Despite owning Moby-Dick and occasionally dipping into Moby-Dick, I have never actually plowed through the whole thing. Hmmm. Major character flaw. But second—and third—chances abound. Nathaniel Philbrick whets the appetite for the quest to conquer the great white whale. In Why Read Moby-Dick? Philbrick applies his considerable knowledge of all things nautical to an historical-psychological analysis of the elements of Melville’s epic novel, making the case for tracking Ishmael’s leviathan adventures.
Did you realize the book doesn’t begin with that most famous of opening lines: Call me Ishmael? Instead, Melville begins with an etymological disquisition of the word “whale” and then inserts a chapter of “Extracts,” quotes about whales from all of literature, from Darwin to the Bible. Finally we reach Chapter 1, “Loomings,” and Ishmael recounts his adventures.
Philbrick’s argument consists of short, readable chapters on such topics as Landlessness, Nantucket, The Anatomy of a Demagogue, Chowder, Sharks, Queequeg, Desperado Philosophy and Ahab’s Last Stand. We discover the light and dark juxtaposition of the characters Pip and Fedallah, see whaling Nantucket, a grimmer more graceless outpost than the picture-postcard vacation retreat it is today, experience a dizzying ascent up the mast to the crow’s nest and the giddy view down to the depths of the bottomless sea that awaits a single, careless misstep.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, to whom Philbrick dedicated Moby-Dick, gets a lot of ink in the book. He served as a somewhat reluctant mentor and muse to the younger Melville. The two were polar opposites in temperament—Melville was confessional and gregarious; Hawthorne was reclusive and reserved. But their acquaintance seems to have deepened into a friendship that Melville drew upon for inspiration and that prompted him to completely rewrite a lighthearted whaling book and produce the classic that has lasted for 150 years.
Moby-Dick was strongly colored by the growing American conflict over slavery that dominated political discourse as Melville wrote. The novel is a stark depiction of economic and social reality, the classes that owned the whaling ships and those that signed onto them, and the unusual demographics of whaling crews from varied cultures and geographies. It has relevance for all the times that followed its creation, through the bloody Civil War, the violent twentieth century and the abuses of power and the environment that characterize our own time.
You can learn to make an authentic chowder by reading Moby-Dick and you can watch as a whale is butchered for its valuable oil—the pre-gasoline fuel that drove a nineteenth-century economy. The personalities and issues thrown in high relief by the enforced intimacy of a long sea journey on a small ship are metaphoric and archetypal—rich material for discussion and dissertation. But Philbrick rests his case on Melville’s basic optimism. Read Moby-Dick, he says, because its author found a way to see the clownishness and chaos of this short life with both skepticism and hope. Read Moby-Dick for a great adventure, enacted by a memorable cast and delivered from despair by a buoyant belief in redemption.
Why Read Moby-Dick? Nathaniel Philbrick | Viking 2011