Alexander Whiteside is a lifelong resident of the Boston area. He received a Degree in English from Harvard University, extension. Alex shares his palpable appreciation of fine literature with us in a perceptive analysis of Herman Melville’s classic work, Moby Dick.
Moby Dick: A Literary Review by Alexander Whiteside
It is difficult to understate the importance of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, or the Whale. It was submitted to chirping crickets in 1851, by an author who was known for autobiographical sea-faring adventures, and its appearance spelt the end for him as a bankable writer. To his misfortune, Melville had written a mature American novel during American literature’s pre-pubescence, and like an awkward adolescent who is too conspicuous with his intelligence, the author was ridiculed into obscurity.
But the book wouldn’t stay down, and has since influenced such a prodigious variety of authors that an attempt to compile a list thereof could easily saddle me with a white whale of my own. An epic quest novel, an odyssey through an ocean of Cartesian philosophy, a brilliant and sanguine portrayal of tortured consciousness, tackling such questions as: Why do the humanities exist? Is there a secular equivalent of revealed religious truth? Does knowledge have any value? Questions that became central to literature at the turn of the 20th century, during which the Modernists, led by Joyce, made the documentation of mundane phenomena in obsessive detail respectable, positing the author of novels as a sort of deity, a creator of worlds and keeper of fundamental human truths, half-promising that a close enough reading of an approved manuscript would bring the reader to an exalted state of secular enlightenment.
As though in response, the second half of that tumultuous century’s literary fiction was dominated by “post-Modernists”, (in quotes, for its adherents are cagy about identifying as such). With oodles of French theory on their side, a group of meta-fictionists, deconstructionists, and other avant-guardians made ascendant the principle that fiction can refer only to itself; there are no secrets, only literary forms, which are beautiful and malleable, but finite and useless. Narrative itself was declared a fictive construct, an artificial mechanism by which dumb mammals may impose verisimilitude to random disordered lives. To Melville’s misfortune these debates were ahead of his time, if not ahead of him. He probably would have been top dog in both camps.
When Moby Dick was published, the idea of the Great American Novel was a long ways off, much less the idea that the notion was quaint and antiquated. This is because the author invented the prototype. In 1851 the American novel, great or otherwise, was barely a blip. With Melville’s friend Nathaniel Hawthorne as the standard-bearer, American novels tended to be colonial outposts of English literature that contained nothing distinctly American about them, besides locale.
Moby Dick cast the mold for centuries of ambitious novelists. An experimental novel, full of stylistic virtuosity and scholastic versatility; a novel of ideas, with philosophy on at least equal footing with psychology; a novel exploring the determination and destiny of the individual; a parable full of scope and lyricism. In short, a sizable portion of what American literature strived to be, with some great successes, before petering out into a sprawl of Young Adult novels.
Superficially, the main attraction of Moby Dick is the whale, which, like most dramatized monsters, appears infrequently. It’s constituent parts, however, are poured over with great deliberation, particularly its whiteness, of which the narrator wonders: “Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color, and that at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows – a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink.” The whale is an evolving metaphor, a behemoth blank page onto which a splenetic palimpsest is written over the course of the novel. Moby Dick is a prose experiment guided by metaphysics, and its central metaphor had to be capacious enough to contain the pyrotechnics, for Melville approaches his subject with the kitchen sink in tow.
There is also Ahab, one of the most enduring characters in all of literature. His monomaniacal pursuit of the whale has glossed him as a patron saint of lost causes. Ahab is at odds with nature, with destiny, and with his fellow man; a misanthrope of epic proportions. His perpetual appeal is unsurprising. He has all the charisma of Gatsby without the pretense; all the complexity of Raskolnikov with far less self-pity. But in the end he is probably a lunatic pursuing a figment of his imagination in a manner neither noble nor courageous; motivated by the dumb caprice of belligerent madness. But maybe not.
