Herman Melville, “Moby-Dick”

Long silence on Book Group of One — but no wonder! I’ve been on a whaling voyage! It’s not easy to know where to start or how to proceed: I honestly just this instant closed the book on Chapter 135: “The Chase — Third Day” and Herman Melville’s prose rhythms are still sounding in my head. No bad thing — Melville himself echoes the Old Testament and, it seems to me, Shakespeare. (Ahab=Hamlet? What do you think?)

For cogent analysis, I urge you to see what the brilliant Amateur Reader has to say over at Wuthering Expectations. I’m going to try to cram my reaction into my usual 500 words. And I’m starting with a big question. Let’s just say for the sake of argument that Moby-Dick is The Great American Novel. (It’s certainly one of them.) What is it that makes the book American, though? This is an honest query and one I’ll be mulling over for a while. I don’t read a lot of American literature so I don’t really have the analytic tools to answer. Of course the ostensible subject — the Nantucket whale fishery — is American, as is the ostensible conflict of Man vs. Nature. But beyond that? I was so alert to this question that when, on the next to last page, Ahab shrieks “The ship! The hearse! — the second hearse!… its wood could only be American!” I snapped to attention and wondered about slavery and the American political scene in 1851. (I also spent a moment contemplating mid-nineteenth-century American mourning rituals about which I am very well-informed. So that was refreshing.) Oh, here’s something else, perhaps: it’s hard to imagine a European novel written in 1851 that cared so little about social standing.

Folio Society 2009: Rockwell Kent's "Moby Dick"

So now I’m going to lapse into bullet points, to keep myself from rambling endlessly.

–Some of Moby-Dick is charming, funny, whimsical. Take the chapter-headings: “Breakfast,” “The Street,” “A Bosom Friend,” Nightgown.” Almost post-modern in their fragmentation.

Melville does go on and on, especially in the non-narrative segments (what I could tell you about whaling!). But the economy of his writing is thrilling. Captain Ahab, when narrator Ishmael first sees him, “looked like a man cut away from the stake.” Chapter 131 opens, “The intense Pequod sailed on; the rolling waves and days went by…” Ishmael, thinking hard in a night watch: “There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness.”

–Watch for duality when you read. Amateur Reader pointed this out when he suggested Ishmael as a “water spirit” and Ahab as a fire-worshiper. Actually, for everything there is a mirror; the three non-Anglo harpooners Tashtego, Daggoo and Queequeg reflected by the three New England mates Starbuck, Stubbs and Flask. The great white whale and the little black boy Pip. The coffin/life buoy/coffin/life buoy. Even Ahab’s ivory leg/real leg. A novel with as much visible structure as this might be unbearable but I was willing to follow Melville to hell and back. Well, I did, didn’t I?

–He’s a canny, crafty writer, Mr. Melville. He lures you in with the whimsy of the opening chapters. He keeps surprising you with his funny narrative intrusions. You wonder why, why you need to know just how the rope pays out of the boat once the harpoon is cast but his authority is mesmerizing. And by the time he delivers the book’s climax you are powerless to turn away. He believes in his fiction. He urges it on you. It’s irresistible.

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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14 Responses to Herman Melville, “Moby-Dick”

  1. kristin says:

    Wow – I had very little interest in reading Moby-Dick until I saw this post of yours. Your description is enthralling and I am now thoroughly intrigued.

  2. carolwallace says:

    Kristin, this was a second go-round for me and boy, did I love it. This is probably one of those read-every-few-years books. It is work, for sure, but so rewarding. Let me know how you get on!

  3. The “American” question is a good one. There’s a great book by Perry Miller, The Raven and a Whale, about a prominent but (justly) forgotten and unread group of writers and editors who were constantly yammering about Young America and the creation of a unique American literature.

    My point being, Melville was interested in “Americanness” himself, but some of that may be well-hidden in an obscure but fascinating corner of literary history. Apparently he deals with some of this directly in Pierre, but I have not read that one.

    Would you believe that the British edition of Moby-Dick accidentally omitted the last page \ chapter? No wonder readers were baffled.

    Anyway, a well-compressed post! Well-illustrated. too. Kent was something else. And many thanks for the complimentary words. This novel was enormously fun to write about.

  4. carolwallace says:

    Amateur, I think Kent is actually the ONLY way you can illustrate Moby-Dick, because his level of abstraction aligns with Melville’s deft dance between particular and archetype. More detail drags you into B-movie territory, more abstraction is just dull.

    And BTW some of the fire imagery reminded me of a cursory reading some years ago of “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym…” not so surprising.

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  6. I enjoyed your post about the leviathan, but wonder: what did you make of the extracts, which open the text? While the whimsy of the landed chapters might carry one away from the lists and meat of the text, does the text not actually begin with the work of a sub-sub altern, who has collected for the reader a motley crew of extracts, already in print before Moby Dick was written? What is the reader to make of the eighty examples given him or her at the outset?
    I myself have become consumed with this task of collecting extracts, as I find it to be a rather stunning way to begin a narrative that is in no way simply narrative.

    • carolwallace says:

      Well, Nathan, this is embarrassing, because I haven’t thought much about the excerpts. That being the case, I’m pretty impressed by your implication that the extracts, among other functions, serve to warn the reader that the narrative will be anything but straightforward.

      Or am I simplifying grotesquely? Dang, now I’m gonna have to go back and look at them all. To be honest with you, I was pretty much overwhelmed, on this reading, by Just How Much is in this book.

      • John says:

        Melville’s insights and commentary on human nature are stunning. That he uses a whaling voyage as the vehicle to explore these realms makes him a master. I agree this is a book you can return to every other year. The more time you spend with Moby Dick the deeper truths it reveals.

      • carolwallace says:

        Couldn’t agree more, John. Have you read Nathaniel Philbrick’s new “Why Read Moby-Dick?” I’m very curious about it, aren’t you?

      • John says:

        Hi Carol, I actually received my copy of Nathaniel Philbrick’s new book last week! It looks very interesting indeed. I’m almost done with my re-reading of Moby Dick and plan on starting it shortly thereafter. Philbrick’s insights regarding the classic should be fascinating given his background.

  7. I would say that you have hit the nail on the head with your supposition that the extracts prepare the reader for the type of text he or she is about to encounter. It is a “higgledy-piggledy” bunch indeed, but is not the text in full quite higgledy-piggledy? It is all in good fun, I presume. Both by the headings of the Extracts section and the Etymology section.
    -Lev

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