ven though I hadn’t read a word of it, I grew up hating Moby-Dick. My father was an English professor at the University of Pittsburgh with a specialty in American maritime literature, and that big, battle-scarred book came to represent everything I resented about his job: all the hours he spent in his attic study, relentlessly reading and writing, more often than not with Moby-Dick spread out before him.
he irony is that when Moby-Dick was first published, in the fall of 1851, virtually no one, except for the author to whom the novel was dedicated, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and his wife, Sophia, seems to have taken much notice. By the time of Melville’s death, in 1891, Moby-Dick had sold a grand total of 3,715 copies—a third of the total that his first novel, Typee, had sold. It wasn’t until after World War I that what had begun as a few belated plaudits became a virtual tidal wave of praise. There were still some naysayers (Joseph Conrad ridiculed Moby-Dick for its romantic, overblown prose), but the vast majority of writers who first encountered the book were stunned and deeply influenced by how Melville conveyed the specifics of a past world even as he communicated an unmatched sense of what it is like, in any age, to be alive. What Moby-Dick had needed, it turned out, was space—the distance required for its themes and images to resonate, unfettered by the passions that had inspired them. Once free of its own time, the novel was on its way to becoming the seemingly timeless source of meaning that it is today.
elville’s years on a whaleship in the 1840s gave him a firsthand appreciation for the backbreaking reality of physical labor. Politicians of his day might have spoken patriotically about the nation’s founding principles, but it was repetitious, soul-crushing work—a form of bodily punishment to which most white Americans refused to submit—that was responsible for the country’s prosperity. Once a whale was killed, it took an entire day to process it, only to be repeated when another whale was sighted. “Oh! my friends, but this is man-killing!,” Ishmael laments. “Yet this is life.”
n every age, there will be a threat to the principle of “divine equality,” and his name is Ahab. In Melville’s view, it doesn’t take much to become a demagogue as long as you learn a few simple tricks. Dictators such as Hitler, Saddam Hussein, and Muammar Qaddafi are not geniuses; they are paranoid despots and expert manipulators of men. If you want to understand how these and other megalomaniacs pull it off, read the last third ofMoby-Dick and watch as Ahab tightens his stranglehold on the Pequod’ s crew in his increasingly horrifying quest for the White Whale. n one of his typical chapter-length asides (the book is truly proto-modernist, given its fractured structure, voluminous lists, idiosyncratic asides, and interior monologues), Melville tackles a prescient question, considering today’s extinction-prone Earth: “Whether Leviathan can long endure so wide a chase, and so remorseless a havoc; whether he must … like the last man, smoke his last pipe, and then himself evaporate in the final puff.” In the paragraphs that follow, Ishmael compares the whale to the buffalo in the American West and acknowledges that, taking into account what has happened to those “humped herds,” it might seem inevitable that “the hunted whale cannot now escape speedy extinction.”