Here’s a hypothesis: one of the reasons Moby-Dick has survived so long in English classes is that the number of Moby-Dick-related essay topics is almost limitless.
Moby-Dick is so vast and contains so much stuff—there’s no better word for it than “stuff”—that you could come up with new angles on it for a whole English degree’s worth of classes. David Foster Wallace wrote three different school essays about just one chapter of Moby-Dick. There are 135 chapters.
In fact, if you pick a word or phrase and append the words “in Moby-Dick,” it could probably be the title of a passable essay. “Environmentalism in Moby-Dick,” “The Excessive Use of Symbolism and Foreshadowing in Moby-Dick,” “Surely Herman Melville Had to Know that Some Readers Would Laugh at How Excited He Gets About Whale ‘Sperm’ in Moby-Dick.” All of these could be great—or at least entertaining—essays.
Right now, I’d title my Moby-Dick essay: “The Latin American Traveler’s Guide in Moby-Dick.” My wife and I are on the Pacific side of Costa Rica—at Playa Negra, if you’re interested, just south of please-just-take-my-advice-and-don’t-go-there Tamarindo. We’re in the first weeks of a nine-monthish backpacking trip through Central and South America. I only had space to bring one book. (My wife somehow had space for a full liter of witch hazel. But I was limited to just the one book. Marriage is full of mysterious give-and-takes, and some involve witch hazel.)
I chose Moby-Dick for my one book because it’s long and has a reputation for being a slog to get through. That’s what I wanted: a book that would take a long time to read—because who knows what sort of finding-yourself-through-travel trash I’d find to read at hostel book exchanges.
Moby Dick, it turns out, is the perfect book to bring for the start of a backpacking trip. Not just because it’s long—though it is—but because, among many other things, Moby-Dick is a travelogue. Ishmael—who’s something of a stand-in for Melville, one assumes—spends more page-space on travelogue-style writing than on, say, discussion of man-vs.-nature whale-hunting quests. He writes about the ocean and never tires of finding new ways to describe salt water. He writes about characters, his fellow whalers, like poor crazy Pip, who says things like “Caw! Caw! Caw! Caw! Caw! Caw! Aint I a crow?” And oh, the trivia Ishmael finds relevant. Did you know: sperm whales grow up to ninety feet in length, narwhals contain little oil, and blue whales likely don’t even exist?
Melville’s a smart guy and, it seems, a savvy traveler. If he found something book-worthy about his travels, then that’s the sort of thing I’m going to pay attention to in my travels. If Ishmael can be endlessly fascinated by the ocean, then I can muster some interest in the scenery even when every Costa Rican beach town starts to look the same, even when it seems like every corner has a “canopy tour/ATV rental” sign. I’ve been noting trivia: Did you know that some monkeys eat other monkeys’ babies? And did you know that there’s a hotel in northwest Costa Rica whose name would be translated to “the fun castle,” and whose advertisement is a picture of a naked man lying on his side with a glass of wine in his hand, his delicate parts covered by a castle? A fun castle. I’ve been watching for characters, like the guy we saw at the fish truck wearing nothing but underwear and Nike sneakers—both dripping wet—buying a kilo of squid. That’s the sort of thing Herman Melville would want me to remember.
There’s a more substantial piece of travel advice in Moby-Dick, but it’s hard to put my finger on. It’s more an attitude than anything, an attitude that comes out in passages like this:
To any meditative Magian rover, this serene Pacific, once beheld, must ever after be the sea of his adoption. It rolls the midmost waters of the world, the Indian ocean and Atlantic being but its arms. The same waves wash the moles of the new-built Californian towns, but yesterday planted by the recentest race of men, and lave the faded but still gorgeous skirts of Asiatic lands, older than Abraham; while all between float milky-ways of coral isles, and low-lying, endless, unknown Archipelagoes, and impenetrable Japans. Thus this mysterious, divine Pacific zones the world’s whole bulk about; makes all coasts one bay to it; seems the tide-beating heart of earth.
That might not have done anything for you. You may have read the first sentence and thought: three commas already? I’m just going to skim this. But this passage appealed to me, to something deep in me—probably because I’ve been spending so much time in and around the Pacific. I get what Melville’s saying about the Pacific. I get it, and I can’t find any words to describe it better than he does. It’s like one of those jokes that you either get or you don’t but can’t be explained.
Melville saw something about the Pacific that struck him as alive and magnificent, and he included it in his book—even though he had to have known most people wouldn’t care for it. In a way, this is travel advice: my wife and I have had and will have plenty of heart-warming, look-at-what-we-all-have-in-common moments. But we’ll also have some experiences that are so personal they’re almost alienating. Savor those things, is what I think Melville is saying. I might be wrong about this, and there’s a chance that this might be one of Melville’s blue-whales-don’t-exist judgment lapses. But for now, that’s my angle on Moby-Dick.