‘Moby-Dick’ by Herman Melville
These days, Moby-Dick is generally regarded to be one of the greatest American books of all time. Singer-songwriter Judy Collins writes of her father, blind from the age of four: “Daddy thought if you had not read Moby-Dick by the time you were seven, there must be something wrong with you.” Ouch.
The book is also notoriously lengthy. Obviously, the page count varies among many different editions, but the 565-page total given by the Power Moby-Dick seems about right. That’s on the hefty side, but I have read quite a few non-fiction works and some novels longer than this.
As a whole, Moby-Dick is fine. There are some chapters of sublime excellence, as well as portions that grind your patience to pea gravel. In total, it is 135 chapters long plus a very brief epilogue, but most of chapters are only a few pages in length, so it’s perfect for short reading sessions.
It took me a couple of months to finish the book, but it was among several I was reading at the same time — including The Origin of Satan by Elaine Pagels, The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, and Dotcom Secrets, by Russell Brunson. I enjoyed them all but the last one. If you think rendering whale oil sounds soul-crushing, you should read about getting rich through sales funnels.
Originally, I had no intention of tackling Melville’s epic, but it was one of the free books available when I started playing around with the Books app on my iPhone, so I downloaded it, figuring it would be a good test of the interface. After about 15 chapters, I found the interface itself to be nice, but my phone’s screen too small for lengthy reading, and Moby-Dick the sort of book for which I would require the assistance of annotations.
Moby-Dick opening line
“Call me Ishmael.” That’s the celebrated opening line of Moby-Dick — if you don’t count the 81 freaking whale-related quotes that Melville begins with, in his section of “Extracts” culled from sources including Book of Genesis, Paradise Lost, and McCulloch’s Commercial Dictionary. Before throwing his first pitch, the author is already testing the reader’s determination and stamina.
Ishmael is the narrator of the book, one of the ship’s crew who has signed up for his first whaling voyage. In the Book of Genesis, Ishmael is also the biblical son of Abraham by his servant Hagar, considered the ancestor of the Ishmaelites and through them Muhammad and Muslims in general. Reportedly there is some symbolism here, but I don’t get it (a wanderer?) — and I do not understand what is so great about this opening line, other than its brevity.
Melville spends the first 31 chapters establishing the allure of the sea, as well as the whaling culture of New Bedford, Massachusetts, and the nearby island of Nantucket. We meet Queequeg, the tattooed, Polynesian harpooner who signs up for the voyage with Ishmael, and a few other characters — including Elijah, a pestering, cryptic prophet of doom in regards to Captain Ahab (biblical allusions again, this pair more clear-cut).
Then comes the Chapter 32, “Cetology,” the most infamous of Melville’s many detours away from his story into the minutia of various aspects of whaling — in this case, the classification of whales into his own quirky hierarchy.
Moby Dick‘s digressions themselves have become a cliché.
And while today’s readers love to bewail (get it?) all of this cetology, you have to keep in mind that Melville’s contemporary audience had no access to 4K streaming oceanographic documentaries made with underwater cameras. Photography itself had only just been invented. The notion of what a whale even was had to be fairly foggy for most people.
And so Chapter 55, “Of the Monstrous Pictures of Whales,” is spent criticizing bad illustrations of whales, and Chapter 56 is devoted to better ones.
At age 21, Herman Melville began a year-and-a-half voyage on the whaling ship Acushnet. He experienced firsthand the terrifying world of tough men who set off in wooden ships driven by wind to brave the elements and eat meager, preserved meals in order to catch and kill these enormous animals up close, butcher and squeeze and render their bodies into various materials, and then deliver these goods so that land dwellers could have candles and corset stays.
At the same time — and in his following years as a writer — Melville obviously collected every sort of whale-related tidbit he could find. Among these was the story of the sinking of the whaleship Essex in 1820, and the story of Mocha Dick, an albino sperm whale notorious for escaping capture through aggressive breaching until he was eventually killed in 1938.
His witticisms and pedantries can grow tiresome. There are minor continuity errors in his storytelling: here the Pequod is steered by a tiller, there by a wheel; a hat dramatically lost forever in Chapter 130, “The Hat,” reappears in the next chapter with no explanation.
