Herman Melville is one of the great figures of American literature, even if the vast majority of Americans have never read his work, or, if they have, might have been assigned his famous short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener” as part of a literature survey in high school or college, and probably, don’t remember reading it. Moby Dick, easily his most well-known work, is widely seen as a monstrosity whose ferociousness rivals that of the white whale himself.
While “Call me Ishmael” is probably one of the most recognizable first lines of all time, few people who can quote that line have read any of the words that follow after it. It’s a book that many people buy, or tell themselves that they might read someday, but because of it’s very left, more often than not is only used as a paperweight.
But the work you put into reading Moby Dick is richly rewarded by the experience of having read it.
It’s a real shame that this misconception scares so many people off from reading Moby Dick, because it truly is an amazing work of literature, something all passionate readers should experience at least once in their lifetimes, if only because Melville’s idiosyncratic work so profoundly influenced the voice of the American novel. Yes, most editions do tend to clock in at nearly a thousand pages of fine set type. And yes, it’s true that it can be slow going at times. But the work you put into reading Moby Dick is richly rewarded by the experience of having read it. It is a book that makes you think, that leaves you changed, a better, more introspective person than you were when you started reading.
But even though most people haven’t read it, it’s easy to say that Moby Dick is generally considered one of the quintessentially great American novels, alongside more accessible and widely read works such as Huckleberry Finn and The Great Gatsby. Many contemporary critics considered the work of a frantically overextended eccentric when it was first published in eighteen fifty-one. Instead of praise, it received incredibly mixed reviews, with only a small number of critics arguing that Melville’s book was the work of genius that it is considered today. But in the years since then, Moby Dick (or The Whale, as it was originally called when it was first published in England) has become a universally admired part of canonical American literary tradition, admired as much for its sprawling strangeness as for the superficially swashbuckling tale of seafaring adventure it contains.
When you ask most people who haven’t read it what Moby Dick is about, they’ll say it’s the story of some guy named Ismael chasing a white whale across the sea. They imagine it’s pages and pages of sailing across the bounding waves, storms, and looking for the great beast. And it’s true that the novel was based on a few true stories Melville read in the papers, one about a whale attacking a whaling ship, and the other a detailed first person account of the killing of the albino sperm whale Mocha Dick in the waters off the coast of a Chilean island. But Moby Dick is so much more than a simple whaling yarn. It contains humor, pathos, reflections on religion and God and death, the changing shape of American society. It has its share of farcical moments that will make you laugh out loud, even in the parts of the book that are the darkest and saddest. It is a book about hope and rebirth and despair, as much of a reflection as it is an adventure.
All of this means that Moby Dick can be an incredibly intimidating work to undertake. Famously dense and complex, Melville seems at times to be more interested in diversions on the history of whaling, and variously complex psychological digressions, than advancing the plot of his novel. There is an entire section on scrimshaw, the art of carving whale teeth into elaborate works of art, and chapters on net and harpoon manufacture, types of whales and their dispositions, and the nature of various parts of the ocean.
But once you get into the spirit of the book, such digressions can be welcome breaks from the narrative sweep, like being told a story by a fascinating, if perhaps over-educated, friend who just can’t stop himself from going on infinite digressions about the subjects at hand. Adding interest to this pedantry, the relationships between the characters are complex and tortured, and the whale they seek is no mere sea creature. Moby Dick may be an avenging angel of God, and he may be the devil himself, but either way the reader knows that by chasing him, the brave men of the Pequod are chasing the promise of certain death.
Before the rise of the iPod, the easiest way to hear a spoken word rendition of Melville’s classic work was to make the trek to the annual three-day continuous reading at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, sleeping on the floor and surviving off the coffee and chowder the museum provides participants. Fortunately for curious readers who don’t have enough time on their hands to either spend three days in a sleeping bag, or tackle an extremely dense eight hundred page book, in recent years Moby Dick has been gaining prominence as a spoken work, and is available in a number of recordings, including a version where the opening chapter is read by Tilda Swinton!
Reading Moby Dick is a good way to learn about scrimshaw and the amorphous homoromantic sociality of early American sailors, about the different kinds of whales and the darkness that lurks within the souls of men. It is an homage to the American dream and a eulogy for it. But more than anything, it is a book that the act of reading will leave you a better reader, and perhaps even a better person, for having experienced it.
Movie Info – Previous film versions of Moby Dick insisted upon including such imbecilities as romantic subplots and happy endings. John Huston’s 1956 Moby Dick remains admirably faithful to its source. “Call me Ishmael” declares itinerant whaler Richard Basehart as the opening credits fade. Though slightly intimidated by the sermon delivered by Father Mapple (Orson Welles in a brilliant one-take cameo), who warns that those who challenge … More
Moby-Dick – From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851) is a novel by Herman Melville considered an outstanding work of Romanticism and the American Renaissance. Ishmael narrates the monomaniacal quest of Ahab, captain of the whaler Pequod, for revenge on Moby Dick, a white whale which on a previous voyage destroyed Ahab’s ship and severed his leg at the knee. Although the novel was a …more