Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville, was first published in New York as one volume. It had already appeared in London, the month before, in a highly censored version, and had already generated some comment by the time it hit the United States.
The book was not a success, to put it mildly. Here’s an example from just one of the reviews at that time. Henry F. Chorley, wrote in London Athenaeum, October 25 1851, a review of Moby-Dick which included the passage:
We have little more to say in reprobation or in recommendation of this absurd book…. Mr. Melville has to thank himself only if his horrors and his heroics are flung aside by the general reader, as so much trash belonging to the worst school of Bedlam literature — since he seems not so much unable to learn as disdainful of learning the craft of an artist.
That’s not just a bad review. It’s an assassination of even the ATTEMPT of the book. (a la: “Don’t even TRY, Melville.“) Devastating.
Here’s another example from The London Literary Gazette, December 6 1851:
Mr. Herman Melville has earned a deservedly high reputation for his performances in descriptive fiction. He has gathered his own materials, and travelled along fresh and untrodden literary paths, exhibiting powers of no common order, and great originality. The more careful, therefore, should he be to maintain the fame he so rapidly acquired, and not waste his strength on such purposeless and unequal doings as these rambling volumes about spermaceti whales.
Melville’s reputation would not recover for generations. He had had early success, but died in obscurity. Moby-Dick remains an unclassifiable novel. Would I call it “my favorite”? I would not. But I will say this: It is, hands down, the most exciting book I have ever read. Not exciting because of all that exciting action, because as we all know, the majority of the book is one long marine biology lesson (and those were the sections that seemed to be the stumbling blocks for early reviewers and readers, not to mention current-day readers. Why the hell do I care about blubber? Get back to Ahab!), but exciting because of the sweeping power and transcendence of the writing, and the philosophy. Every page a mind-blower. Every page a revelation. I certainly didn’t get it the first time I had to read it at age 16, but when I re-read it, years and years later, I could not get enough of those marine-biology sections. The brilliance of not only the writing – but the insights and the connections made, the metaphors made explicit – was so daunting and overwhelming that I felt like little Pip when he went mad after falling overboard: being faced with the vastness of the ocean, with God, with the blinding light of it all, he didn’t know how to re-enter reality. That was what Herman Melville did to me with his writing in Moby-Dick. I felt blasted open by the book. I actually found it hard to take in, there was so much … it wasn’t just a good read. It was EXCITING. Unlike any other book I’ve ever read (although Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian had the same density of brilliance, almost overwhelming, on every page. You want to shout at him, “WAIT. LET ME CATCH UP.“)
The book starts (famously) first-person. “Call me Ishmael.” The opening chapters of the book are conventional, in that we follow the narrator through his life, and getting a job on board the Pequod, and meeting Queequeg the cannibal, and all that. It is a first-person narrative. But once they get to sea, strange things start happening. Not just in the story, but in the manner of telling it. Ishmael disappears for chapters at a time. Is Ishmael the one who periodically gives us lessons on the different parts of the whale, that go on for chapters? It’s not the same voice. Is Ishmael sneaking around on deck and below deck, eavesdropping on private conversations? Perhaps, but there are events described in the book that Ishmael could not have possibly seen. Ishmael gives up the narrative. He comes back periodically, but he is not the only voice telling this story. We move from subjective observations (Ishmael), into a professorial tone (the marine biology sections) that then morph into a high-flung philosophical tone. We sit alone with Captain Ahab in his cabin and see what he does when by himself. We stand with Starbuck, alone on the heaving deck, we sway with Pip way up in the masts. Ishmael can’t be at all places at once. The fractured narrative is one of the most unique things about the book. Again, the comparison to Blood Meridian is apt, which appears to have a narrator (“the kid”) who then disappears for the vast majority of the book before re-appearing, devastatingly, in the last chapter. Who is telling the rest of the story? Who is holding the “God-mike”? George Eliot had a “God-mike” as well. Middlemarch tells the story of one village and its inhabitants. But on almost every other page, she launches herself up into the stratosphere to make pronouncements with her “God-mike”, so that this small everyday story suddenly starts to seem dreadfully universal, and you wonder how one writer can see so much. She cannot help but circle the earth from high above. No normal first-person narrator can maintain such an omniscient tone. Herman Melville has his cake and eats it too in Moby-Dick. When he needs Ishmael, he uses him. When he doesn’t need him, he doesn’t use him. He does not explain himself. He does not give us warning that we should not get too attached to Ishmael’s voice. He makes us figure it out. (Comparisons to James Joyce’s multi-toned multi-voiced Ulysses is also appropriate).
