The Magazine

Call Me, Ishmael

An antiquated tale that’s never out of fashion.

Feb 13, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 21 • By EDWARD ACHORN
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"Dollars damn me,” Herman Melville confessed to Nathaniel Hawthorne in June 1851, when he was contemplating the finishing touches on Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. “What I feel most moved to write, that is banned,—it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot. So the product is a final hash, and all my books are botches. .  .  . Though I wrote the Gospels in this century, I should die in the gutter.” Melville wasn’t kidding. His masterpiece, published five months later, got lousy reviews and sank into near-oblivion. It sold all of 3,715 copies during his lifetime, and helped finish him off as a popular writer, though he struggled on for a few more years. It is painful to contemplate the waste of genius that was his subsequent 19-year career as a customs inspector in New York.

Drawing of the great white whale

Moby Dick as seen by Rockwell Kent (1930)

But as we all know, Moby-Dick didn’t die. In the 20th century people began noticing the beauties of this weird whale of a book: its dazzling language, a concoction of Shakespeare, the King James Bible, and 19th-century American vernacular; its embrace of the United States, in all its idealism, frantic moneygrubbing, and diversity; and especially the book’s madness, both as a theme and a means of expression—as Captain Ahab devotes his life to attaining revenge against the whale who chomped off his leg, and Melville indulges in feverishly intense and meandering discourses that themselves hint of mania. It became a classic, flooding bookstores and classrooms—to the intense sorrow of many students, who have consistently rated it one of the most egregiously tedious volumes they have ever been compelled to endure.

“It is too long and too maddeningly digressive to be properly appreciated by a sleep-deprived adolescent, particularly in this age of digital distractions,” admits Nathaniel Philbrick. Philbrick, a Nantucket man, seems quite well suited to write such a book. A Moby-Dick fanatic who confesses to reading the book about a dozen times, he also wrote the National Book Award-winning In the Heart of the Sea, a tale of men who survived through cannibalism after their ship was sunk by a furious whale—a harrowing episode that helped inspire Moby-Dick.

Covering fathoms in only 144 pages, Philbrick offers nothing that could be construed as brilliant or innovative analysis, but he acquaints us with the history of the novel, its major themes, some of its lovely passages, and what America and Melville were going through at the time. It’s not exactly a high-toned CliffsNotes, since it only dips its toe into the book here and there. But it made me want to return to the novel. Moby-Dick is “the one book that deserves to be called our American bible,” Philbrick aptly observes. Those intimidated by its heft and its sometimes-impenetrable prose should start in small doses, he advises: “Even a sentence, a mere phrase, will do. The important thing is to spend some time with the novel, to listen as you read, to feel the prose adapt to the various voices that flowed through Melville.”

It’s not all metaphysics, by the way. Jokes abound. Having not yet visited Nantucket, Melville wrote around his ignorance by looking at a map and making wisecracks about its sandy sterility. It was “a mere hillock, and elbow of sand; all beach, without a background,” to the point that islanders plant toadstools for shade and carry around scraps of wood “like bits of the true Cross in Rome.” Those who have gotten through the opening chapters have been charmed by Ishmael’s dawning friendship with Queequeg, a cannibal who conspicuously displays greater compassion and better breeding than the Christians around him. And in one delightful scene, Melville takes us into a Nantucket restaurant for a bowl of chowder.

Oh, sweet friends! [Ishmael cries] hearken to me. It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuit, and salted pork cut up into little flakes; the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt.

As Philbrick notes, the book is so sprawling that it even includes recipes. Still, D. H. Lawrence, one of Moby-Dick’s most important advocates, was unimpressed with Melville’s endless diversions: “The man,” he wrote, “is rather a tiresome New Englander of the ethical mystical-transcendentalist sort: Emerson, Longfellow, Hawthorne, etc. So unrelieved, the solemn ass even in humor.” As Lawrence saw it, “The artist was so much greater than the man.” And no one disputes that the book almost literally takes us into the depths, through the half-mad Captain Ahab, who stabs at deeper truths about man’s place in this universe. As Philbrick explains, to Ahab the world is infused with symbolism, and Moby Dick is more than a sperm whale; he is “the tool of an unseen and decidedly evil power.”