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 √©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.