"Call me Ishmael."
So begins Herman Melville epic seafaring novel, ostensibly about whaling, an American Odyssey recounting Captain Ahab's obsessive pursuit of a great oil-carrying sperm whale, Moby Dick.
The story tells the adventures of wandering sailor Ishmael, and his voyage on the whaleship Pequod, commanded by Captain Ahab. Ishmael soon learns that Ahab has one purpose on this voyage: to seek out Moby Dick, a ferocious, enigmatic white sperm whale. In a previous encounter, the whale destroyed Ahab's boat and bit off his leg, which now drives Ahab to take revenge.
It’s a hard sell Nathaniel Philbrick has undertaken in “Why Read Moby-Dick?” The novel’s plot has been recycled for decades, inspiring films, radio dramas, cartoons, comic books, a television mini-series, a couple of heavy metal albums, a music video and a rap rendition. How many potential readers approach the masterwork of Herman Melville without already knowing the story of Captain Ahab and the white whale? Any? And why would such an overly exposed audience embrace a work of such heft, especially as almost every edition carries the added weight of ponderous academic commentary? “Moby-Dick” would appear to be one of those unfortunate books that are taught rather than enjoyed.
But who knows how many teeter in the aisles of Barnes & Noble, both drawn and repelled by the promise of edification? It’s the historian Nathaniel Philbrick’s intent to give those uncertain consumers a gentle shove toward the “one book that deserves to be called our American Bible.” He wants “you — yes, you — to read . . . ‘Moby-Dick.’”
Philbrick, whose “In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex” recounted the real-life inspiration for Melville’s shipwreck, wears his erudition lightly. He broaches the novel in quirky thematic fashion, with gracefully written compact essays on topics like landlessness, chowder and sharks. His voice is that of a beloved professor lecturing with such infectious enthusiasm that one can almost, for a moment, believe in the possibility of a popular renaissance for Melville. But convincing and beguiling though his slender apologia is (the whole of it taking up less than a quarter of the space allotted to the Norton Critical Edition’s appendixes), Philbrick doesn’t have an audience held captive in a classroom.
Still, his Bible metaphor applies in that not only is “Moby-Dick” a big fat book about the wages of sin and the elusiveness of redemption, but also one to which zealots return even as potential admirers push it away, put off by its size and its longtime residence on literature courses’ reading lists.
It’s too bad. More capacious than ponderous, “Moby-Dick” has the wild and unpredictable energy of the great white whale itself, more than enough to heave its significance out of what Melville called “the universal cannibalism of the sea” and into the light. Melville challenged the form of the novel decades before James Joyce and a century before Thomas Pynchon or David Foster Wallace. Calling for tools befitting the ambition of his task — “Give me a condor’s quill! Give me Vesuvius’s crater for an ink stand!” — Melville substituted dialogue and stage direction for a chapter’s worth of prose. He halted the action to include a parody of the scientific classification of whales, a treatise on the whale as represented in art, a meditation on the complexity of rope, whatever snagged his attention. Reporting the exact day and time of his writing in a parenthetical aside, he “pulled back the fictive curtain and inserted a seemingly irrelevant glimpse of himself in the act of composition,” the moment Philbrick identifies as his favorite in the novel. Melville may not have called this playfulness metafiction, but he defied strictures that shaped the work of his contemporaries, including that of Nathaniel Hawthorne, to whom he dedicated “Moby-Dick,” calling it a “token of my admiration for his genius.”
Ahab doesn’t appear until the 28th of its 135 chapters. The vestigial plot is of the train-wreck variety. There is no conflict moving toward a crisis in “Moby-Dick” because the crisis is long past, the battle for the soul of the antihero won in a summary flashback made even more remote by the delirium that followed the castrating bite that took off Ahab’s leg. The one emotion returned to him is vengeance, Ahab now “shaped in an unalterable mould.” The die is cast; what’s left of the narrative is denouement, all the characters save the narrator, Ishmael, dragged inexorably toward destruction.
Philbrick reads the captain as a demagogue blinded by his profane quest. Ahab manipulates his crew into squandering both his investors’ funds and their own lives to satisfy his immoral agenda — piloting his ship toward a doomed conflict with a murderous, uncontrollable, unstoppable monster variously interpreted as nature, God, fate and, on a level particular to the history of the United States, slavery. “I’d strike the sun if it insulted me,” Ahab admits, supporting Philbrick’s suggestion that “instead of writing history, Melville is forging an American mythology.” Purer in his pride than a mere mortal, his grandness “plucked at from the skies, and dived for in the deep,” the captain is more Icarus than Tom Joad or Rabbit Angstrom. Melville’s America hurtles toward civil war, hobbled by slavery, as Ahab has been deformed by his first encounter with the evil that will drag him down to his death. His vision is both intimate, examining the intricacies of the tattoos on a savage’s leg and, sometimes, exalted.
For Ishmael, “a dreamy meditative man,” the vantage from the masthead “is delightful. There you stand, a hundred feet above the silent decks, striding along the deep, as if the masts were gigantic stilts, while beneath you and between your legs, as it were, swim the hugest monsters of the sea. . . . The tranced ship indolently rolls; the drowsy trade winds blow; every¬thing resolves you into languor.” The description is what Philbrick calls a “little sidebar of miraculous prose, one of many that Melville scatters like speed bumps throughout the book as he purposely slows the pace of his mighty novel to a magisterial crawl.” But if the ship is becalmed or blown off course by one flight of fancy or another, each diversion is just a little stay of the end’s certain execution.
If light and life are composed of color, the whiteness of the whale is the “pallor of the dead” and “the shroud in which we wrap them.” The color is “the most meaning symbol of spiritual things,” Melville wrote, and “Moby-Dick” belongs as much to the 20th or 21st century as to the 19th. Fascism, the Holocaust, the threat of nuclear annihilation, terrorism — every failure of humanity can be projected onto the blank canvas of the beast’s unwitting head.
Melville sailed on whaling expeditions and understood well the crushing labor required to sustain America’s prosperity — to keep the whale oil burning in a rich man’s lamp — as well as the delicate maneuvering required to pilot a crew whose “demographic diversity,” as Philbrick calls it, predicted America’s future. Caucasians, Indians, African-Americans, varied islanders, all are, Melville wrote, “federated along one keel” of the “death-glorious” Pequod, a ship both “hearse” and “fading phantom.” A misdirected melting pot, it sails on, as Philbrick notes, under “a man divided, seared and parboiled by the conflagration raging inside him,” one who heedlessly sacrifices all those who have pledged their allegiance to him.
“The mythic incarnation of America: a country blessed,” in Philbrick’s words, “by God and by free enterprise that nonetheless embraces the barbarity it supposedly supplanted,” we are a nation, and a species, ever poised on self-destruction. “Listen to every word” Philbrick says of what might be read as a cautionary tale, betraying an optimism he cannot have drawn from Melville. After all, the ending he saw was unavoidable extinction.