With huge pronged poles they pitched hissing masses of blubber into the scalding pots, or stirred up the fires beneath, till the snaky flames darted, curling, out of the doors to catch them by the feet. The smoke rolled away in sullen heaps. To every pitch of the ship there was a pitch of the boiling oil, which seemed all eagerness to leap into their faces. Opposite the mouth of the works, on the further side of the wide wooden hearth, was the windlass. This served for a sea-sofa. Here lounged the watch, when not otherwise employed, looking into the red heat of the fire, till their eyes felt scorched in their heads. Their tawny features, now all begrimed with smoke and sweat, their matted beards, and the contrasting barbaric brilliancy of their teeth, all these were strangely revealed in the capricious of the works. As they narrated to each other their unholy adventures, their tales of terror told in words of mirth; as their uncivilized laughter forked upwards out of them, like the flames from the furnace; as to and fro, in their front, the harpooneers wildly gesticulated with their huge pronged forks and as the wind howled on, and the sea leaped, and the ship groaned and dived, and yet steadfastly shot her red hell further and further into the blackness of the sea and the night, and scornfully the white bone in her mouth, and viciously spat round her on all sides; then the rushing Pequod, freighted with savages, and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into that blackness of darkness, seemed the material counterpart of her monomaniac commander’s soul.
Although he’s presented as the narrator of Moby-Dick, once the ship sets sail Ishmael does not otherwise play a huge role in the story, which is simply the progress of the Pequod in Captain Ahab’s personal vengeance mission.
The captain himself hides below deck for an extended period before making a thunderous entrance in Chapter 36, during which he rallies the crew to his bull-headed cause. In addition to griping around on his ivory leg and ignoring the concerns of his crew and the other mariners they meet, Ahab eventually dominates several other chapters with his glowering obstinacy.
Nine times along the way, the Pequod has encounters (“gams”) with other ships — quick exchanges of information, with personnel from one ship sometimes briefly boarding the other. These gams grow progressively more ominous and surreal, like premonitions or dreams.
Captain Ahab is classic character seen many times in fiction and history — most recently in the tragedy of Donald Trump, another stubborn, deluded failure with a peculiar gait and way too much executive time, on a pathetic quest to avenge his humiliating defeat. Melville’s Ahab is an icon for a lesson we never seem to learn.
Moby-Dick and Starbucks
The most disturbing thing about a leader like Captain Ahab is the underlings who clearly know better, yet find themselves carrying out his agenda nevertheless. Principal among these in Moby-Dick is Starbuck, the Pequod‘s chief mate, who does some grave moral wrestling with his boss’s mission.
Starbuck is reportedly an important Quaker family name on Nantucket.
Starbucks — with a second “s” — is the name of the world’s largest chain of coffeehouses. The coffee company was almost going to be named “Cargo House” until advertising agency owner Terry Heckler suggested that words beginning with “st” were powerful words, and company co-founder Gordon Bowker eventually remembered Starbuck from Moby-Dick.
Or else it was almost going to be named Pequod:
Race and religion in Moby-Dick
Published ten years before the Civil War, Moby-Dick is often acclaimed as a quintessentially American book. Nothing sets America apart like the issue of race, and race is definitely a topic in Moby-Dick, whether openly or below the surface.
There’s Queequeg, the Polynesian harpooner. There’s a mysterious crew of “five dusky phantoms,” Asians secretly brought aboard by Ahab to man his own whaling boat, led by Fedallah, a “Parsee.” There’s Pip, a Black cabin boy with a tambourine. Chapter 42 is called “The Whiteness of the Whale.”
In presenting these subjects, Melville seems at times to perhaps be a little progressive, and at others obliviously insensitive.
Gabrielle Bellot summarizes it well in “The Literal (and Figurative) Whiteness of Moby Dick”:
Ultimately, Melville leaves us with a text that is deeply, inescapably complicated. It is America itself, then and now, where no single message about racial justice dominates.
In “Herman Melville: obsessed by good, evil and ‘Moby Dick’,” Christopher Sandford has no trouble detecting the writer’s religious message:
There are no fewer than 650 references to biblical characters, places, events and books scattered through Melville’s 12 volumes of prose. Roughly two-thirds of them are to the Old Testament, 200 are to the New Testament, and the remainder are to the Apocrypha. These are not the statistics of a writer wholly indifferent to his relationship to his creator. It has been argued that Melville’s long-neglected, now ubiquitous Moby-Dick (1851) is one long biblical allegory, as well as a plea for religious tolerance. Ishmael, often regarded as the author’s voice, says he “cherishes every belief,” no matter how absurd or obscure, including ants who worship toadstools. He further insists that “good Presbyterian Christians” should not consider themselves superior to “pagans and what not,” and even proposes a sort of neo-hippie communality of existence: “The God absolute! The center and circumference of all democracy! His omnipotence, our divine equality!”
