Mandatory Reading: Moby-Dick

So lately I’ve been reading a lot of books considered classics and watching a lot of movies and TV shows that have been thoroughly watched and picked apart. Acknowledging that these products of our culture have been reviewed again and again–and also acknowledging the review themselves–I’ve decided to give them yet another review. In the case of movies, I’ll most likely be writing “Second Showing Reviews”. Because what is the haste to review a movie on opening weekend? And what can be gained from reviewing a movie about which we know so much, yet still have not seen?

In the case of books, I’ll be looking more at the historical classics. This mission is more challenging. And so for that reason I have dubbed my series of book reviews “Mandatory Reading”. You’ll read the reason why in this first review of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.

In her introduction to the 1998 Signet Classic edition, Elizabeth Renker says Moby-Dick is often one of two works of literature identified as “The Great American Novel”, the other being Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Go ahead and Google search the Great American Novel and Moby-Dick is guaranteed to show up on nearly every list. If not exactly exegeses on the merits of the book, many articles with high word counts are written on the tale of the great white whale. For this reason (and also because I want better to understand what the Great American Novel really is), I made Moby-Dick mandatory reading.

My copy of Moby-Dick has always kind of horrified me. A dark shade of surprisingly unpleasant blue, the book is small and features an ugly painting on the front. It looks like a first draft sketch of Captain Ahab hovering over Moby’s big, white tail. Floating high and to the left of that tail is a small man with a spear I assume to be harpooner of the Pequod, Queequeg. I bought it three years ago at Powell’s for the reason that it was the cheapest copy I could find. Most likely it is used, but the pages show no signs of wear. From the start, the book seemed doomed to sleep on my bookshelf for ages.

And it did for nearly a year and a half while I read other modern classics. Stuff by Faulkner, Foster Wallace, Pynchon, Lynn Tillman and the like. But two summers ago I thought it was finally time to take the ugly book down and dust it off. To my shock, I found the book engaging and at times even funny in an absurdist modern way. (The pulpit of a priest in Nantucket is shaped like a ship. How cute!) And Queequeg, native of the fictional South Pacific island Kokovoko, seemed to get a surprising amount of sympathy from the 1850’s author, at least for a while.

The excitement lasted for about fifty pages. Then the 19th-century verbiage began to tire me (I wondered if Melville was paid by the word like Dickens). I found other books and left it again to be consumed by neglect and time.

Another year and a half went by. Eventually I moved, and wondered more than once if Moby was worth bringing to the new apartment. The volume was so small that it took up a negligible space on my shelf. And how could I get rid of a book so often touted as one of the greatest American novels of all time? Finally, I’d had my saturation of modern prose this year and, scanning my shelves, decided I must dive in. But this time I promised myself I’d finish it. And the easiest way to ensure that was to give myself a deadline. I had one week to finish, and I couldn’t touch another book until I was done. I would force myself to read an American classic.


I accomplished that goal, give or take a few days. In this sense, the novel is page-turner: of the 550 pages in my edition of Moby-Dick, it wasn’t until the final 20 pages that the Pequod is sure they have found the white whale. The height of the drama is packed into those last 20 pages during a three-day hunt for Moby that leaves a lot of sailors dead, including the Captain (150-year-old spoiler alert). Upon reflection, it makes me wonder what filled the rest of this classic. One of the most famous hunts in literary history, lampooned by popular culture for over a century, comprises about 3.5% of the book as a whole. There are no Shakespearean three acts, yet everyone knows the story of Captain Ahab’s hubris. Why is such a monothematic book considered a classic?

For starters, the book is brilliant and brilliantly written. There is no doubt that Herman Melville is a master writer. All of Melville’s digressions from the hunt are beautiful and engaging. And there are many digressions. Everything from the art of pitchpoling to the differences in anatomy of whale species (every whale species known at the time) to the history of whale mythology to the majesty of whiteness. At a certain point it is hard to distinguish between the narrator Ishmael and the author Melville intent on educating the audience about the majesty of whales and whaling.

It is my last example of digressions that is especially troubling. The evil Moby Dick’s whiteness confounds Ishmael, for in most cases the color white represents purity. It is the color of our heavenly dominion, of magnificence. To quote Ishmael at his most troubling: “this pre-eminence in it applies to the human race itself, giving the white man ideal mastership over every dusky tribe”.

I considered at one point folding back every page that contained a remark I found racist, but that quickly became a daunting task, and one that would have left the book too dog-eared to pick any references at all from. I’ve read articles that say Ishmael and Queequeg’s friendship is one of the greatest in literary history; yet that doesn’t stop Ishmael from describing his friend as brutal, as a savage and basically sub-human. When he finally finds Queequeg to be a commiserate being (bringing into question his idea that brutes from different lands are essentially soulless heathens), Ishmael’s high honor is to say that Queequeg’s head was shaped like George Washington’s “cannibalistically developed”.

(Later in the book, Ahab has his own moment of racism. Speaking of our Promethean origins: “This [soot] must be the remainder the Greek made the Africans of.”)

Some of this might be defensible as a product of the time. The novel was published nearly a decade before the Civil War after all. And his attitude is pretty much the xenophobic position I’ve come to expect from writers of that age. However a year after Moby-Dick was published, Harriet Beecher’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published. On top of that, Beecher’s novel sold three hundred thousand copies its first year of publishing. Melville’s, by comparison, sold only two thousand. In other words, it was a resounding failure, ebbing in the tide of market forces and thus culture strength. Less a leviathan of a book than a guppy.

