So, see, it fits here on Crime Pays.
It is pretty tempting to just note that there has been an ocean's work of ink spilled on this book, and you could just go read this review of Nathaniel Philbrick's slim collection of essays, encouragingly title Why Read Moby Dick, because it probably sums up my own position. Like my husband says, why read the book itself when you can learn everything you need to from the New York Times review of it?
But before I read more of that review, or Philbrick's work itself, I'm going to tell you why I loved Moby Dick, and maybe you will too. MD is written by Herman Melville, by the way, a 19th c. American writer of great renown, now, but inconsistently so during his lifetime. MD had very mixed reviews upon its publication in 1850, no wonder, because this is one crazy book. My edition is from someone's schooldays, a Bantam paperback from 1981 (OK, I guess that means Bill) that includes an introduction, contemporary criticism, and modern criticism, all packed into less than two inches of newsprint, so with very teeny print that is pretty much guaranteed to destroy your eyesight.
But to the story. First, as anyone who has read it will tell you, Moby Dick is, at heart, a great, salty, rip-roaring tale of the sea. Lovers of nauticalia will be happily at home on the whale-ivory-clad Pequod, and will revel in Melville's deep and exacting descriptions of ships and sailing and life at sea. The plot is pretty elemental: a whaler sets sail, and has some whaling adventures, all while commanded by a completely unhinged captain who wants to catch just one whale, the one who caused the loss of his leg on an earlier voyage. Down the South American coast, 'round the Horn, far across the Pacific almost to Japan, and then to the "cruising grounds" of Equatorial waters, the Pequod sails in search of her prey, for Ahab has made the entire crew swear to join in his quest. "Hast seen the White Whale?" is Ahab's greeting of all ships they meet on their voyage. You probably know how this ends - you can see Jaws for a modern tribute.
Now, anyone could write about chasing a whale and it will seem reasonably exciting because it inherently is: a big ship sails around the vast oceans, and when someone spots a spout or a fluke or a fin or a whale breaching, several whalemen hop into a much smaller boat and take off after the impossibly big fish.* They try to get close enough to get a line into it, basically, a sharp stick with an endless rope attached. Then the whale, mad at being stuck, takes off at great speed, pulling the whaleboat and contents on behind it, hopefully not sounding so deep as to pull the boat down (in which case the line would have to be cut, and the whale lost). When the whale gets tired of swimming around, the boat pulls near and the harpooneer sticks the whale again and again until puncturing some vital organ, at which point the whale's spout turns thick and red (eww) and the whale flops over and dies. Then he (or she) is towed back to the ship, and the really eww work of breaking down the carcass begins, which takes a really long time and is also fairly dangerous.
Unlike me, Melville needs several hundred pages to tell you all that, because he goes into extraordinary detail on each aspect of the process, from outfitting the ship itself, to the chase, to the endless process of getting all the good bits out of the fish. This is another of the great strengths of the novel, its astonishing depth on the topic, you will learn more than you ever wanted to about whaling, and you will probably like it. And not just the process, but the fish itself, from its great head to its amazing fluke to its grandissimus. Yes, it is a little tiresome, and you, like me, might have to take a little break from the book. But it is completely worth it, for now I can join the ranks of whale-experts in my house, and we can converse at a very high level about such topics as the Heidelberg Tun or the chimney catching fire or the legality of a fast-fish versus a loose-fish.
I should note that it is the Sperm Whale that is the object of Melville's obsession here. Not the Right, nor the Blue, nor any other big fish in the sea. You might want to know what a sperm whale looks like, and you can google it, and that will help, but it won't really give a sense of the grandeur as Melville describes it, nor the vast size. Not even skeletons at places like the New Bedford Whaling Museum (a must-visit for any readers of MD) can really convey the bulk and enormity and power and fearsomeness of the creature. Melville himself said that no one could really know what it looked like:
" . . . the great Leviathan is that one creature in the world which must remain unpainted to the last. True, one portrait may hit the mark nearer than another, but none can hit it with any very considerable degree of exactness. So there is really no earthly way of finding out precisely what the whale really looks like. And the only mode in which you can derive even a tolerable idea of his living contour, is by going a whaling yourself: but by so doing, you run no small risk of being eternally stove and sunk by him. Wherefore, it seems to me you had best not be too fastidious in your curiosity touching this Leviathan." (251)
And not just the whale itself, or the fishing or processing of it, but whales in history, whales in mythology, whales in religion, whales in natural history, whales in the law, whales in science, whales in art - each get a chapter, some long, some short, some laughable, but all finely detailed and in service to the idea that this is the greatest, most fearsome, most enigmatic, and most extraordinary creature on earth.
Maybe you can tell from the above quote, but what makes this story great, and I think that on this one all critics agree, is Melville's extraordinary use of language. My copy has dozens of pages turned down at the corners, where I read sentences or paragraphs that just sang or thrilled or somehow or other just stopped me in my tracks. How does one find such words and deploy them so well? I guess that this (among other things) is what separates Melville from the bloggers. I could spend weeks just noting all the bits I really liked but maybe this extract will provide an enticing example. It is from the first lowering of the whaleboats, so, relatively early in the Pequod's voyage.