When I first read the book as a teenager, I only could deal with the Ishmael sections, because they came close to being part of a book that I recognized: a story being told by an individual man. But pontifications on blubber and spermaceti? What? And how could Ishmael know what Ahab said to himself, all alone, in the middle of his night in his cabin? What about Queequeg? Where did HE go?
But in my reading as an adult, the whole book merged together into a vast expression of something so universal, so frightening, so arresting, that you could not remove one line without unraveling the whole.
Nobody congratulates you if you are ahead of your time. It is only posthumously that you get the glory. I would still say that Melville is “ahead of time”, this book doesn’t fit in anywhere. It is a unique accomplishment. It stands apart from its contemporaries and it stands apart from Now. I suppose some of the meta-commentary trend of today’s novels could be found to have its antecedents in Moby-Dick, a book unconcerned with traditional structure. But still: Moby-Dick remains a unique book. A mess, in many ways: a glorious brilliant mess. We could use more mess in fiction. Melville was “onto” something, and we still haven’t caught up as a culture.
So let’s hand the God-mike back to Melville. Here is one of the chapters that so baffled me as a teenager, and has now become one of my most treasured pieces of writing, something I go to often. Not just because of the magnificence of the prose, but because of what it expresses. This passage has actually helped me, in times when I have found it difficult to navigate. I have remembered those last lines. I have called them up from my memory. It is from the section in the book on blubber.
Assuming the blubber to be the skin of the whale; then, when this skin, as in the case of a very large Sperm Whale, will yield the bulk of one hundred barrels of oil; and, when it is considered that, in quantity, or rather weight, that oil, in its expressed state, is only three fourths, and not the entire substance of the coat; some idea may hence be had of the enormousness of that animated mass, a mere part of whose mere integument yields such a lake of liquid as that. Reckoning ten barrels to the ton, you have ten tons for the net weight of only three quarters of the stuff of the whale’s skin.
In life, the visible surface of the Sperm Whale is not the least among the many marvels he presents. Almost invariably it is all over obliquely crossed and re-crossed with numberless straight marks in thick array, something like those in the finest Italian line engravings. But these marks do not seem to be impressed upon the isinglass substance above mentioned, but seem to be seen through it, as if they were engraved upon the body itself. Nor is this all. In some instances, to the quick, observant eye, those linear marks, as in a veritable engraving, but afford the ground for far other delineations. These are hieroglyphical; that is, if you call those mysterious cyphers on the walls of pyramids hieroglyphics, then that is the proper word to use in the present connexion. By my retentive memory of the hieroglyphics upon one Sperm Whale in particular, I was much struck with a plate representing the old Indian characters chiselled on the famous hieroglyphic palisades on the banks of the Upper Mississippi. Like those mystic rocks, too, the mystic-marked whale remains undecipherable. This allusion to the Indian rocks reminds me of another thing. Besides all the other phenomena which the exterior of the Sperm Whale presents, he not seldom displays the back, and more especially his flanks, effaced in great part of the regular linear appearance, by reason of numerous rude scratches, altogether of an irregular, random aspect. I should say that those New England rocks on the sea-coast, which Agassiz imagines to bear the marks of violent scraping contact with vast floating icebergs – I should say, that those rocks must not a little resemble the Sperm Whale in this particular. It also seems to me that such scratches in the whale are probably made by hostile contact with other whales; for I have most remarked them in the large, full- grown bulls of the species.