But Melville’s was a late blooming work of brilliance. Its value wasn’t immediately apparent to society like that of Beecher’s. There is some redemption in this fact. The culture, I would like think, needed to read about that infamous cabin more so than the white whale.

Obviously, this review’s focus shifts in the wake of Ferguson. At the present moment, ours is a world of hyper-racial sensitivity. A new light shines on everything antagonistic to race in our history and culture. How long our attention will stay on the issue we can’t be sure. I know there are plenty of people in the African-American community who understood and felt the glut of racism in this book, from when it was written to now. For that, part of me would like to end the review here. However, there is more to Moby-Dick. I simply want to be clear that I understand the issue this book brings forth in our society even now, nearly 165 years later. I honestly feel a little ill thinking about some passages in this book. Not only because the differences (and, to a lesser extent, similarities) between Ishmael and Queequeg are integral to the book, but also because parts of it are intensely modern in judgment.

I would not have been surprised to open Moby-Dick and find a somber tale of human folly. True, the tale has its somber moments. See for example the particularly dour scene toward the end of the book when the Pequod’s chief mate Starbuck tries to convince Captain Ahab to stop his doomed search. Ahab glows with a sort of Protestant fatalism. For a brief moment his obsessive nature breaks and he seems almost convinced to go home. But, like Sisyphus allowing the rock to roll over him and back down the hill, Ahab has accepted that he is fated to die at the jaws of the great white whale.

In another heartbreaking scene, the Pequod meets the Rachel. Ahab has only the white whale on his mind. But the captain of the Rachel, who has just had an encounter with the animal, is on a more desperate search. He is looking for his son who was lost in the fight with Moby. The captain begs Ahab to aid him in his search. But Ahab refuses. The Pequod sails away from the miserable Rachel, passengers and readers alike heartsick.

Then there are moments of slapstick comedy. Queequeg is on the verge of death. The carpenter is called on to build him a coffin. The coffin is built but Queequeg, being the miraculous human he is, wills himself back to life. (His mysterious islander constitution is credited for this.) Now the Pequod has a perfectly useless coffin. In a later scene, a lifeboat is capsized. What could be used to replace it? What else but the coffin of the large harpooner?

Ahab’s peg leg is often a source of comedy too. Once the ship reaches the Pacific, the captain is most excitable and eager for any news of the whale. The Pequod happens upon another ship and when they give word they have seen the whale, Ahab quickly jumps into one of the hunting ships. But when he reaches the other ship, he realizes there is no way for him to climb up on deck due to his ivory leg. So the ship lowers some ropes and Ahab holds on tightly and is lifted up onto the deck like an actor in a stage production of Hook.

The greatest barrier for these scenes is the antiquated language. Obviously English, both written and spoken, has changed considerably since Melville wrote this book. His wordiness can sometimes be trying, though it does flow beautifully. It’s unfortunate because, through no fault of Melville’s, the book can seem inaccessible to present-day eyes. “Ere”, “ye”, “aye” and “thou” feel a bit too Olde English to be taken seriously. And another word like “pertinacious”, which Melville uses with increasing frequency at the end of the novel, has fallen out of popular use. The comedy of scenes is blunted by language, and sometimes the emotion as well.

The novel’s many allusions are reminders of the references of 19th century life vs. those of today. Most are biblical, as we might expect. There are also many references to Greek mythology. (The Zodiac is spoken about less in terms of horoscopes and more in terms of the Greek heroes and creatures that inspired the constellations’ names.) Today’s literature might refer to movie stars (James Dean or Anna Nicole Smith or Mickey Rourke). The meaning would be much clearer than, say, Belshazzar, King of Babylon. Clearly we need a lesson in history to understand all of Melville’s referents.

However, the Leviathan of American literature cannot lose because of these features. Too marvelous are so many other passages. Its many digressions presage a lot of postmodern novels like Gravity’s Rainbow and Infinite Jest that would later self-consciously rely on distracted narratives. There are stage directions like in Joyce’s Ulysses 60 years later and songs like Pynchon’s novels. In one chapter, Ishmael reflects he is telling a story, addressing his audience of Chileans, to whom he is speaking. (Perhaps Melville’s novel isn’t the first to do all these, but he does do all of them in one novel. That certainly meant he was playing fast and loose with the rules of the American novel of the 19th century.)

Moby-Dick established American authors as purveyors of practical knowledge. Melville, a sailor himself, knows the language of the ocean and uses it heartily to immerse us at sea. And it works. While reading the more narrative parts of this book, I felt like I was at sea. And when I stopped I had fantasies of sailing around the world. (Even though the last time I was on a boat I got horribly seasick.)

This is the effect of powerful literature. Another effect: that I could ignore all the issues I have the book and proclaim it a great work. I still believe it was necessary to force myself to read this. It is a challenging book, and challenging pieces of work ask you to meet them halfway, or further. I read the book in the self-conscious way one reads mandatory reading. But eventually I was like Ishmael floating toward his sunken ship after the whale had smashed it on the final page of this book.

So, floating on the margin of the ensuing scene, and in full sight of it, when the half-spent suction of the sunk ship reached me, I was then, but slowly, drawn towards the closing vortex…Round and round, then…Till, gaining that vital centre, the black bubble upward burst; and now, liberated by reason of its cunning spring, and, owing to its great buoyancy, rising with great force, the coffin life-buoy shot lengthwise from the sea, fell over, and floated by my side.


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