Reading Moby-Dick

Call me obsessive. Some time ago – never mind how long precisely – I thought I would read Moby-Dick and see the watery part of the world through Herman Melville’s eyes. I wanted to discover another author from this period, of which I am very fond. The early part of the 19th century, also called “the American renaissance”, saw the likes of many of America’s greatest authors: Thoreau, Emerson, Poe, Whitman, Melville, Hawthorne, and others, who are among my favorite writers. While I have read many of these writers, I had not yet explored Melville. Moby-Dick, being one of the summits of 19th century fiction, therefore stood before me as a monolithic work, one that, I felt, would take some preparation.

But something about 19th century authors can make their works difficult to penetrate, at least without a solid understanding of the times and the context of their writings. My reading experience, both of fiction and history, had armed me well to fit the text into the times, but I wanted to know more, to get the most out of this book that is said to be so great.

Several people I know have read Moby-Dick, and they told me how boring they found it; their experiences generally dated back to high school, a time of less patience. It’s clear that as a teenager it could be hard to understand not only the style of the writing, but the overall structure of the book. So, my obsession led me to read not just Moby-Dick, but also Melville.

To do this, I bought the three Library of America editions of Melville’s works: the first volume contains three “South Seas” works, Typee, Omoo and Mardi (Typee and Omoo are “true stories”, says Melville; it is more likely that they are based in truth and embellished substantially). The second volume contains Redburn, White-Jacket and Moby-Dick, all novels. And the final volume contains, in addition to some “uncollected prose”, Melville’s post-sea novels, Pierre, Israel Potter, and The Confidence Man, some short stories, including Bartelby the Scrivener, and the posthumous Billy Budd.

At the same time, I wanted to learn more about Melville’s life, and purchased the interesting yet not over-long Melville: A Biography by Laurie Robertson-Lorant. (The two-volume biography by Hershel Parker seemed a bit much at this stage.)

So, armed with all this, I set out to read Moby-Dick; along the way, I discovered much more than I bargained for.

Melville was a strange man, prone to depression and bouts of incredible literary production. He wrote his first seven novels – or about 3,000 pages in the Library of America editions – in about six years, an astounding rate of production. This writing seems to have been an explosion of pent-up creative energy, which, in fact, more or less dried up after 1857 (or about a dozen years after he started writing). The first six books came from his experiences sailing around the world: from 1841-1844, Melville sailed on a merchant ship, a man-of-war, and a whaler, and all three of these ships are settings he uses in his novels (Typee, Omoo and Mardi feature ships, but mostly take place on islands in the Pacific; Redburn, White-Jacket and Moby-Dick are centered, respectively, around a merchant ship, man-of-war, and whaler).

But all this is actually moot, when considering reading an author’s works, especially in a spurt of Γ©lan, similar to that which Melville experienced while writing them. I read the first six books in about a month, which, for some 2,800 pages of text, is fast, even for me. I was drawn into Melville’s world, and his style, so much so that I almost could not stop reading. These books are not beach reading material, but once I became familiar with the rhythms and tones of Melville’s writing, I wanted more, and kept on reading through his personal narrative of his life.

When I finally got to Moby-Dick, which was the “great white whale” of my personal quest, as well as Captain Ahab’s, I felt I understood not only Melville’s writing, but also his need for using writing as a cathartic process. For many aspects of Melville’s life were dark and disturbing, from his relationship with his father to that with his mother; from his family’s descent from the bourgeoisie to that of small-town ennui. Herman Melville was not a man who could be pinned down in one place, and, after his experience before the mast, he needed to express himself but break through all limits. The great white whale was, for him, more than just a metaphor of life and death; it seems to have been an expression of his own desire to write, to create, to go beyond the simple life he was living at the time.

Yes, parts of Moby-Dick can be seen as boring, but readers generally don’t understand the literary context of the times. This was the period when novels were being born in the United States, where fiction often contained fact; the long chapters on cetology in Moby-Dick, which serve as counterpoint and punctuation to the action in the book are structurally similar to the moralistic and expository sections of other novels of the period. Some people suggest that you skip these chapters, but this would do great wrong in taking out what could be seen as the spermaceti of the book. Melville does not merely wax intellectual in these sections, but provides the subtle background for the great climax of the book. As Ahab struggles with his quest, so Melville fights to construct an edifice of Leviathan proportions, and his foundations need to be solid.

