Like Ahab, I’m going after this very BIG fish.
And yes, Melville thought whales were fish. So did mid 19th century Catholics who could eat whale meat on fish Fridays.
Moby-Dick is my favorite book. It isn’t just the story, which is great enough, but I’m amazed by the contortions that surrounded its creation. And like the voyage in the book the publication and reception was a series of rolling disasters.
So much has been written about this book that all I can do is give you my impressions and hope that you will give it a chance. First, it used to be hurled at innocent high school 10th graders. The ‘smart ones’ got it but for the rest of us it was just a very long book about some guy covered in blubber hunting for a whale which ate his leg. We ‘got’ Catcher in the Rye, a shallow book with an anemic literary flourish. Of course this is the same society that hoisted the drunken simpleton, Ernest Hemingway, up on its shoulders for a big huzzah! Hemingway, like Jackson Pollock, isn’t actually an artist but rather these two are hypnotists and darn good ones. They should be shelved with Barnum and Houdini, craftsmen to be sure, but compared to Melville small-time barn-roof logo painters.
Melville had very little schooling (mercifully he wasn’t forced to read Moby-Dick). He got his education from a relatively small library. He made a list of the books he read so we know where he got the bones for Moby-Dick but his flaming imagination put the words in a new order.
His greatest influence was Shakespeare followed by the Bible. Like Shakespeare, Melville felt free to make up words and phrases because “it gladdend him.” Much of the book is prose poetry with meter and cadence. Such as:
“The Nantucketer, he alone resides and riots on the sea; he alone, in Bible language, goes down to it in ships; to and fro ploughing it as his own special plantation. There is his home; there lies his business, which a Noah’s flood would not interrupt, though it overwhelmed all the millions in China. He lives on the sea, as prairie cocks in the prairie; he hides among the waves, he climbs them as chamois hunters climb the Alps. For years he knows not the land; so that when he comes to it at last, it smells like another world, more strangely than the moon would to an Earthsman. With the landless gull, that at sunset folds her wings and is rocked to sleep between billows; so at nightfall, the Nantucketer, out of sight of land, furls his sails, and lays him to his rest, while under his very pillow rush herds of walruses and whales.”
(“Nantucket”, Ch. 14).
“Above all”, say the scholars Bryant and Springer, “Moby-Dick is language: “nautical, biblical, Homeric, Shakespearean, Miltonic, cetological, alliterative, fanciful, colloquial, archaic and unceasingly allusive. Melville stretches grammar, quotes well-known or obscure sources, or swings from calm prose to high rhetoric, technical exposition, seaman’s slang, mystic speculation, or wild prophetic archaism.”
The book’s story is well known but the history of the publication less so. Melville had a modest success with his first novel Typee. He wrote several other books which were less successful but he was sure that Moby-Dick would wow the readers. He worked night and day for just 18 months and got a publishing deal. He was 32 when the book was released in 1851. How many 30-somethings do any of us know who could write such a belletristic beast as Moby-Dick?
It was on England’s shores where this shipwreck of a book came splintering onto the literary rocks. The publisher made over a thousand changes, small and less so. They thought it too irreligious. The sex life of whales was objectionable and they didn’t like his Melvilleisms. Also the entire book is a narrated reflection by the sole survivor but somehow the epilogue was left out. The epilogue explained how Ishmael live to say, “And I only am escaped to tell thee.” Without this final chapter the conclusion made no sense. Imagine if Romeo and Juliet just wandered off. Books then as now float on their reviews and the scribblers stuck their lances deep.
The American version came out soon after with most of the book restored but the reviews from England followed it to the New World where an average of 27 books were sold annually over the next 34 years until the meager supply of 2200 copies were gone. There were 300 others but they burned in a warehouse fire. It was out of print for the last four years of Melville’s life. Melville was confused by the world’s lack of interest and eventually became a customs clerk and died in obscurity in 1891. Then a curious thing happened. In the 1920s Moby-Dick became noticed and by the 1940s was considered to be a great American novel. It continued to pick up steam and many said it was the great American novel.
The tale itself is a heavy task but the words are an even bigger lift. Like Heman’s boy-crush Bill Shakespeare, Melville prints words like an outta control Zimbabwe dictator prints money.
Melville’s wordsmithing is unsurpassed in American literature. In context these words make sense but aren’t in dictionaries. Wikipwdia acknologes that “Words like allurings, coincidings, and leewardings. Equally potent renderings like officered, omnitooled, and uncatastrophied; participial adverbs such as intermixingly, postponedly, and uninterpenetratingly; and these gems.”unsmoothable, spermy, and leviathanic, and unheard adverbs such as sultanically, Spanishly, and Venetianly; and other original constructs such as “the message-carrying air”, “the circus-running sun”, and “teeth-tiered sharks.”
And wonder of wonders. Moby Dick (The whale is named Moby Dick but the name of the book is hyphenated for some unknown reason) was a real fish, oh yes (I know, I know, not a fish). A whale called Mocha Dick was an albino sperm seen frequently from the early 1800s. He plied the Pacific and was reported to be gigantic even in a sea of giants. Before he encountered hostile whalers he was known to be friendly and swam alongside ships; but once he was ‘lowered on’ he figured out the game and sunk dozens of whale boats (these the smaller hunting boats not the ships). He had over 20 harpoons in his back when he was finally taken in 1838 after over a 100 battles.
The book is also based on the sinking of the whaling ship Essex which was stove in by an angry sperm whale. By combining Mocha Dick and the Essex Melville had the meat for his tale.
This book is what the British call a ‘ripping yarn.’ I suggest the audio-book and the 1956 film starring Gregory Peck as Ahab. Greg’s finest hour.
The film is terrific and has a subtle twist worth noting. In the book there is a ship-themed church in Nantucket called the Seaman’s Bethel. That church is actually in Nantucket, as it is in the book and it was used as the film set. It was there that Orson Wells as Father Mapple gives a thundering sermon about a man’s destiny to go to sea. In a remake of the film in 1998 Peck plays Mapple. Layer upon layer, right?
In Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech of 2017 he cited Moby-Dick as one of the three books that influenced him most. Dylan’s description ends with an acknowledgment: “That theme, and all that it implies, would work its way into more than a few of my songs.” Bob Dylan was ‘too busy’ to go to Sweden so he emailed his remarks. I wish he had attended.