His previous books Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life and Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas had their origins in his experiences after jumping ship in the Marquesas Islands and spending time as a beachcomber, among other things, on various Polynesian islands before eventually heading for home from Maui. These books made him something of a sex symbol with readers of both genders — and, as biographer Hershel Parker reports in “Damned by Dollars: Moby-Dick and the Price of Genius” (included in the Third Norton Critical Edition):
By late 1846 the newspapers and magazines published by the lower Protestant churches had united against him, and for the rest of his active career Melville was hounded by what we would classify as right wing Christians.
Arrowhead in Pittsfield, Massachusetts
Melville began writing Moby-Dick in a house in New York City and continued writing it after moving to an isolated farmhouse south of Pittsfield, Massachusetts that he named “Arrowhead,” commemorating the Native American artifacts he found there during planting season.
Moby-Dick was a commercial flop
Melville’s masterpiece was published first in London to mixed reviews, characterized by words like “weird,” “wild,” and “strange.“ But through an apparent mistake at the British publishing house, the book’s short epilogue — which wraps up some important loose ends — was omitted. This resulted in a couple of bad reviews, which were the only British reviews to reach the United States.
In the United States the mess snowballed, with more reviews cribbed from the two bad British ones. The book’s sales tanked. Moby-Dick was a total flop.
Melville followed this disaster by committing career suicide. He wrote Pierre: Or, The Ambiguities, a semi-autobiographical story which includes incest in its subject matter and made people suspect he had gone insane. More unsuccessful books followed, plus a Grand Tour of Europe, some lecturing, and poetry — but he would never again be the celebrated writer he was prior to Moby-Dick.
In 1866 at age 46, Herman Melville became a customs inspector for New York City. He served on the docks in that post for 19 years, and died in 1891 at age 72. The New York Times’ first attempt at his obituary was three sentences long and misspelled the title of his masterpiece as “Mobie Dick.”
Starting in about 1917, various literati such as Carl Van Doren and D.H. Lawrence started a revival, lavishing praise on Moby-Dick here and there, and gradually the book’s renown grew. Today, you can buy a first edition for $65,000 (plus $3.99 standard shipping).
Reading the book, there’s a natural desire to see it all on a screen. But doing that properly would require a 10-hour multimedia docudrama incorporating everything from close-up sperm whale encounters to the weaving of sword-mats.
Existing movie adaptations, on the other hand, seem to fillet Moby-Dick down to the basic plot, tossing a large portion of the book’s content overboard from the get-go.
Moby Dick (1956)
The best stab at a movie so far seems to be the 1956 film starring Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab, directed by John Huston, with a screenplay by Ray Bradbury. Damn, it looks old and hokey. I’m sure it’s great. One of these days soon I’ll spend the $4 to stream it.
Moby Dick (1998)
The 1998 miniseries starring Patrick Stewart as Captain Ahab is fine. You can watch it free with commercials on Vudu. I have seen most of it, and it’s a typical Hallmark drama. It adds more focus to Ishmael, portraying him as a novice “pup” being initiated by the experienced whalemen. You wonder why anyone would feel the need to add material to Moby-Dick.
Moby Dick (2011)
The 2011 miniseries starring William Hurt as Captain Ahab and Ethan Hawke as Starbuck is an action movie with big-time special effects, and it’s free with commercials on The Roku Channel. However, I cannot accept William Hurt as Ahab. He constantly flashes a knowing smirk, like a rare book collector ready to pay way too high a price, yet aware that he can’t help himself. Melville’s Ahab has no sense of humor, no self-awareness. Again, think of Donald Trump.
Is Moby-Dick the quintessential American book? I would lean toward something by Mark Twain, like maybe Huckleberry Finn.
Does everyone have to read it? No. There are plenty of great books. Moby-Dick is just one of them. I enjoyed the experience. Knowing the basic contents of the book as I do now, I might consider reading it again to let deeper meanings bubble up.