. It is below.

‘Go out with that crazy captain Ahab? Never! He flat refused to take cranberries aboard. A man could get scurvy, or worse, whaling with the

likes of ‘im.’ —The American Whaleman.”

However, no author and no page number were given. So I found a digital copy of The American Whaleman by Elmo Paul Hohman, published in 1894, and searched the text. No cranberries, although quite a bit on Moby-Dick and even mention of scurvy. I wrote back to Ocean Spray to see if they had an author or a page number, and the response I got was: “Yes, it is from the book you mentioned, but unfortunately, we do not know the page number that it was on.” Mind you, I didn’t say the quote was from that book, I asked them what book the quote was from. So while I am glad to have heard from Ocean Spray, I still can’t say I have gotten to the bottom of the mystery.

Oh, and I was just at the Public Library Association Conference, and did have a chat with the Rowman & Littlefield representatives. They tell me that they will notify the author, and should the book go into a second printing, it is possible the error will be corrected!

2 comments on “The Hunt for the Cranberries in Moby-Dick, An Adventure Story


  1. Trying to be an honest author says:

    As the author first mentioned (the one who couldn’t find the quote) and asked for help, I read the whole piece smiling. I really wanted it to be true since it made a lot of sense. Cranberries WERE carried to prevent scurvy and who doesn’t love the practical wisdom of an old salt!

  2. Joanne says:

    Amazing research Detective!

    But I do think that the actual quote was: ‘Go out with the crazy Captain Ahab? Never! He flat refused to take Ocean Spray™ cranberries aboard. A man could get scurvy, or worse, sailing with the likes of ‘im.”

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