Naturally, no one could write a book like this today. Exposition of the sort that Melville used to explain about whales is considered a great heresy in modern literature; combining this sort of fiction and fact would, today, be the sign of an uncultured scrivener. But exceptions prove rules, and Melville’s great achievement was providing a totally-encompasing whole, in which readers who knew nothing of whales, whalers and whaling, could become immersed in a story that acts on many levels. The beauty of Moby-Dick is this intense plunge into not only the narrative of Ahab hunting the whale, but also the tiny details of shipboard life, the oft excessive discussions of different types of whales, and the portrayals of the different personages who peopled the Pequod.

Now that I have read Moby-Dick, I still have a third volume of Melville’s works to read. While I know that Moby-Dick was the zenith of Melville’s writing, and closed (though not entirely) his writings about life at sea, I look forward to the later works with the same pleasure that I moved ahead through these first six books. Herman Melville was certainly one of the great writers of America’s 19th century, and deserves to be known for more than just a story about a whale; he deserves greater recognition for the universe he created through his books, and the intensity that he transferred from his life to his writings.

30 thoughts on “Reading Moby-Dick

  1. I very much enjoyed your thoughts on Melville, having recently read Moby-Dick for the first time just recently myself. My book club chose it as our ambitious kick-off for the year, and we were all pleasantly surprised by it. Yes, some felt the detail on whaling was a bit too much, but I found it to be as interesting as the quest to find the great whale. Especially when you consider that readers of Melville’s day would never have seen a whale themselves, let alone know much about life on the sea or the whaling profession. Now those sections serve as a fascinating first-hand recording of a time and place long gone.

    The final section of the story was a nothing less than a page turner and I surprised myself by thinking as soon as I finished it, that in ten years or so, I’d look forward to reading it all over again.

  2. I very much enjoyed your thoughts on Melville, having recently read Moby-Dick for the first time just recently myself. My book club chose it as our ambitious kick-off for the year, and we were all pleasantly surprised by it. Yes, some felt the detail on whaling was a bit too much, but I found it to be as interesting as the quest to find the great whale. Especially when you consider that readers of Melville’s day would never have seen a whale themselves, let alone know much about life on the sea or the whaling profession. Now those sections serve as a fascinating first-hand recording of a time and place long gone.

    The final section of the story was a nothing less than a page turner and I surprised myself by thinking as soon as I finished it, that in ten years or so, I’d look forward to reading it all over again.

  3. Thank you for posting this. I, too, tackled Moby-Dick as an adult and it struck me as one of the most magnificent things I’d ever read. Usually, I am embarrassed to admit that 1) I read the book and 2) I liked it, so I was happy to read your comments. Admittedly, I’ve never had much strength in cetology, but I had to admire the way Melville expressed his. I truly adored Queequeg; I wanted Ahab to not only persevere, but to triumph. I not only hated and feared, but also sympathized with, Moby-Dick . It took me all of a summer to read this tome, but when I finished, I truly had that all-too-rare “wow” reaction. I hope to read it again someday, as well as more of Melville’s work.

    I like your method of learning more about the author before attacking his body of work, and have done this with other authors such as Iris Chang and Iris Murdoch, both no longer with us, and living authors like Khaled Hosseini and Carlos Ruiz Zafon via in-person readings.

    Thanks again!

  4. Thank you for posting this. I, too, tackled Moby-Dick as an adult and it struck me as one of the most magnificent things I’d ever read. Usually, I am embarrassed to admit that 1) I read the book and 2) I liked it, so I was happy to read your comments. Admittedly, I’ve never had much strength in cetology, but I had to admire the way Melville expressed his. I truly adored Queequeg; I wanted Ahab to not only persevere, but to triumph. I not only hated and feared, but also sympathized with, Moby-Dick . It took me all of a summer to read this tome, but when I finished, I truly had that all-too-rare “wow” reaction. I hope to read it again someday, as well as more of Melville’s work.

    I like your method of learning more about the author before attacking his body of work, and have done this with other authors such as Iris Chang and Iris Murdoch, both no longer with us, and living authors like Khaled Hosseini and Carlos Ruiz Zafon via in-person readings.

    Thanks again!

  5. It made more sense to me when it was pointed out that the novel was an allegory of the story of Job in the Bible. I have a collection of Melville’s short stories, which are great btw. Moby Dick was a tough read the first time through.

  6. It made more sense to me when it was pointed out that the novel was an allegory of the story of Job in the Bible. I have a collection of Melville’s short stories, which are great btw. Moby Dick was a tough read the first time through.

  7. I have to say I agree with your Moby Dick analysis very much. Viewing the novel in its literary context is the most appropriate way of dealing with such a work. I, too, have read it when I was quite old (34 to be exact) and it is on the shelf the books that I want to reread again at some part of my life. My only disagreement here is your statement that ‘such work’ cannot be written today. This is a bit contradictory as works ‘like’ Moby Dick have been produced since. However, again you have to view these in context again to be able to compare them. A random example is Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow.

