Why not read Moby-Dick?

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Historian Nathaniel Philbrick lays out a convincing, if scholarly, case for why Moby-Dick is relevant to modern audiences.

Nathaniel Philbrick opens this love letter to Moby-Dick with a strange moment. Melville inserts himself into his novel at several points, but only once does he record the exact time of composition, when he was writing about the wonders of whale spouts “sprinkling and mystifying the gardens of the deep.” It was at, “fifteen and a quarter minutes past one o’clock P.M. of this sixteenth day of December, A.D. 1850.” Philbrick characterizes this as a glimpse of Melville in flagrante delicto while composing his Great Book, and asserts it is his favorite moment in Moby-Dick. Yet Philbrick then must qualify that the words were actually written in 1851, a fact he passes over quickly in order to make the case for the feeling of immediacy and intimacy the scene gives him: “Whenever I come upon that sentence, I feel that I am there, with Melville, as he creates the greatest American novel ever written.” It is this tension between fact and feeling that permeates Philbrick’s book; a historian, he is most comfortable in the realm of hardcore information. Yet in order to write a polemic, a book that will answer the question of why read Moby-Dick, some emotional appeal is necessary. In such situations, however, Philbrick sounds pedantic rather than persuasive, more like a schoolmarm than a seducer.

In order to convince his reader in a little over a hundred pages to pick up a novel Philbrick admits is both “too long and maddeningly digressive” despite its many merits, Philbrick has little time or space to waste. His strength is in characterizing and distilling Melville’s book. He describes how Melville immersed himself in treatises about whaling specifically and seafaring in general, and as a result, Moby-Dick is as much a compendium of cytology (the study of whales) as it is a great novel: “The book is so encyclopedic and detailed that space aliens could use it to re-create the whale fishery as it once existed on the planet Earth in the middle of the nineteenth century.” This might win over a few curious souls, or industrious aliens.

Philbrick also writes well about the influence of the political climate of the 1850s, especially the events leading up to the Civil War, like the passing of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850-1 (Melville’s father-in-law, Judge Lemuel Shaw, was the target of protests when he sent a captured fugitive slave from Boston back to the South). Philbrick argues that Melville makes the ships in Moby-Dick, especially the Pequod, where most of the action takes place, models of interracial harmony where what the narrator of the novel, Ishmael, calls a “democratic dignity” prevailed among the men.

The influences on Melville’s writing of Moby-Dick are summarized neatly by Philbrick, including the vital facts of his career up until its publication. Most critically, Melville had been at sea himself. Philbrick cites Melville writing in the voice of Ishmael, “I prospectively ascribe all the honor and the glory to whaling; for a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.” Melville’s South Sea adventures inspired his first book, the bestselling Typee (1846). The author’s subsequent books, however, had not fared as well artistically or commercially. Frankly, he needed another hit. Moby-Dick would not strike a chord with the reading public or critics for many years. By the time of Melville’s death, it had sold 3,715 copies. Not until after WWI, when readers and writers enveloped the novel in a virtual “tidal wave of praise,” did the outline of the reputation the novel has now become visible.

When Melville embarked on Moby-Dick, he had just relocated his family to the Berkshire Mountains in Massachusetts, quite near where Nathaniel Hawthorne lived. The friendship between the two writers was instrumental to Melville’s composition of the novel. In a well-known essay Melville wrote about Hawthorne he praised Hawthorne’s “great power of blackness.” Philbrick argues that it is a short leap from Melville’s admiration for Hawthorne’s artistry, and his personality, which was also mercurial and resistant to intimacy, to his creation of the blackness in the Pequod’s captain, Ahab, whose monomaniacal quest for the white whale Moby-Dick forms the backbone of the novel. The friendship between the two writers was so important that Philbrick asserts, in a bossy aside: “I would go so far as to insist that reading Moby-Dick is not enough. You must read the letters [between Hawthorne and Melville] to appreciate the personal and artistic forces that made the book possible.” That is a tall order for a guy already pushing a mammoth novel in a slim book. Must we read the letters too? This is the taskmaster Philbrick coming out, or the schoolmarm, and he is a poor advocate for the cause of Melville’s novel.

Other literary influences Philbrick points to for Melville were Milton, Virgil, Shakespeare and the Bible, begging the conclusion that if you are going to write big, read big. But this leads to one of Philbrick’s more puzzling assertions: “Melville’s example demonstrates the wisdom of waiting to read the classics. Coming to a great book on your own after having accumulated essential life experience can make all the difference.” Although this is said in the context of Melville rewriting Moby-Dick, it is odd in a book about a classic. Should we wait to read Moby-Dick as well until we have enough “essential life experience?”

This is another one of those pedantic, schoolmarm moments where Philbrick seems to be imparting wisdom yet by doing so he is undermining his argument. Attempts to seem too hip or contemporary—comparing Ahab to Saddam Hussein, saying Ahab “dials his charisma up to eleven” à la This Is Spinal Tap—also made this reader cringe a little. Melville doesn’t need contemporary branding.

Philbrick is most persuasive when he is being a conscientious historian about Melville and his process rather than a cheerleader for Moby-Dick. Though his book is an interesting companion to the novel, truly interested readers should skip Why Read Moby-Dick? and jump directly into the belly of Melville’s masterpiece.

Lisa Levy is a writer in Brooklyn, New York. She blogs at Deadcritics.com and is @RealLiveCritic on Twitter. More from this author →