The novel begins with a conventional narrative fake-out, a favorite device of almost every experimentalist since. There is a brisk and well-plotted 70 pages or so, in which Ishmael meets Queequeg and joins up with Captain Ahab’s Pequod, at which point the rudder makes a sharp tack towards the arcane. The book becomes an encyclopedic catalog of the functional minutiae of whaling, which is an odd way to structure a novel, in anyone’s century. It is almost explicable that the book, in its day, was chalked up to a mental breakdown or premature senility on the part of its author. However, this might be news to someone who’s only seen television and film adaptations of the novel, who might forgivably assume that Moby Dick is similar to the swashbuckling potboilers of the artist’s early career, as a presentation of the novel’s incidents makes for an eventful couple of hours. But it is a very big book, and incidents make up a very small part of it.
It should be said that Moby Dick is an extremely neurotic novel, and the nature of neurosis is personal and repetitious. Regarding the novel’s glut of factual detail, Edward Dahlberg once remarked “I don’t read a novel to prepare to be a whale-man.” Fair enough, but there is a certain joy in observing a brilliant and cluttered consciousness processing information beyond its understanding, integrating every available bit of phenomena into a narrative of the search for the elusive meaning therein. If the book were brought off as the biblical parable it pretends to be, the result would have probably been something less spectacular. Still, it’s important to bear with the narrator, as brevity and accessibility are not parts of his purpose.
One needn’t even begin the book to get a sense of its pace. Before the thunderous utterance of “Call me Ishmael”, the reader is treated to a selection of “Extracts”, an impressive compilation of quotes supposedly referencing every existent work regarding whales. The result is rather more zany than informative. It is difficult to draw much from the collection besides a realization of the multiplicity of the subject, foreshadowing the source of much of the intellectual tension in the novel. One quote contradicts the next, which contradicts another down the line, etc…
The novel follows a similar logic, which is both fascinating and infuriating, as the voyage’s variety of metaphorical interpretations threatens to devolve into incoherence. The presence of nihilism looms heavily over the text, lurking in the wakes of all the turned phrases, threatening to negate all the author’s beautiful similes and inductions. There are no words that can ward away death. So is it all for naught? Probably. But even if it is only shouting at the void, the density of the book is necessary.
Melville’s main achievement is that he built an almost-seaworthy vessel made entirely of verbiage. As Ishmael reconstructs the labyrinthine circumstances of his ruination, every joist on the Pequod is evoked, examined, and polished to a murky sheen. But Melville sees an inherent design flaw in language: It cannot describe the indescribable. And so, with diligence, he destroys his construction. Words can alter understanding, but in the end they cannot hold water.
At one point Melville writes: “This whole book is but a draught – nay, but the draft of a draft. Oh time, strength, cash, and patience.” The lament is an ironic one, for words will not tell the whole truth, no matter how long they are considered. It is impossible to come to a complete understanding of events in which humans participate, for such involves the examination of every motive and inclination of every participant in every event, and every means they have available to them, which becomes untenable at a very low number of variables, so the search will go on in perpetuity.
Ultimately Moby Dick is a cosmic joke on a grand scale; funny, brooding, cynical, eloquent, bombastic, poetic, prosaic, rueful, hopeful, stoic, and angry. The lofty and stuffy aura that surrounds Melville these days is almost certainly an issue of the prose’s tone, because his closest literary forbear is probably Laurence Sterne, icon of ebullient irony and arch-foe of the somber, whose Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman acts like a picaresque, only to digress into extended dissertations on obstetrics and naming procedures instead. But Sterne had written a bawdy and cerebral comic romp, while Melville offers up a sexless (if women are assumed to be part of the equation) leviathan wholly populated of men and their more curious and vainglorious pursuits, which is nonetheless very funny.
Whaling was a dying vocation in Melville’s day, and the author knew as much. The industrial revolution was well underway, and Melville’s skillfully drawn whaling port of New Bedford would soon be taken over by textiles, with streets lit by whale oil’s victorious competitor, kerosene. He was in the right place at the right time for a great book. A whaler was the perfect milieu for a Modern novel, a culture in an acute state of decay, a ship caught in the furious current where the past and the future meet.
Sixty-some-odd years after publication, the novel was finally excavated from the ocean’s floor and found to be state of the art; too late for its author who lingered in obscurity until the 1890s. But prescience can only be observed in hindsight, and Melville was simply too far ahead of the chronological curve. Moby Dick remains an important novel for anyone interested in American literature. Don’t be scared. Give it a shot.