    • Ah, Pynchon… Gravity’s Rainbow is, I feel, a bad example. Not to dis that book,
      but never having finished it, I don’t really think much of it. (While I like some of
      Pynchon’s other work.) There is no greater context to that book as there was to
      Moby-Dick – not only was Melville wiriting in the time of the birth of American
      literature (whereas Pynchon was writing in the time of MFAs), but as far as I
      know there is no comparable personal journey occuring to Pynchon. (I could be
      wrong, since he doesn’t talk to any reporters.

      I’m not sure the depth of the two books is comparable – Melville was creating
      his own tradition and style, and Pynchon was writing in reaction to the styles of
      others (including, most likely, Melville, but also Faulkner).

      • As we say in Greece you cant really say anything when it comes to taste. However, to defend Pynchon a bit I think there is a personal journey involved there although a very personal and private one. (How do I know you may ask? Well I don’t… But collecting all the available Pynchon info and reading between the lines in some of the GR (and V.) episodes you can find chiaroscura of purely personal situations).

        GR has been compared to Moby Dick in the past and I am sure that Pynchon had the book as a model for GR. This is in agreement to you what would make Moby Dick a superior piece of work but for me at least they are both on the top 5 or ten of American literature.

        • I enjoyed Lot 49 and I seem to remember reading V, but, for the rest, I got
          stuck. I never finished GR, though I tried several times, and Mason & Dixon,
          while an interesting exercise, didn’t keep me interested very long.

          Top 5 or 10? Well, to each their own. πŸ™‚

          Hmm…. Maybe I’ll make a list of who I think the top ten US authors are one day
          soon… Stay tuned.

  8. I have to say I agree with your Moby Dick analysis very much. Viewing the novel in its literary context is the most appropriate way of dealing with such a work. I, too, have read it when I was quite old (34 to be exact) and it is on the shelf the books that I want to reread again at some part of my life. My only disagreement here is your statement that ‘such work’ cannot be written today. This is a bit contradictory as works ‘like’ Moby Dick have been produced since. However, again you have to view these in context again to be able to compare them. A random example is Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow.

    • Ah, Pynchon… Gravity’s Rainbow is, I feel, a bad example. Not to dis that book,
      but never having finished it, I don’t really think much of it. (While I like some of
      Pynchon’s other work.) There is no greater context to that book as there was to
      Moby-Dick – not only was Melville wiriting in the time of the birth of American
      literature (whereas Pynchon was writing in the time of MFAs), but as far as I
      know there is no comparable personal journey occuring to Pynchon. (I could be
      wrong, since he doesn’t talk to any reporters.

      I’m not sure the depth of the two books is comparable – Melville was creating
      his own tradition and style, and Pynchon was writing in reaction to the styles of
      others (including, most likely, Melville, but also Faulkner).

      • As we say in Greece you cant really say anything when it comes to taste. However, to defend Pynchon a bit I think there is a personal journey involved there although a very personal and private one. (How do I know you may ask? Well I don’t… But collecting all the available Pynchon info and reading between the lines in some of the GR (and V.) episodes you can find chiaroscura of purely personal situations).

        GR has been compared to Moby Dick in the past and I am sure that Pynchon had the book as a model for GR. This is in agreement to you what would make Moby Dick a superior piece of work but for me at least they are both on the top 5 or ten of American literature.

        • I enjoyed Lot 49 and I seem to remember reading V, but, for the rest, I got
          stuck. I never finished GR, though I tried several times, and Mason & Dixon,
          while an interesting exercise, didn’t keep me interested very long.

          Top 5 or 10? Well, to each their own. πŸ™‚

          Hmm…. Maybe I’ll make a list of who I think the top ten US authors are one day
          soon… Stay tuned.

  9. I take the same approach in reading classics, i.e. getting backround material etc. One note of caution. Biographies can be a mixed bag, especially with Melville. I plowed through the horrible Melville biography written by Lewis Mumford. There is so little material specifally on Melville and so much material on the machinations of Mumford. He does have a good turn of phrase but is to steeped in a Freudian ideology. It has at least caused me to seek out more biographical material, hopefully by and author who can be a little more objective and who will provide more specific material on Melville himself.
    Greg

    • Agreed. I have read some very biased biographies (of course it is impossible
      to not be biased, but in some cases it gets excessive).