"A short rushing sound leaped out of the boat; it was the darted iron of Queequeg. then all in one welded commotion came an invisible push from astern, while forward the boat seemed striking on a ledge; the sail collapsed and exploded; a gush of scalding vapor shot up near by; something rolled and tumbled like an earthquake beneath us. The whole crew were half suffocated as they were tossed helter-skelter into the while curdling cream of the squall. Squall, whale, and harpoon had all blended together; and the whale, merely grazed by the iron, escaped.
Though completely swamped, the boat was nearly unharmed. Swimming round it we picked up the floating oars and lashing them across the gunwhale, tumbled back to our places. There we sat up to our knees in the sea, the water covering every rib and plank, so that to our downward gazing eyes the suspended craft seemed a coral boat grown up to us from the bottom of the ocean.
The wind increased to a howl; the waves dashed their bucklers together; the whole squall roared, forked, and crackled around us like a white fire up on the prairie, in which, unconsumed, we were burning; immortal in these jaws of death! In vain we hailed the other boats; as well roar to the live coals down the chimney of a flaming furnace as hail those boats in that storm. Meanwhile, the driving scud, rack, and mist, grew darker with the shadows of night; no sign of the ship could be seen. The rising sea forbade all attempts to bale out the boat. The oars were useless as propellers, performing now the office of life-preservers. So, cutting the lashing of the waterproof match keg after many failures Starbuck contrived to ignite the lamp in the lantern; then stretching it on a waif pole, handed it to Queequeg as the standard-bearer of this forlorn hope. There, then, he sat, holding up that imbecile candle in the heart of that almighty forlornnness. There, then, he sat, the sign and symbol of a man without faith, hopelessly holding up hope in the midst of despair." (213-214)
Isn't that just great? I think I like the imbecile candle best. The whole book is like that. All 521 pages.
Melville is also pretty great at character development, although one could argue that Ahab himself is a trifle one-dimensional - it's all about the fish for him. Do we ever really learn much about Our Hero, Ishmael? Maybe, but it might also have been lost in all the other verbiage. And what of the marvelous Queequeg, Pacific Islander and harpooneer extraordinaire, who is such a vibrant and good-humored presence in the early chapters? He becomes secondary once aboard, really, although it is clear that Melville loves the cosmopolitan nature of a whaler - so many nations and ethnicities and temperments represented, and he gets to them all with Tashtego and Starbuck and Dagoo and Pip and Stubbs and the rest of the gang. And who can forget those marvelous Nantucket ship owners, Captains Bildad and Peleg? Melville is witty and descriptive, and adept at capturing atmosphere and character, although this too falls away when the chase sets in. As the oceans widen, the story focuses more and more narrowly on Ahab and his quest, which is really not funny at all.
You almost feel silly writing about Moby Dick because it is so damn iconic. Like catching the white whale himself, can anyone really capture the essence of this book in a few paragraphs?** You would need a few billion, at least, Melville did. Why use four words, when you can use eight? You might say, "here are two examples of what I am talking about." Melville says: "What I mean by these two statements may perhaps be respectively elucidated by the following examples." You could go on and on about MD, lord knows Melville did. But I'm not going to go all lit crit on it, and will just say that everyone should read this book because of its great story, brilliant use of language, and marvelous detail about pretty much anything that has anything to do with whales and whaling.
I'll end with a culinary note. There is a kind of gruesome bit where Stubb insists on having some whale cooked up for him, the first he has caught. But my favorite bit is in a very early chapter, titled "Chowder." Here, Ishmael and Queequeg have washed up in an inn on Nantucket, before signing on for service with the Pequod. The innkeeper, a highly competent woman of great culinary talent, asks them about dinner.
"'Clam or cod?'
'What's that about Cods, ma'am?' said I, with much politeness?.
'Clam or cod?' she repeated.
'A clam for supper? a cold clam; is that what you mean, Mrs. Hussey?' says I; 'but that's a rather cold and clammy reception in the winter time, ain't it, Mrs. Hussey?' . . . seeming to hear nothing but the word 'clam,' Mrs. Hussey hurried towards an open door leading to the kitchen, and bawling out 'clam for two,' disappeared.
'Queequeg,' said I, 'do you think that we can make out a supper for us both on one clam?'"
"However, a warm savory steam from the kitchen served to belie the apparently cheerless prospect before us. But when that smoking chowder cam in, the mystery was delightfully explained. Oh, sweet friends! hearken to me. It was made of small juicy clams, scarecely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuit, and salted pork cut up into little flakes; the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt. Our appetites being sharpened by the frosty voyage, and in particular, Queequeg seeing his favorite fishing food before him, and the chowder being surpassing excellent, we despatched it with great expedition: when leaning back a moment and bethinking me of Mrs. Hussey's clam and cod announcement, I thought I would try a little experiment. Stepping to the kitchen door, I uttered the word "cod" with great emphasis, and resumed my seat. In a few moments, the savory steam came forth again, but with a different flavor, and in good time, a find cod-chowder was placed before us." (69-70)
Moby Dick is about a lot more than chowder, but there is much in the world that a good you can't go wrong with either clam or cod.