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.
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.