A word or two more concerning this matter of the skin or blubber of the whale. It has already been said, that it is stript from him in long pieces, called blanket-pieces. Like most sea-terms, this one is very happy and significant. For the whale is indeed wrapt up in his blubber as in a real blanket or counterpane; or, still better, an Indian poncho slipt over his head, and skirting his extremity. It is by reason of this cosy blanketing of his body, that the whale is enabled to keep himself comfortable in all weathers, in all seas, times, and tides. What would become of a Greenland whale, say, in those shuddering, icy seas of the north, if unsupplied with his cosy surtout? True, other fish are found exceedingly brisk in those Hyperborean waters; but these, be it observed, are your cold-blooded, lungless fish, whose very bellies are refrigerators; creatures, that warm themselves under the lee of an iceberg, as a traveller in winter would bask before an inn fire; whereas, like man, the whale has lungs and warm blood. Freeze his blood, and he dies. How wonderful is it then – except after explanation – that this great monster, to whom corporeal warmth is as indispensable as it is to man; how wonderful that he should be found at home, immersed to his lips for life in those Arctic waters! where, when seamen fall overboard, they are sometimes found, months afterwards, perpendicularly frozen into the hearts of fields of ice, as a fly is found glued in amber. But more surprising is it to know, as has been proved by experiment, that the blood of a Polar whale is warmer than that of a Borneo negro in summer.
It does seem to me, that herein we see the rare virtue of a strong individual vitality, and the rare virtue of thick walls, and the rare virtue of interior spaciousness. Oh, man! admire and model thyself after the whale! Do thou, too, remain warm among ice. Do thou, too, live in this world without being of it. Be cool at the equator; keep thy blood fluid at the Pole. Like the great dome of St. Peter’s, and like the great whale, retain, O man! in all seasons a temperature of thine own.
Quotes about Melville and Moby-Dick:
Apparently Melville shouted the following, as he sat at his desk, writing the book:
“Give me Vesuvius’ crater for an inkstand!”
Michael Schmidt, in The Lives of the Poets wrote:
Moby-Dick proved hard and exhausting to write. But he knew it was original and he understood that it was good. Published in 1851, it was not a success; until the first quarter of the twentieth century it was neglected. Ambitious later books were rejected. The failure of Moby-Dick helped turn his primary attention to verse. Battle-Pieces (1866) was welcomed as peripheral work by a man who had once been famous for his prose. Seriously disturbed in his mind, he made a trip to the Holy Land (meeting with [Nathaniel] Hawthorne in Southport en route), and out of this visit emerged his most ambitious if not his most accomplished poem, the 18,000-line Clarel, twice as long as Paradise Lost, and in the octo-syllabic couplets of Gower’s Confessio Amantis. Eventually, Melville – after working as a minor customs officer in New York – was reduced to dependence on his wife’s money: she gave him an allowance to buy books and to print his later works in small editions for the tiny readership he retained. He died in 1891, quite forgotten, with the manuscript of the prose work Billy Budd completed but unpublished. His reputation was at such a low ebb that even this masterpiece went unpublished until 1924.
Jennifer Howard wrote in Chronicle:
The paucity of primary sources derives in large part from the downward trajectory of Melville’s career. When Typee came out in 1846, he was only 27 years old. A best seller in its day, the book “made him as famous as he would ever be when he was alive,” says Samuel Otter, an associate professor of English at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of Melville’s Anatomies (University of California Press, 1999).
“The name died before the man,” Mr. Olsen-Smith says. “Compare Melville to Mark Twain, for instance – a man who remained beloved throughout his life and after, up to the present. People saved every scrap. … It’s a different story with Melville.’
Jorge Luis Borges on the “cosmos” of Moby-Dick:
“…a cosmos (a chaos) not only perceptibly malignant as the Gnostics had intuited, but also irrational, like the cosmos in the hexameters of Lucretius.”
Carl Jung in The Spirit in Man, Art, & Literature:
In general, it is the non-psychological novel that offers the richest opportunities for psychological elucidation. Here the author, having no intentions of this sort, does not show his characters in a psychological light and thus leaves room for analysis and interpretation, or even invites it by his unprejudiced mode of presentation… I would also include Melville’s Moby-Dick, which I consider the be the greatest American novel, in this broad class of writings.
