Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Outline for a long post on Moby-Dick

"And so here, O Reader, has the time come for us two to part. Toilsome was our journeying together; not without offence; but it is done...Yet our relation was a kind of sacred one; doubt not that!...Ill stands it with me if I have spoken falsely; thine also it was to hear truly. Farewell."

Humpty and Herman sitting around with some poetry in the background.
Shakespeare is above and to the right. Milton further above and to the left.
Quoting Carlyle (from the very end of The French Revolution) may seem a little odd in thinking about Moby-Dick, but that peroratio comes to mind for me pretty much every time I finish a long and difficult book.

So what are the things that occurred to me on this, my second complete reading of Moby-Dick?

Funny: It really is funny in the beginning. First, Ishmael's voice is comic. He's going to knock the hats off people if he doesn't cut loose in some other way. Then he gets cozened into sleeping with a cannibal. Bildad and Peleg are the Mutt and Jeff of ship-owners.

Three Parts: The novel comes in three parts. There is a little intermingling of the parts here and there, but basically they are separate. The first is everything up till they lose sight of shore and Ahab appears. This is the funny part. We learn about Ishmael, we like him. We learn about some of the other crew members as well, Queequeg in particular. Queequeg, of course, is simply a funny name.

The second part is reportorial/scientific. It's the longest. We learn about whales and the process of whaling. This is the part that bores people now, and I believe where I punted on my first attempt (in high school) to read Moby-Dick. But it is interesting, if less so than the rest. Reading Delbanco's biography earlier informed me to some degree the reportorial was the reason people read Melville's earlier, more successful books. Curiosity about a subject is definitely a reason to read novels, as well as non-fiction.

The third part is the symbolically-loaded tragic ending. I'm not going to do a plot summary. You know how it ends. It is both exciting and affecting, in a tragic flaw kind of way.

Epic Similes: I could have been reading the Iliad. I mean, really, I could have.
"As in the hurricane that sweeps the plain, men fly the neighborhood of some lone, gigantic elm, whose very height and strength but render it so much the more unsafe, because so much the more a mark for thunderbolts; so at those last words of Ahab's many of the mariners did run from him in a terror of dismay."  -Chapter 119
"The ship tore on; leaving such a furrow in the sea as when a cannon-ball, missent, becomes a plough-share and turns up the level field." -Chapter 134
Homer's got nothing on this dude.

Language: Which brings me to language. Nearing the end of my reading I made a list of roughly contemporary novels. (Moby-Dick comes out in 1851.)
David Copperfield, 1849-50
Wuthering Heights, 1847
Jane Eyre, 1847
Villette, 1853
Vanity Fair, 1848
Scarlet Letter, 1850
The language in Moby-Dick doesn't sound like any of those to me, though I didn't go back and look. Not even Wuthering Heights or Scarlet Letter. It's weirdly out of its time. The Delbanco biography said that Melville had ordered up Shakespeare, Milton, and Sir Thomas Browne from his bookseller before he started writing Moby-Dick in earnest, and Melville is clearly channelling a language already around two hundred years old for him. Quite successfully, I'd say. But also: Carlyle. Sartor-Resartus comes out in book form in 1836, and Melville could have read that as well as The French Revolution (quoted above) and On Heroes and Hero-Worship. I have no idea if Melville did read Carlyle, but Carlyle is famous (so it's likely enough) and he's the one roughly contemporary author whose language sounds to me something like Melville's. It may just be that both of them were absorbing Burton and Browne, though.

Macbeth: As long as we're thinking about those Shakespearean precursors, I've seen mention of King Lear. Well, of course. But not Macbeth. But just as Macbeth had two pledges he would not die, so does Ahab. But Birnam Wood did come to Dunsinane, and a man not of woman born showed at the just the wrong moment for Macbeth. So, too, does the Parsee go before Ahab, but appear again; and so, too, does Ahab die by hemp, though in the middle of the ocean.

Quotes: I haven't been issuing quotes from my reading as I went along (though thanks! to Brona and Rick and Denise and Laurie for some great ones.) But I couldn't resist a few myself, even though they're likely enough to be duplicates now...
"It is not down in any map; true places never are." - Chapter 12
"Think not, is my eleventh commandment; and sleep when you can, is my twelfth--" -Chapter 29 (Oh, that Stubb. Another comic.)
"God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught--nay but the draught of a draught." - Chapter 32 (What, was he reading Pessoa, too?)
"For what he ate did not so much relieve his hunger, as keep it immortal within him." - Chapter 33 (Flask sounds a bit like myself as a teenager.)
"I know not all that may be coming, but be it what it will, I'll go to it laughing." - Chapter 39 (Another fine Stubb-ism.)
"To accomplish his object Ahab must use tools; and of all the tools used in the shadow of the moon, men are most apt to get out of order." - Chapter 46
"Thou should'st go mad, blacksmith; say, why dost thou not go mad? How can thou endure without being mad? Do the heavens hate ye, that thou can'st not go mad?" - Chapter 113
"There is no steady unretracing progress in this life;" - Chapter 114 
Some Critics: A couple of years ago I read Lawrence Buell's The Dream of The Great American Novel. I got it back from the library recently, and though I didn't reread the whole book, I looked at the Moby-Dick part; he lumps Moby-Dick with Dos Passos' U.S.A. Trilogy and Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow as one of four approaches to the Great American Novel; these three are under the heading 'Imagined Communities.' (The other approaches are: up-from narratives, examinations of race, and The Scarlet Letter, which he puts in its own category.) I recommend the Buell if you're interested in the subject.

