In my line of work it’s fairly common to come across people who’ve started Moby-Dick but found themselves stalled somewhere along the way: in the details of the ship, the proliferation of supporting characters, the intimate chronicle of whale-parts and boiling blubber.
That’s to be expected. It’s not supposed to be an easy read. Right now, you could do a lot worse than to read along with my colleague and co-blogger Cyrus Patell, who is offering daily commentary on the podcasts currently being posted by the Moby-Dick Big Read.
But herewith I offer my own top five pieces of advice for taking up the book and living to tell the tale. I culled these hints from my notes for six lectures and codified them in listicle form for a McNally Jackson/TimeOut NY event I participated in last fall. I’d love to hear your responses, amendments, and additional suggestions in comments.
1. Think of the book as two books, really. Melville’s biographers will tell you that Moby-Dick emerged in its final form from a significant act of revision. By most accounts, he drafted an adventure narrative — Ishmael’s voyage on the Pequod, the encounter with the whale — but then spent a full year rewriting, turning it into an encyclopedic masterpiece. Two interventions seem to have prompted the rewrite: he met Nathaniel Hawthorne, his favorite living writer, who was 15 years or so older and to whom he would ultimately dedicate the novel; and he undertook a major study of Shakespeare’s plays. Reading these writers helped Melville broaden his ambitions and hone his skills as a writer of tragedy. If you feel like Moby-Dick contains two books straining against one another, with the action story going missing on occasion, this year-long revision probably explains why.
2. Try to keep track of the two books as you go. Think of them as forming axes along the lines of thought/action, or transcendental/material worlds. One is easily adaptable to film or graphic novel form, the other is a little more ponderous. My colleague Tom Augst refers to these as horizontal and vertical axes, running along the sea’s surface and climbing the ship’s masts, and the novel itself uses a vocabulary of surface and depth. Melville routinely compared reading — really reading — to diving. After hearing a lecture by Emerson, he wrote to a friend in admiration of “the whole corps of thought-divers, that have been diving & coming up again with blood-shot eyes since the world began.” When you hit the thought/transcendental/depth chapters, welcome the invitation to dive, expecting to resurface with blood-shot eyes. Melville was an avid reader of current philosophical thought, and sea voyages, if you were a passenger, were apt settings for long stretches of reading and thinking. He once sailed to London with the German philologist George Adler, an NYU professor, in the 1840s: “We talked metaphysics continuously,” Melville wrote in his journal, “& Hegel, Schlegel, Kant &c were discussed under the influence of the whiskey.” A bit of sub-sub-advice here: Keep an eye on Ishmael. He disappears for whole stretches of the book, and is rarely an actor in events. Those places where he fesses up to action are important, but when he goes missing for a stretch ask yourself why it matters.
3. If you start to feel bogged down in the whaling chapters, try looking for whatever’s not a whale. Lots of readers have trouble with Chapter 32, “Cetology,” for instance, and assume they just don’t care to know that much about whales. But the chapter, if you pay attention, is actually about books, libraries, and classification systems. Ishmael leaves his system unfinished. Why? In Chapter 96, “The Try-Works,” a meditation on melting blubber gives way to speculations about Ahab’s soul, by way of Ishmael’s framing the ship’s labor force as diabolical “savages.” One effect of this comparison is to remind us that the Pequod was named after a native tribe whose villages were burned to the ground by New England’s Puritan settlers, in one particularly brutal instance with 400 people trapped inside. The Puritan chronicler William Bradford’s second-hand account runs thus: “It was a fearfull sight to see them thus frying in the fyer, and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stinck and sente ther of; but the victory had wrought so wonderfuly for them, thus to inclose their enimise in their hands, and give them so speedy a victory over so proud and insulting an enimie.” When it comes to Moby-Dick, in other words, a whale’s probably never just a whale, dead or alive. And in any case, rest assured that the action novel is sure to resurface before too long.
4. Remember that Moby-Dick doesn’t simply inaugurate the tradition of the Great American Novel; it’s also the the culmination of many histories, American and global. Melville’s novel undertakes deliberate engagements with many histories: national, economic, literary, and more. It’s obsessed, as the “Extracts” at the front suggest, with older systems of knowledge and forms of writing. For decades, Moby-Dick was taught primarily as a struggle between nineteenth-century New England transcendentalism and American’s putative Puritan/Calvinist origins. But it’s perhaps as common now to teach it as a profound reflection on the colonial exploitation of the new world. When we read the novel in my survey of American literature, which ends in the 1850s, it functions as a grand finale, and we spend a lot of time talking about how it sums up all sorts of discussions we’ve had along the way, about colonialism, nationalism, slavery, global capitalism, and transatlantic literary markets as well as America’s Puritan-origins myth. The truth is, it’s all of these things and more. Like the sea, it refuses to yield all its secrets to any one reader. But pay close attention to the ethnic, racial, national, and religious backgrounds of the crew and I think you’ll see that the scope of the novel’s meditations can’t be contained by the the adjective “American.” It’s a global text.
5. Remember that the book was a failure in its own day. If you finish it, this should help you feel smug in your ability to recognize its genius. But it’s also important to think about why it failed. Generically it was hard to pin down. Some contemporary readers didn’t even seem to recognize it as a novel; it was originally catalogued in libraries as a non-fiction account of the whaling industry. Melville, who had been a popular writer of South Seas adventure novels, found his reputation in decline, a process that accelerated after he published his bizarre novel Pierre shortly after. He didn’t fully get his due until modernist readers and writers, including D. H. Lawrence, recovered Moby-Dick starting in the 1920s. They were attracted to the precision of his language, his exquisite craft on a sentence level, and to the complexity of his prose. Finally, Melville’s ambiguities and difficulty were a plus. These aren’t attributes that popular mid nineteenth-century authors were known for: think Dickens and Stowe by contrast. To illustrate, and to conclude, I’ll offer one little morsel, a description of whale mothers nursing their infants, though the language should also remind us of the tension between Melville’s two books, discussed above:
But far beneath this wondrous world upon the surface, another and still stranger world met our eyes as we gazed over the side. For, suspended in those watery vaults, floated the forms of the nursing mothers of the whales, and those that by their enormous girth seemed shortly to become mothers. The lake, as I have hinted, was to a considerable depth exceedingly transparent; and as human infants while suckling will calmly and fixedly gaze away from the breast, as if leading two different lives at the time; and while yet drawing mortal nourishment, be still spiritually feasting upon some unearthly reminiscence;- even so did the young of these whales seem looking up towards us, but not at us, as if we were but a bit of Gulfweed in their new-born sight.
With any luck that will get you as far as Chapter 87, at least.