      Regarding Melville, I’m tempted to read the Herschel Parker bio, but at nearly
      2,000 pages, I’m hesitant. Reviews cover both ends of the spectrum: very
      detailed, or overly detailed. Frankly, it’s a tough balance, whether to include
      everything that seems important, or make subjective decisions.

      Right now, I’ve just started James Knowlson’s biography of Samuel Beckett
      (Damned to Fame) which seems to have a good balance. And for the
      archetype of literary biographies, read Richard Ellman’s James Joyce, which
      combines essential information, anecdotes, details and tidbits, all in a very
      well-written style.

      • I’am going to try a more recent biography of Melville by Robertson-Lorant Laurie. Have you come across any good online biographical information on Melville? My current interest is not in the many interpretive aspects of his works so much as in the biographical details of his life. I cannot help but believe there is more to his Dutch Reformed backround than what I have read so far. There was a Unitarian minister in New York that wrote a book on Melville having membership in a Unitarian Church there. Melville and all of his siblings were baptized in the Dutch Reformed Church and I’am interested in whether his own children were baptized and where. It is details like this that I am interested in rather than what someone thinks about his writings. I would like to see more details about his trip to Constantinople, Egypt, Holy Land, Italy. It was after this trip that he spent some three years on the lecture circuit talking about some of his impressions. Any way, let me know if there is anything out there in cyber space that you are aware of.

        • No, I haven’t found much on line. The Robertson-Lorant bio is good; if you want
          details, though, the two volumes of the Parker bio are what seems to be the
          most thorough. I’m also waiting for the recent bio by Andrew Delbanco to come
          out in paperback; it sounds interesting, but it is said to be more of a "critical"
          biography.

          • As a lover of both Pynchon and Melville I have to comment here. Gravity’s
            Rainbow and Moby-Dick are different in almost every respect but ambition.
            But I have to strongly disagree with the statement that there is no greater
            "context" to GR. While MD provides the context with its exposition of whaling
            and obvious religious touchstones, GR assumes that its reader is familiar with
            the history, culture, politics and technology that it references, along with the
            late 60s sensibilities it speaks to. GR is more like Ulysses than MD in this
            respect; it isn’t a self-contained artifact, but rather a product of its time and
            much is lost if one loses sight of this. I won’t privilege one approach over the
            other, they serve different ends, but its a mistake to think that there’s no
            depth to GR.

            But, having said this, maybe GR and MD aren’t so disimiliar in intent. I think
            that both illustrate an individual’s grasp at meaning, and an assertion of the
            self in the face of an overwhelming force. But they do this for different eras.
            Melville’s externalities are religious tradition and the forces of nature, while
            Pynchon’s are the incomprehensible complexities of 20th century politics, the
            loss of stable cultural identities and the terrifying power of technology. The
            respective styles of the two novels reflect this difference – MD has a straight-
            forward and powerful style, GR is intricate and confusing, baffling at times
            and intentionally absurd. This is necessarily so and is evidence of the art of
            both writers.

            Another note: You don’t mention Melville’s novel "Pierre." This is his last novel
            and is drastically different in style and substance from everything else he
            wrote. Its a self-mocking gothic romance that articulates a post-religious
            moral angst and deep despair. It was an abject failure, even more so than
            Moby-Dick in its time, but Melville referred to it as his "kraken" novel – the
            kraken (giant squid), being the only animal in the sea larger and more primal
            than the whale. I just finished it and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

            • Point taken regarding Gravity’s Rainbow… I’ve never been able to appreciate that
              book.

              No, I don’t mention Pierre – it’s certainly a weird novel. I don’t mention Clarel
              either, Melville’s epic poem, which I have yet to read. It’s possible that Clarel is
              the most "Melvillian" of all his works, given the time when he wrote it and the
              personal experiences behind it.

  10. I take the same approach in reading classics, i.e. getting backround material etc. One note of caution. Biographies can be a mixed bag, especially with Melville. I plowed through the horrible Melville biography written by Lewis Mumford. There is so little material specifally on Melville and so much material on the machinations of Mumford. He does have a good turn of phrase but is to steeped in a Freudian ideology. It has at least caused me to seek out more biographical material, hopefully by and author who can be a little more objective and who will provide more specific material on Melville himself.
    Greg

    • Agreed. I have read some very biased biographies (of course it is impossible
      to not be biased, but in some cases it gets excessive).

      Regarding Melville, I’m tempted to read the Herschel Parker bio, but at nearly
      2,000 pages, I’m hesitant. Reviews cover both ends of the spectrum: very
      detailed, or overly detailed. Frankly, it’s a tough balance, whether to include
      everything that seems important, or make subjective decisions.

