Herman Melville: “Moby-Dick”

See image credit below.

See image credit below.

In memory of Tim Kamer

Here is a book whose fortunes have gone down and up, down and maybe up again. When Herman Melville’s epic novel Moby-Dick was published in 1851, much (if not most) of the reading public began to suspect that he had gone insane. The popular author of best-selling travel books seemed to have gone off the deep end (as it were). Dedicated to Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose friendship had inspired Melville throughout the writing of the novel, Moby-Dick sold only about 3,200 copies during Melville’s lifetime.

To Melville’s way of thinking – and to subsequent generations of American literary scholars in the 20th century – he had found his true calling with the psychologically and philosophically complex Moby-Dick. The year 1919 saw the centennial of Melville’s birth, igniting the “Melville Revival.” In the 1920s and following, Melville became an established part of the literary “canon,” and it seemed that his literary genius was finally getting the acclaim it deserved.

But in later decades of the 20th century, long, ponderous, 19th-century novels lost their appeal. No one (fortunately) read James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans anymore, and while some people claimed to have read Moby-Dick, it was more likely that most of them had not actually read the tome.

I have read, studied, and taught Moby-Dick several times – and my estimation of it deepens and grows every time I do. By no means is every part of the novel a page turner (parts of the long, drawn-out quest to find and kill the infamous white whale could serve as an insomnia aid). By no means is it all narrative, all story (the cetology chapters come to mind). And by absolutely no means is it clear what Melville wants us to think about this loose and baggy monster of a book.

But there is so very much about the book that is amazing, even breath-taking.

First, there are the marvelous opening chapters, in which Ishmael (for so he tells us to call him) goes to New Bedford, Massachusetts, to look for employment on a whaling ship, work Melville himself had done for some years (hence the popularity of his South Sea travel books). The third chapter – “The Spouter Inn” – tells of his night spent with the cannibal Queequeg. To my mind, these chapters represent the best storytelling in the book.

Second, there is Melville’s literally encyclopedic knowledge of whales and the study of whales (cetology). While many readers are tempted to skim (or even skip) the cetology chapters so they can “get back to the story,” Melville includes meaty, essential material here, as well as in the justly famous chapter titled “The Whiteness of the Whale.” In short, you’ll learn a lot about whales from reading this book, though at a slower pace than you might fancy.

A third fascinating facet of Moby-Dick is the exposé it offers of the whale oil industry, which is quite akin to the oil industry today. Melville describes the dangerous working conditions, shows the greed of the captains of industry, not just Ahab’s monomaniacal pursuit of Moby-Dick but the greed of the entire industry. Directed by Ric Burns, the PBS series Into the Deep: America, Whaling, and the World provides careful insight into the largest global industry of the 19th century. The series’ biography of Melville shows how skillfully Melville washed the gum from his readers’ eyes as to what was going on in this destructive industry. Another good, basic overview of the whaling industry can be found at the Awesome Stories website. And you might also find it fun to explore the New Bedford Whaling Museum website, including information about the museum’s Melville-related workshop, tours, and lecture.

Need another reason to read Moby-Dick? Read it as a postmodern novel! Yes, you read that right. Though modernist scholars loved it back in the 1920s, ’30s, ’40, and ’50s, it’s more a postmodern novel than it is a modern one. It blends genres, defies rules, goes all “meta” on us, as when Ishmael tries to interpret the painting in the New Bedford bar. But it’s “The Doubloon” chapter near the end of the novel that shows us the pre-postmodern tricks Melville was up to.

Pip, the black cabin boy, has gone mad, having fallen overboard and been rescued from the depths of the ocean. Though he has physically survived his near-drowning, he has been changed forever mentally. But in Chapter 99, “The Doubloon,” Melville shows us that Pip does make some sense if you know how to listen to him.

Ahab has nailed a golden doubloon to the ship’s mast. It’s worth a fortune. The first man to spot Moby-Dick can have the coin. In this chapter, Ahab, Starbuck, Stubb, Flask, and other characters walk up to the doubloon, give their explanations of what the coin’s engraving means, and walk away. The explanations range from the astrological to the very practical (the coin is worth $16, which would buy 960 cigars).

But it is Pip, who in his topsy-turvy mental state, truly sees what is going on. “I look, you look, he looks; we look, ye look, they look,” he says. “I look, you look, he looks; we look, ye look, they look.” In other words, we all have a piece of the truth, and we all try to make sense of the world from our particular vantage point. This subjectivity is a hallmark of the postmodern enterprise.

Now of course, Melville wasn’t a postmodernist. After all, Moby-Dick precedes the postmodern movement by more than a century. But maybe Melville was that far ahead of his contemporaries. Maybe he could see and embrace radical subjectivity – and maybe that it is a key reason why American readers thought Melville, like Pip, had lost his mind.

When you look at Moby-Dick from all these angles, it’s hard not to appreciate and applaud Melville for his stunning achievement. Yes, the novel is hard to read. Yes, it’s long and dense. And yes, some of its lengthier passages are boring. But taken in its totality, it is a masterwork.

Though Melville was immensely popular at the beginning of his writing career with the publication of several travelogues, he ultimately fell into utter obscurity. Deeply disappointed over the failure of American readers to embrace his more complex work, Melville quit writing by the end of the 1850s and spent the rest of his life working as a customs inspector in Manhattan. By 1876, all of his books were out of print, and near the end of his life, a New York newspaper – located just a few blocks from Melville’s residence – speculated about whether the now-minor figure in American literature was still alive! When Melville died in 1891, he was working on a new tale, Billy Budd, Sailor. It would not be published until 1924. In all, Melville earned just over $10,000 for his writing during his lifetime.

There’s so much more to say about Melville, about Moby-Dick, and about his other novels and short stories – but I’ll leave it there for now. Suffice it to say that Moby-Dick rewards careful reading. It’s not for the faint of heart or for those who like their fiction to be short and sweet. In fact, if you work up the courage to dive into this leviathan of a book, you may find it helpful to have Robert A. diCurcio’s chapter-by-chapter companion reader at your side. Titled “Nantucket’s Tried-Out Moby-Dick,” it’s available for free online. The novel itself is also available for free online, but for this hefty volume, you might be better off with a hard copy. Multiple editions are available, but I like the Modern Library edition. Finally, if you want to learn more about Melville’s life, check out Andrew Delbanco’s biography, Melville: His World and Work, or Hershel Parker’s famous two-volume biography.

Listen:Listen as I read Chapter 3, “The Spouter Inn.” The chapter, which runs 38 minutes, describes Ishmael’s attempts to understand the inn’s inscrutable painting and relates the tale of Ishmael and Queequeg’s night together in the inn. You can follow along with Chapter 3 at Project Gutenberg.


Image Credit: Herman Melville, painted by Joseph O. Eaton, public domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Herman_Melville.jpg.