“There are no tricks — there is only enthusiasm.” That, according to my admittedly flawed memory, is legendary femme fatale Pamela Harriman’s explanation of how she managed to ensnare so many powerful men in her lifetime. My husband takes this to mean that men are pathetically easy to please, but I think the message is broader: eagerness to share your pleasure has powerful appeal. You could, if you wanted to be snarky, say that Nathaniel Philbrick’s Why Read Moby-Dick? is just a high-brow fan magazine. But you’d have to have a pretty hard heart to resist Philbrick’s ardor for what he calls “the greatest American novel ever written.”
He starts — oh, very cleverly! — on December 16, 1850, a moment Herman Melville wrote into the novel, bringing himself to the foreground of the fiction as he composed the novel. This attention to Melville’s self-referential moment puts the struggling, sympathetic young author in front of us as he wrestles with this massive, unwieldy narrative. Then Philbrick moves back to give us some context, both for Melville and for the United States of America in 1850. This was the year the Fugitive Slave Act was passed, and Philbrick sees Moby-Dick as, among other things, a rumination on the toxic existence of slavery in the supposedly democratic United States. But he points out that the book is not an allegory: while mad Captain Ahab might see the great white whale as a symbol of the evil in the world, Nathaniel Philbrick draws our attention to Moby Dick’s detailed physical presence: “In the end he is just a huge, battle-scarred albino sperm whale, and that is more than enough.”
Well — yes and no. There’s a constant toggling back and forth in Philbrick’s book, between Moby-Dick and Melville, between the chronology of the fiction and the chronology of its author. But that reiterating shift in focus just mirrors Melville’s own disconcerting slipping among whales, THE whale, and “the whale” (standing in for something much larger). They are all interwoven, and Philbrick helps us appreciate how the liveliness and convincing quality of Melville’s imagined episodes function on several levels.
Philbrick comes to this material naturally: ten years ago he won a National Book Award for In the Heart of the Sea, which recounted the tragic 1819 voyage of the whaler Essex. This was the incident that provided the seed for Moby-Dick. Since then Philbrick has written on other big stories in the history of nineteenth-century America (Custer; the exploration of the American interior) and he has an easy authority with the subject at hand. Combine that with his elegant style, some acute literary analysis, and, yes, his enthusiasm, and you’ve got a delightful little book.