Readers return to Moby-Dick year after year. I return to it in some form of reading every year. Often at the end of the year. This December, I have turned to it again, but in 2020 I think I can only handle selected chapters. (Feel free to guess at which chapters I will revisit.) The full voyage is too much for me this year.
When Melville’s father died in 1832, he lost his financial security. He tried being a teacher (school-master) and clerking (“I prefer not to.”), but it wasn’t for him and they didn’t pay very well.
In 1840 he signed up on the whaler, Acushnet, out of New Bedford, Massachusetts. He was just 21. He lasted two years before the mast and then he deserted the ship he was on. He got several novels from his days at sea and on the exotic islands after he jumped ship.
Published in 1851, Captain Ahab and his monomaniacal pursuit of the white whale is mythic grandeur, poetic, and very symbolic.
The novel’s narrator, Ishmael, is our guide and the filtered lens that we view Ahab, Queequeg, Starbuck and the others.
One year, I only reread the “inter-chapters” of the natural history of whales. That reading is far less existential.
Melville knew he was taking on very big themes in the novel. His first publisher in England of Moby-Dick, or, The Whale hoped that good readers would find in it not only an adventure story but also “a pregnant allegory to illustrate nothing less than the mystery of human life.”
An episode of the program Open Source with Christopher Lydon this year reminds us that “For a century now, Moby-Dick has been read as something like American Scripture, surely our greatest novel. It gets read as a complex mirror of the age before the Civil War but also of a nation’s fate for all time.”
Why read Moby-Dick? Like the tales of King Arthur, different ages find different things in the story and characters. What can a story from the mid-1800s tell us about our own reality?
A book is a mirror. If a fool looks into it, you can’t expect a genius to look back. The mirror and the book don’t change, but the person gazing into it does and that changes what you see in yourself and the background where you stand.
The novel has been studied and analyzed as a psychological study, philosophical treatise, a story of whaling, a romance, a sea adventure full of eccentric characters, a symbolic allegory, and a drama of heroic conflict.
On the program, they look at the novel as a “textbook on tyranny, as eco-warning, as queer fiction, as a meditation on race, as American magic and American tragedy.”
They walk the novel through American history:
“Before the Civil War, when Melville wrote Moby-Dick, you saw shadows of slavery on a free society.
In World War One, it was about merchant empires crashing.
In the Cold War reading, it was free Ishmael against Ahab’s dictatorship.
In Eco Time, it’s about a war on nature, at sea.
In Obama time, it was about Queequeg, the noble stranger.
In Trump time, it’s about Ahab’s rage and his grip on the crew, his base.”
And in this pandemic and politics year that may well be the strangest of our lifetime, what will I find when I set sail once again on the Pequod?
This time, I am setting sail with an audiobook version of the novel. There are so many editions of Moby-Dick (print and audio) that I could pick a new one every year and not run out in this lifetime.
Is Moby-Dick my favorite novel? In Elizabeth Hardwick’s words, it is“the greatest novel in American literature.” Is Citizen Kane my favorite film? It is often called “the best American film ever.” I answer No to the favorite question, but they are both great works that I have gone to multiple times as a reader and viewer.
The Moby-Dick Big Read
Was There a Real Moby Dick? from the New Bedford Whaling Museum