Call me Captivated. That’s how I felt when, at the age of 19, I first read Moby Dick. It was unlike any book I had read — at once intimate but academic, earthy but technical, wide in its subject matter yet focused on Ahab’s pursuit of the whale. I felt in the hands of a writer who was going to take me on an important voyage.
Before I actually read the novel, I had been aware of the story. When I was eleven or twelve years old, I read a Classic Comics version of Moby Dick. The art, the narrative, the dialogue, the way the story moved, the subject matter — I loved all of these things. My parents took my brother and me to see the movie, which came out in 1956 and starred Gregory Peck as Ahab. I don’t remember much about the movie . . . I think I found it long and not as interesting as the Classic Comics version.
Despite the fact that he wrote a long, highly technical, intricate novel, Melville (unlike the authors he was surrounded by such as Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne) never went to college. “. . . a whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard,” he wrote in Moby Dick.
Before he became a writer, Melville was a whaler. As such, he knew of the 1820 real-life wreck of the whaling ship Essex, sunk by a sperm whale, and he read the first-hand account about that wreck, written by the ship’s first mate, Owen Chase.
One can imagine what the whale must have felt, relentlessly pursued by a ship that wanted to murder it. If whales think, it surely must have thought or felt: “I must strike back.”
And so it did.
I like to think that Melville sided with that whale.
Moby Dick wasn’t much appreciated during Melville’s lifetime. Readers and critics of the 20th century, however, came to understand this vast, awe-inspiring novel. Perhaps one of the first to start what is now called the Melville Revival was British author D.H. Lawrence, who in 1923 published a small but insightful book, Studies in Classic American Literature. This book was one of my reading assignments for an undergraduate American Literature class. I found myself laughing at many of the passages in which Lawrence mocked American obsessions. But beneath his humor and mockery, Lawrence had the greatest respect for Moby Dick. He concluded: “. . . as a revelation of destiny the book is too deep even for sorrow. Profound beyond feeling.”
Just a few years ago I read a small but powerful book, Nathaniel Philbrick’s Why Read Moby Dick, published in 2011. I highly recommend this pithy 21st century look at a masterpiece.
Each time I read Moby Dick, I’m struck by the powerful beauty of the great white whale, “. . . seen gliding at high noon through a dark blue sea, leaving a milky-way wake of creamy foam, all spangled with golden gleamings.”
It is this natural beauty that Ahab pursues, in order to annihilate it, just as whalers annihilated whales to near extinction.
New Zealand was the first of the twentieth-century whaling nations to give up whaling. That was in 1964. A few years ago I saw the traveling exhibit, “Whales: Giants of the Deep,” presented by the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. One of the many things I learned was that there are very rare whales about which little is known. If I recall, they swim very deep and spend much of their time underwater.
Considering how humans have hunted whales, these rare whales may be doing the wise thing. Perhaps they, too, know the story of Moby Dick . . . but from the whale’s point of view.
Barbara Gregorich has read Moby Dick four times, siding with the great white whale each time.