Film director John Huston, wrote in An Open Book, 1980:
Moby-Dick was the most difficult picture I ever made. I lost so many battles during it that I even began to suspect that my assistant director was plotting against me. Then I realized that it was only God. God had a perfectly good reason. Ahab saw the White Whale as a mask worn by the Deity, and he saw the Deity as a malignant force. It was God’s pleasure to torment and torture man. Ahab didn’t deny God, he simply looked on him as a murderer – a thought that is utterly blasphemous: “Is Ahab Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm?…Where do murderers go?… Who’s to doom, when the judge himself is dragged to the bar?”
Letter of Herman Melville to Nathaniel Hawthorne (a dear friend, someone who “got” what Melville was trying to do, so much so that Melville dedicated Moby-Dick to him):
June 29 1851
My dear Hawthorne ,
The clear air and open window invite me to write to you. For some time past I have been so busy with a thousand things that I have almost forgotten when I wrote you last, and whether I received an answer. This most persuasive season has now for weeks recalled me from certain crotchetty and over doleful chimearas, the like of which men like you and me and some others, forming a chain of God’s posts round the world, must be content to encounter now and then, and fight them the best way we can. But come they will, — for, in the boundless, trackless, but still glorious wild wilderness through which these outposts run, the Indians do sorely abound, as well as the insignificant but still stinging mosquitoes. Since you have been here, I have been building some shanties of houses (connected with the old one) and likewise some shanties of chapters and essays. I have been plowing and sowing and raising and painting and printing and praying, — and now begin to come out upon a less bustling time, and to enjoy the calm prospect of things from a fair piazza at the north of the old farm house here.
Not entirely yet, though, am I without something to be urgent with. The “Whale” is only half through the press; for, wearied with the long delay of the printers, and disgusted with the heat and dust of the babylonish brick-kiln of New York, I came back to the country to feel the grass — and end the book reclining on it, if I may. — I am sure you will pardon this speaking all about myself, for if I say so much on that head, be sure all the rest of the world are thinking about themselves ten times as much. Let us speak, although we show all our faults and weaknesses, — for it is a sign of strength to be weak, to know it, and out with it, — not in [a] set way and ostentatiously, though, but incidentally and without premeditation. — But I am falling into my old foible — preaching. I am busy, but shall not be very long. Come and spend a day here, if you can and want to; if not, stay in Lenox, and God give you long life. When I am quite free of my present engagements, I am going to treat myself to a ride and a visit to you. Have ready a bottle of brandy, because I always feel like drinking that heroic drink when we talk ontological heroics together. This is rather a crazy letter in some respects, I apprehend. If so, ascribe it to the intoxicating effects of the latter end of June operating upon a very susceptible and peradventure feeble temperament.
Shall I send you a fin of the Whale by way of a specimen mouthful? The tail is not yet cooked — though the hell-fire in which the whole book is broiled might not unreasonably have cooked it all ere this. This is the book’s motto (the secret one), — Ego non baptiso te in nomine — but make out the rest yourself.
Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote in 1857, after taking a walk on the beach with Melville:
Melville, as he always does, began to reason of Providence and futurity, and everything that lies beyond human ken, and informed me that he had ‘pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated’; but still he does not seem to rest in that anticipation…. He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other.
Michael Dirda wrote in 2005:
Readers will note that I have said nothing very much about Moby-Dick . But what can anyone say? Its quietly portentous first sentence is as famous as any in world literature (‘Call me Ishmael’), and some of Ahab’s monologues, like the one beginning ‘Is Ahab Ahab?,’ achieve an eloquence rivaling that of the Bible and Shakespeare. There are longueurs, but even in the midst of tedious cetological lore, one comes across such disturbing passages as that in which the Pequod’s sailors squeeze and squeeze and squeeze handfuls of white spermacetti. Then there are the marvelous portraits of the crew — the black cabin boy Pip, who goes mad and loses his sense of self, the well-meaning but weak Starbuck, the mysterious harpooners Queequeg, Tashtego, Daggoo. There are the haunting encounters with other ships, especially the Rachel ‘searching for her lost children.’ And throughout there is philosophizing that at times rises to a kind of prose poetry:
‘All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life. And if you be a philosopher, though seated in a whale-boat, you would not at heart feel one whit more terror, than though seated before your evening fire with a poker, and not a harpoon, by your side.’
