“Call me Ishmael,” begins one of the oddest books in American literary history, Moby Dick or The Whale by Herman Melville, published in 1851 and destined to fascinate and haunt readers forever after.
My first encounter with Moby Dick took place in a classroom at the University of Connecticut. The book itself seemed oversized, like the whale himself, and more than a little intimidating. But in the hands of my seasoned American literature professor, he shrank down to manageable proportions. That is, we began the process of flaying, cutting and slicing, much like the crew of the whaling ship the Pequod was doing with one of their sperm whales prior to closing in on Moby.
This method of examination and analysis certainly does this novel an extreme injustice. As with any masterpiece, you cannot get at its meaning by taking it apart piece by piece. But there is simply no other approach with Melville’s work.
It is difficult to know what to make of this monster of a yarn. It is a strange beast to grapple with even today. One can only imagine what readers made of it when it first appeared in the late 1800’s. Having become accustomed to Washington Irving’s tall tales about Sleepy Hollow and straightforward adventure stories such as The Deerslayer and The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper, readers of that time were probably as baffled by the book as many average readers are today. The narrative framework is about the pursuit of a great white whale known as Moby Dick by Captain Ahab and his crew. Ahab is a borderline psychotic with an revenge obsession. The whale took his leg and he aims to retaliate with an eye for an eye, or a life for a leg. There is something of the religious prophet-fanatic about Ahab, and he bullies his men into taking a weird oath by swearing on a trio of harpoons to kill the beast or die trying. The writing consists of highly poetic and symbolic prose interspersed with natural history, scientific accounts of whales and the process of butchering them and preparing them for the market. There is even a passage written as a drama.
The novel is narrated by Ishmael, the only member of the crew to make it back home from this wild voyage being led by a madman, and at one point he reflects on the cause of Ahab’s madness. “It is not probable that this monomania in him took its instant rise at the precise time of his bodily dismemberment. Then, in darting at the monster, knife in hand, he had but given loose to a sudden, passionate, corporal animosity; and when he received the stroke that tore him, he probably but felt the agonizing bodily laceration, but nothing more. Yet, when by this collision forced to turn towards home, and for long months of days and weeks, Ahab and anguish lay stretched together in one hammock, rounding in mid winter that dreary, howling Patagonian Cape; then it was, that his torn body and gashed soul bled into one another; and so interfusing, made him mad.”
According to an article in Wikipedia, a gigantic albino sperm whale known as Mocha Dick had actually had over 100 encounters with whalers over a period of approximately 20 years in the early 1800’s. Having been a sailor himself, Melville became fascinated with the news accounts of this awesome creature of the deep. He had used his sailing experiences in other novels such as Mardi but had never written specifically about whaling.
Once a popular author and now forgotten and living in Pittsfield, Massachusetts where he worked as a custom’s officer, we can never know why Melville concocted such an outlandish tale. What matters is that Moby Dick endures and is a true work of great literary value. In fact it may the greatest American novel ever written.
Causes Anthony Maulucci Supports
Greenpeace, Amnesty Inernational, American Cancer Society, Red Cross, Save the Children