Authors and After Words

This is the time of the year for resolutions. I’ve already made one. This coming year I am actually going to read the classics I’ve never read and re-read the ones I’ve read and have always wanted to re-read. I’ll begin with a book I have carried with me since I was a child. I inherited the book from an aunt I’d met only once. We hit if off though, and evidently, she thought that Moby-Dick was just the thing to broaden a young boy’s imagination. I’m happy to report that it still works on me.

Before we reconsider Melville’s great book, however, consider the following conundrums. Are the terms “classic” and “masterpiece” inter-changeable? Does a classic have to be a masterpiece? Is a masterpiece pre-ordained to become a classic? Is a book that is labeled a classic or a masterpiece guaranteed to be a “good read?” And just what constitutes a “good read?” These last two questions are particularly applicable to Moby-Dick because a huge hunk of its six or seven hundred pages, depending on the edition, seems more to be endured than enjoyed. I refer to the ongoing accounts in the center of the narrative that provide the reader with more information about whaling in general and sperm whales in particular than one is ever likely to need in a land-lubberly life.

Moby-Dick saw first ink in London on October 18, 1851 in an incomplete version. It came out in America on November 14, 1851 in a more complete version published by Harper and Brothers. Initial reception to both was mixed. As a matter of fact, more or less from Moby-Dick forward, Melville’s career was troubled to the point of near oblivion. It took until the 1920s and the so-called “Melville Revival” for his work to be re-evaluated and his place in American and world literature secured. This re-evaluation was spurred on by Raymond Weaver’s biography, Herman Melville: Man, Mariner, and Mystic in 1921 and the subsequent publication of Weaver’s edited version of Melville’s last book, Billy Budd.

Like Joseph Conrad, Herman Melville wrote directly out of a sailor’s experience. He first shipped out in 1839 as a cabin boy sailing out of New York to Liverpool and returned later on the same ship. This voyage interrupted his schooling at Albany Academy from 1837-1840, after which he taught for a while. But his teaching was not to last long, for on January 3, 1841 he went to sea once again, this time on a whaler, the Acushnet, sailing out of New Bedford, Massachusetts. This became a deeply significant event for Melville. He later accounted it the day his life actually began and then went on to embellish the significance of that year symbolically in Moby-Dick, setting the Pequod to sail from Nantucket on Christmas day, 1840, and so to live out it’s final voyage in the new year, 1841.

While Melville’s sea faring experience provided both the back-ground and the specific details of whaling which were to inform his great novel, it was not the only impetus for the book. In 1820, the Nantucket whale ship Essex eventually sank after it was rammed by a large sperm whale some 2,000 miles off the western coast of South America. In 1839 Melville read of the alleged end of another marauding whale. Since the 1810s, in the waters off the Chilean Island of Mocha, whalers had been terrorized by more than a hundred attacks by an albino sperm whale by the name of Mocha Dick. His attacks were characterized by what his victims perceived as a “premeditated ferocity,” and he reportedly met his end bearing dozens of harpoons acquired in numerous escapes prior to his last battle. There were other reports of whales returning their hunters’ aggression, and they continued until harpooning was mechanized with the harpoon gun, thus destroying the 19th century balance between predator and prey.

Now then, on to the perceived problem of Melville’s encyclopedic accounts of whales and whaling. Such a reaction is only natural in an age in which we’ve developed a taste for instant gratification, but Melville wrote in a time when reading was a prime form of entertainment. In such a time, writers were expected to provide more expansive visions than they are these days. Such visions reflected a world that was proportioned quite differently from our own. I’ve already mentioned the balance between predator and prey which Melville reflects upon when he remembers the human cost of the sperm oil that lit the comfortable rooms of the growing middle class; the very light by which his own words may have been read. Melville, moreover, lived in a world of surface travel that accurately reinforced the spatial relationship of man to his actual habitat. The experience of sailing across an ocean, even in a fast, modern ocean liner, tells one much about the true proportions of our lives which are obscured by air travel and super-fast, modern trains. The structure of Melville’s great book, and one of the marks of his subtlety, is the time he takes to get the reader to the final confrontation between Ahab and Moby-Dick. By filling so many pages the way he does he provides us with a replication of the passage of time in that long voyage of revenge. Even more importantly, the things we learn in the process provide us with the historical context of that voyage – what it means to pursue so great a prey, what it means to experience the sea in a fragile wooden boat and most importantly Melville’s profound, mystical and metaphorical experience of the sea.

In a vivid appreciation of Moby-Dick in his book, Studies in Classic American Literature, D. H. Lawrence took care to summarize the shape and movement of the novel in order to express his own deep response to the enormous catharsis Melville accomplishes in the final meeting of Ahab and Moby-Dick. But there is more to Melville’s achievement than a conflict, the working out of a destiny, and the structural control it takes to tell such a powerful tale. For my part, the great gift of this novel is the incredible beauty of Melville’s language. Melville wrote a transcendental prose that blooms into pure poetry. In a golden age of American literature, he produced one of our most sustained poetic masterpieces. Those who still pursue the goal of the great American novel need look no further than Moby-Dick.

In his parable of revenge Melville wrote of the blindness of power in the great men of his age and the cost born by those who serve them – the Ishmaels, the Queequegs, the Starbucks. Think of all the little and not so little Ahabs abroad today and what their frantic pursuits of political power, of enormous wealth, of spiritual domination cost us – and then tell me that Melville’s grasp of the world does not mightily transcend his own time and space. With that transcendence comes the cold comfort that the ultimate destiny for all human hubris is an ultimate silence like that of the everlasting sea.