      Right now, I’ve just started James Knowlson’s biography of Samuel Beckett
      (Damned to Fame) which seems to have a good balance. And for the
      archetype of literary biographies, read Richard Ellman’s James Joyce, which
      combines essential information, anecdotes, details and tidbits, all in a very
      well-written style.

      • I’am going to try a more recent biography of Melville by Robertson-Lorant Laurie. Have you come across any good online biographical information on Melville? My current interest is not in the many interpretive aspects of his works so much as in the biographical details of his life. I cannot help but believe there is more to his Dutch Reformed backround than what I have read so far. There was a Unitarian minister in New York that wrote a book on Melville having membership in a Unitarian Church there. Melville and all of his siblings were baptized in the Dutch Reformed Church and I’am interested in whether his own children were baptized and where. It is details like this that I am interested in rather than what someone thinks about his writings. I would like to see more details about his trip to Constantinople, Egypt, Holy Land, Italy. It was after this trip that he spent some three years on the lecture circuit talking about some of his impressions. Any way, let me know if there is anything out there in cyber space that you are aware of.

        • No, I haven’t found much on line. The Robertson-Lorant bio is good; if you want
          details, though, the two volumes of the Parker bio are what seems to be the
          most thorough. I’m also waiting for the recent bio by Andrew Delbanco to come
          out in paperback; it sounds interesting, but it is said to be more of a "critical"
          biography.

          • As a lover of both Pynchon and Melville I have to comment here. Gravity’s
            Rainbow and Moby-Dick are different in almost every respect but ambition.
            But I have to strongly disagree with the statement that there is no greater
            "context" to GR. While MD provides the context with its exposition of whaling
            and obvious religious touchstones, GR assumes that its reader is familiar with
            the history, culture, politics and technology that it references, along with the
            late 60s sensibilities it speaks to. GR is more like Ulysses than MD in this
            respect; it isn’t a self-contained artifact, but rather a product of its time and
            much is lost if one loses sight of this. I won’t privilege one approach over the
            other, they serve different ends, but its a mistake to think that there’s no
            depth to GR.

            But, having said this, maybe GR and MD aren’t so disimiliar in intent. I think
            that both illustrate an individual’s grasp at meaning, and an assertion of the
            self in the face of an overwhelming force. But they do this for different eras.
            Melville’s externalities are religious tradition and the forces of nature, while
            Pynchon’s are the incomprehensible complexities of 20th century politics, the
            loss of stable cultural identities and the terrifying power of technology. The
            respective styles of the two novels reflect this difference – MD has a straight-
            forward and powerful style, GR is intricate and confusing, baffling at times
            and intentionally absurd. This is necessarily so and is evidence of the art of
            both writers.

            Another note: You don’t mention Melville’s novel "Pierre." This is his last novel
            and is drastically different in style and substance from everything else he
            wrote. Its a self-mocking gothic romance that articulates a post-religious
            moral angst and deep despair. It was an abject failure, even more so than
            Moby-Dick in its time, but Melville referred to it as his "kraken" novel – the
            kraken (giant squid), being the only animal in the sea larger and more primal
            than the whale. I just finished it and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

            • Point taken regarding Gravity’s Rainbow… I’ve never been able to appreciate that
              book.

              No, I don’t mention Pierre – it’s certainly a weird novel. I don’t mention Clarel
              either, Melville’s epic poem, which I have yet to read. It’s possible that Clarel is
              the most "Melvillian" of all his works, given the time when he wrote it and the
              personal experiences behind it.

  11. Mardi is truly odd–a sea story that turns into a parable about
    British-American relations in the post-revolutionary era.

    As to Moby-Dick, I recommend C.L.R.James’ Mariners, Rebels,
    Castaways
    for a highly original, though also highly disputable take on
    Ahab and the Pequod.

    Finally I’m a great admirer of The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade.
    I have a hunch that among other things it’s about Melville’s rocky relation
    with the publishing biz, but in any case it’s a lot of fun–hardly a novel as
    the
    term is generally used but good stuff.

  12. Mardi is truly odd–a sea story that turns into a parable about
    British-American relations in the post-revolutionary era.

    As to Moby-Dick, I recommend C.L.R.James’ Mariners, Rebels,
    Castaways
    for a highly original, though also highly disputable take on
    Ahab and the Pequod.

    Finally I’m a great admirer of The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade.
    I have a hunch that among other things it’s about Melville’s rocky relation
    with the publishing biz, but in any case it’s a lot of fun–hardly a novel as
    the
    term is generally used but good stuff.

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