Recently a history professor at a conservative university asked if I would write five blogs for him on the five books every American should read; I’ve decided to post each one here as well.
If there is one book that every American should read, it is Moby Dick. Herman Melville’s 1851 novel is our American epic: it is our Odyssey, our Aeneid, our Paradise Lost. Epics begin by calling on muses to enlighten the author and readers about their subject—journeys, wars, humankind’s great fall. Melville both adheres to this formula and thwarts it. He begins by addressing a muse—though an earthly one, the reader: “Call me Ishmael.” From the first sentence, Melville hands the authority over to the reader to determine the good and evil in the novel. Yet, he also holds back. He attempts a personal relationship with his reader, but the imperative “Call me Ishmael” suggests that may not even be his real name. The ambiguous narrator then reveals his subject—a journey on the ocean, one without destination or immediate purpose. Only after boarding the ship do we discover the purpose of the voyage.
The captain of the ship, Ahab, has declared vengeance on the white whale Moby Dick who chewed off his leg, and he enlists everyone aboard in his mad chase. For a synopsis of the book, see the AT&T Blackberry Torch commercial (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MXu8MO7JkvA), John Huston’s 1956 film rendition starring Gregory Peck and adapted by Ray Bradbury, or attend the three-day read-a-thon in New Bedford (http://www.whalingmuseum.org/prog/marathon.html). What the film cannot capture is the variety of genres and polyphony of voices in the text: Melville incorporates poetry, theology, philosophy, and drama in under 600 pages. Reading Moby Dick is like taking a tour through American culture.
The first time I “read” the book, I was finishing my dissertation. I could not imagine claiming a doctorate in English without having read Moby Dick (with this same motivation, I read Middlemarch). I place “read” in quotes because I bought the audiobook to listen to on my drive. Unexpectedly enraptured by the language, I purchased a hard copy to meditate more closely on the words. Some critics say the novel begins before the first page with Melville’s prefatory “Etymology.” Before he dives into (water puns are inevitable when talking about Moby Dick) a hundred definitions of “whale,” Melville establishes a context: “The pale Usher—threadbare in coat, heart, body and brain; I see him now.” This sentence exhibits Melville’s fascination with poetical syntax.
When teaching the book in my American literature survey (yes, I required them to read the entire novel), I would stop and read sentences aloud. Robert Alter claims in Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible that Melville’s prose was the reason that he was unappreciated in his time: “Nothing like the prose of Moby Dick had been seen before in American fiction” (See Alter’s book for a treatment of how the KJV language appears in Moby Dick). For instance, when describing the whiteness of the whale, Melville writes, “Nature in her least palpable but not the less malicious agencies, [does not] fail to enlist among her forces this crowning attribute of the terrible.” (Why do students memorize SAT vocabulary lists when they could just read Moby Dick?) The sentence takes advantage of the full range of possible motions of tongue, teeth, and lips, as well as uses personification, metaphors, and parataxis: one must savor the poetry of Moby Dick.
In my American literature survey Moby Dick provided the map of our journey from the beginning to the end of the course, and we read other texts intermittently with the novel. For example, when discussing the Puritan sermons of Winthrop, Mather, and Edwards, we examined Melville’s sermon by Father Mapple. This character exemplifies early American religion, preaching similar tenants of faith to that of the aforementioned Puritans. We compared Melville’s worldview with Emerson’s Self-Reliance. Like the famous transcendentalist, Melville asserts, “Men may seem detestable as joint stock-companies…but, man, in the ideal, is so noble and so sparkling.” As a testament to this belief, Melville juxtaposes the mass of shipmates with the individual characters. Melville explores polyphony of voices: Ahab’s, Starbuck’s, Stubb’s, etc. Each character has his say.
Melville inserts a drama into the novel with the different characters’ lines divided as though the scene should be acted. I had my students perform this section aloud, while I played Ahab (sounding more like a pirate than like Peck or like the Ahab of their imaginations). “Who’s over me?” I growled. “I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.” Here, Ahab sets up the conflict of Moby Dick: man against his limitations. Once all the students have read their parts, they realize that they have joined the rebellion. Like Ishmael, each of their “shouts had gone up with the rest.” Therein lies the catch with Moby Dick—the reader must join the journey. The reader never supposes when Ishmael amiably invites her into the story that she will be complicit in the blasphemy of the plot.
In the epilogue, Ishmael quotes Job, “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.” By quoting the biblical character that questioned God’s justice, Melville expresses his ambivalent faith. Melville confessed to Hawthorne, “I have written a wicked book and feel spotless as a lamb.” The confession is ambiguous: what is wicked about the book and why does it then leave him innocent? Perhaps the book is wicked because it causes readers to experience the dark desires of Ahab, yet the desperate acts born of vengeance and pride destroy Ahab and his ship while the reader, alongside the floating Ishmael, survives. Thus, the wicked book leaves the reader “spotless” by acting as a purgatorial venture.