Rereading Moby Dick

the whale

When I read Moby-Dick for the first time, it was the summer between my junior and senior year of high school. It wasn’t required reading. I had read Melville’s story “Bartleby, the Scrivener”  for tenth grade English and liked it, so I decided to find his other stories in the library.

I liked Bartleby because it was so odd. Bartleby is a kind of clerk, a copyist, “who obstinately refuses to go on doing the sort of writing demanded of him.”  It seems that in the spring of 1851, Melville felt the same way about his own work on Moby-Dick.

Maybe Melville’s writing frustrations came out in this story of a writer “who forsakes conventional modes because of an irresistible preoccupation with the most baffling philosophical questions.” (source)

Herman Melville, 1860

The novel I picked up next was  The Confidence-Man.  Honestly, I chose that novel because it was shorter than the other books. It is subtitled “His Masquerade” and it was the last major novel written by Herman Melville. It was published on April 1, 1857, presumably the exact day of the novel’s setting.

It is about a bunch of steamboat passengers who individual stories connect in that Canterbury Tales-style that is actually pretty popular today in novels, films and TV programs. They move their way down the Mississippi River toward New Orleans.

The con man of the book’s title sneaks aboard on April Fool’s Day and tests the confidence and trust of the passengers. It’s an odd book, but I enjoyed it. I recall it as actually being funny in parts.

After this novel, Melville stopped writing novels. He became a professional lecturer, mostly speaking about the sea travels of his younger life and books. Then he worked as a federal government employee in New York City. He continued to write poetry, but published no major prose work again.

coverAh, but Moby Dick

By the time he was writing it, he had already written books that had sold well. They were books that took people away from their lives to oceans and islands far away that they would never be able to visit in any other way.

But Moby-Dick wasn’t a critical or a commercial success.

Melville wrote a number of books after it, but would die a virtually unknown writer.

Now,  Moby-Dick is famous. There are jokes and allusions to it all over our culture. Non-readers have encountered the story somewhere, even if it was only a film or comic book version.

The resurgence happened after World War I. The “Melville Revival” in the early 20th century centered on Moby-Dick, which was hailed as one of the literary masterpieces of both American and world literature.

He was the first writer to have his works collected and published by the Library of America.  It was rediscovered by ex-pats in Paris and others who saw it as an explanation of what was happening in America (and the world?)  especially as it related to issues like authority and nature.

Do a search on for “Moby Dick” and it  gives you 4000 results. A Google search on “Moby Dick” results in more than 26,000 hits.

It was his first three books that brought Melville to the public’s attention. The first, Typee, was a bestseller. But his popularity declined precipitously in the mid-1850s and never recovered during his lifetime. When he died in 1891, he was almost completely forgotten.

I have always felt sad for Melville that he died in obscurity and didn’t witness Moby-Dick resurfacing in the 20th century as one of the great American novels. Herman Melville (August 1, 1819 – September 28, 1891)  is still best known for Moby-Dick and the posthumous novella Billy Budd.

I will admit that when I reread Moby-Dick, I skip around. I have read it and skipped the whale anatomy “inter-chapters” and it still works for me. But I read them before and they are still, at least partially, in my head, and one time I read only those whale chapters.

A few months ago, I heard a radio interview with Nathaniel Philbrick who lists it as his favorite book. He has written a book called Why Read Moby-Dick?   He says he refers back to it almost daily and finds it “full of great wisdom.”  He sees the whale inter-chapters as “wormholes of metaphysical poetry that are truly revelatory.”

Look at Philbrick’s other books and his life and you understand why.  After grad school, Philbrick worked for four years at Sailing World magazine; wrote/edited several sailing books; moved to Nantucket in 1986; wrote a history of the island and wrote  In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex.

In the Heart of the Sea is the story of the Essex which, in 1819, left Nantucket for the South Pacific with twenty crew members aboard. In the middle of the South Pacific the ship was rammed and sunk by an angry sperm whale.

Sound familiar?

The crew drifted for more than ninety days in three tiny whaleboats, succumbing to weather, hunger, disease, and ultimately turning to drastic measures in the fight for survival. (Philbrick has also written a version of the story for younger readers called Revenge of the Whale: The True Story of the Whaleship Essex.

Ahab in Huston’s film version played by Gregory Peck

Philbrick admits that Moby-Dick a difficult book to read.  I agree with him that it is not a book for students in high school and maybe not even for college. It should be read after you’ve had some “life experience.”  This may also be the case with Shakespeare, who Melville admired and certainly tried to imitate or outdo in some sections of the novel.

On the NPR radio program I heard, Philbrick said that the novel is  “as close to being our American Bible as we have.”

I also find many of the passages poetic.

from Chapter 51 “The Spirit Spout”

While gliding through these latter waves in that one serene and moonlit night, when all the waves rolled by like scrolls of silver and by their soft, suffusing seethings, made what seemed a silvery silence, not a solitude. On such a silent night, a silvery jet was seen far in advance of the white bubbles at the bow. Lit up by the moon, it looked celestial; seemed some plumed and glittering god uprising from the sea.

As a kid, I saw the movie, with Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab, first.  Later, I read the classic comic book version.  I came to the novel itself when I was fifteen.


The crew of the Pequod is mostly whites, but blacks, Indians, Filipinos, and a South Sea Islander are all there under the command of a monomaniacal, revenge-seeking captain.

Philbrick says that the book is also an allegory of mid-19th century America. After all, Melville was writing around 1850 (it was published in 1851) and the madness of the Civil War was sitting in front of him.  The fugitive slave law had just been passed and Melville’s father-in-law was the judge who upheld it. That law said that people in free states were complicit in slavery and had to return slaves to their owners.  Slavery was everybody’s business.

When do I take a copy of the novel off the shelf to reread?

It tends to be in winter. It has something to do with cabin fever – even though I haven’t gotten around to building my cabin yet.

My motivation for rereading it is not so different from the motivation of the novel’s narrator, Ishmael.

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off–then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball.
(via Project Gutenberg)

Sometimes I can fight off that “November in my soul” with a trip to the Atlantic Ocean which is not too far away from Paradelle. But the wintery ocean and beaches (which can be Romantic and wonderful) don’t always do it for me.

So, I return to the novel for a few days.

The New Bedford Whaling Museum’s 16th annual Moby-Dick Marathon was last weekend and they celebrated the 160th anniversary of Melville’s masterpiece with a 25-hour nonstop reading of the book during a weekend of activities and events. There was a livestream of the reading and I dropped in and out and let some of the readers read aloud sections of the book for me. So, the rereading for 2012 begins…

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Ken Ronkowitz

Random by design. Predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente. A lifelong educator.

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