In Melville’s lifetime few recognized or even suspected the writer’s exceptional genius — but Nathaniel Hawthorne came close, and the two men established a long-lasting friendship. After their first encounters, the writer of Polynesian adventures went back to his romantic tale about ‘Whale Fishery’ and, in Delbanco’s words, ‘tore it up from within.’ Melville deepened and amplified his novel, enlarged it in every sense, with the obvious hope of joining what he called, in an essay on Hawthorne, that fraternity where ‘genius, all over the world, stands hand in hand, and one shock of recognition runs the whole circle round.’ With wonderful appropriateness, then, the author of The Scarlet Letter — which appeared in 1850 — became the dedicatee of the following year’s Moby-Dick .
Melville wrote in a letter to a friend:
It will be a strange sort of book, tho,’ I fear; blubber is blubber you know … and to cook the thing up, one must needs throw in a little fancy, which from the nature of the things, must be ungainly as the gambols of the whales themselves.
After Nathaniel Hawthorne read the manuscript of Moby-Dick and sent back his congratulations, Melville wrote back:
A sense of unspeakable security is in me at this moment, on account of your having understood the book. I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb.
After seeing Melville in 1857, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote:
[He is] a little paler, and perhaps a little sadder…. and no doubt has suffered from too constant literary occupation, pursued without much success, latterly; and his writings, for a long while past, have indicated a morbid state of mind.
Melville wrote to Henry Savage:
It is–or seems to be–a wise sort of thing, to realise that all that happens to a man in this life is only by way of a joke…. And it is also worth bearing in mind, that the joke is passed around pretty liberally and impartially, so that not very many are entitled to fancy that they in particular are getting the worst of it.
E.M. Forster, from one of his lectures on the novel (put together in the wonderful book Aspects of the Novel), attempts to talk about Moby-Dick, and what it is. No small task. But he, in my opinion, comes closest to expressing the strange power of the book, and where that power resides.
“Moby-Dick is an easy book, as long as we read it as a yarn or an account of whaling interspersed with snatches of poetry. But as soon as we catch the song in it, it grows difficult and immensely important. Narrowed and hardened into words the spiritual theme of Moby-Dick is as follows: a battle against evil conducted too long or in the wrong way. The White Whale is evil, and Captain Ahab is warped by constant pursuit until his knight-errantry turns into revenge. These are words — a symbol for the book if we want one — but they do not carry us much further than the acceptance of the book as a yarn — perhaps they carry us backwards, for they may mislead us into harmonizing the incidents, and so losing their roughness and richness. The idea of a contest we may retain: all action is a battle, the only happiness is peace. But contest between what? We get false if we say that it is between good and evil or between two unreconciled evils. The essential in Moby-Dick, its prophetic song, flows athwart the action and the surface morality like an undercurrent. It lies outside words…we cannot catch the words of the song. There has been stress, with intervals: but no explicable solution, certainly no reaching back into universal pity and love; no ‘Gentlemen, I’ve had a good dream.’
The extraordinary nature of the book appears in two of its early incidents — the sermon about Jonah and the friendship with Queequeg.
The sermon has nothing to do with Christianity. It asks for endurance or loyalty without hope of reward. The preacher ‘kneeling in the pulpit’s bows, folded his large brown hands across his chest, uplifted his closed eyes, and offered a prayer so deeply devout that he seemed kneeling and praying at the bottom of the sea.’ Then he works up and up and concludes on a note of joy that is far more terrifying than a menace…
Immediately after the sermon, Ishmael makes a passionate alliance with the cannibal Queequeg, and it looks for a moment that the book is to be a saga of blood-brotherhood. But human relationships mean little to Melville, and after a grotesque and violent entry, Queequeg is almost forgotten. Almost — not quite…
Moby-Dick is full of meanings: its meaning is a different problem. It is wrong to turn the Delight or the coffin into symbols, because even if the symbolism is correct, it silences the book. Nothing can be stated about Moby Dick except that it is a contest. The rest is song.”
“The rest is song.” YES.
Read it as a song.
Happy birthday, Moby-Dick.