I'm also likely to try to read Charles Olson's Call Me Ishmael by the end of the month, and maybe (maybe!) D. H. Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature. Here are the other posts of mine mostly relating to critical work on Moby-Dick and Melville.

One Amusing Fact: Starbucks, the coffee chain, was named for Moby-Dick's Starbuck, but only after Howard Schultz convinced Gordon Bowker, "No one's going to drink a cup of Pequod!" True that, Howie. (At least according to Schultz' own book , co-written with Dori Jones Yang, about Starbucks and titled Pour Your Heart Into It, quoted in Buell.)

And: you know, Moby-Dick really is something great.

Thanks to Brona for organizing the readalong!


  1. I hadn't thought about Mobdy-Dick in context of other contemporary novels, but, yeah, his language is quite different. I haven't read any Carlyle. Might have to.

    1. Carlyle is stylistically weird but fun. Sartor-Resartus, his one novel, I think is amazing. All the hero-worship stuff of his non-fiction occasionally gets on my nerves, but he was definitely being read at the time.

  2. Melville sure did read Carlyle, did he ever. Dickens is quite the Carlylean, too, but in David Copperfield he had pounded out the Carlyle. Some earlier, but still recent, Dickens texts sound a lot more like kin of Melville.

    Lawrence's Melville chapter is excellent. I have a theory that Lawrence had not read the last chapter of Moby-Dick.

    Is "The Whiteness of the Whale" in the "reportorial" section? I would argue that that chunk is as symbolically loaded as the rest of the book.

    1. Thanks for the cite. I suspected he had but had been too lazy to do my homework.

      My edition of Moby-Dick has the Lawrence chapter & it is good. Generally speaking Lawrence annoys me, but I've had a copy of his American Literature for years, and while I've poked at it, I've never read it through. This would be a good occasion.

      But I'm really looking forward to the Olson. I read it before and remember really liking it, but that reading wildly separated from my first reading of Moby-Dick, and I'm wondering if there will be any special resonance from reading them close together.

    2. Oh, yes, and The Whiteness of the Whale would be middle-ish, thus entirely subverting my scheme...well, not entirely, I suppose. What I call the reportorial section is the one most infused with other elements, though there would also be symbolic elements in the first section (Father Mapple's sermon, etc.)

  3. i found it difficult to believe that Carlyle was serious so i didn't read him much... but i promise i'll tackle him when i hit 80 (4 years from now)... i've been put off rereading MD because of the gore; i could omit it, but then i wouldn't have read the book, would i? these hiccups are what perturb the retired life...

    1. There is definitely gore in MD; the Other Reader refuses to read it for that reason; I don't know, gore in books doesn't bother me in the way it does in movies.

      I like Carlyle better when he seems less serious, and so Sartor Resartus best of all.

    2. p.s.: great post. it must have been a lot of work... tx

  4. You've very nearly convinced me to give it a try!

    1. Good!

      It really is great. I understand why they try to force you to read it in high school, but I don't think the average (or even above average...) high school student has got enough background to make a go of it--I know I didn't in any case. But if you've got enough background that the archaicizing doesn't throw you off, then it's not so hard to get through the more statistical chapters and the language is astonishingly rich.

      You should go for it!

  5. How interesting about the language and how different it is from his contemporaries. It's not a novel that I've determined to never read (once it was on that list in my mind, but I'm not so sure now) but I feel like there are a few other long classics between me and it all the same. (Side-note: I remember quite enjoying Sena Jeter Naslund's Ahab's Wife.)

    1. It really is a great novel, and somewhat in ways one doesn't entirely expect.

      I didn't know of the Naslund, but it sounds like it might be interesting; however, the description of at TPL is wildly, comically awry. (I think!)

  6. I've now finished Moby-Dick and trying to work out how on earth I'm going to sum up my reading experience!

    I love how you've pulled together the literary influences. I'm familiar with the Shakespearean ones, but I've never read Carlyle, so cannot compare/discuss.

    Thanks for your company during this readalong. It has been an epic journey, with great company :-)

    1. It was the same for me--the book is so overwhelming, with so many strands. I hardly covered half the thoughts I had. But I am definitely looking forward to your summing up thoughts!

      It has been a lot of fun. Such a great book and so many interesting and different approaches from everybody. Thanks for organizing everything!