The Whiteness of the Whale

Moby Dick by Herman Melville.  Library of America.  638 pp.

I’ve recently expressed my admiration for the Library of America and its beautiful editions, but I was disappointed by the Melville Chronology in this volume, which seemed positively paltry.  Elmore Leonard gets 27 pages and Herman Melville gets five?  My brother tells me there’s a famous two-volume Melville biography that includes almost a day-by-day account of his life, so it isn’t as if the material isn’t available.  I would love to have seen one of the mini-biographies the LOA usually provides.

But even the sketchy details of this Chronology reveal the astonishing fact that this 32 year old author had published Typee in 1846, Omoo in ’47, Mardi and Redburn in ’49, White Jacket in 1850, and the 638 page world masterpiece Moby Dick —which was ignored for many years and almost entirely lost to world literature—in 1851, suggesting a pace of about a book per year (in the meantime he had published some shorter pieces, including the essay “Hawthorne and His Mosses,” and actually met Hawthorne, at a picnic near Pittsfield, Massachusetts.  Ah, the informality of the 19th century literary life.  Do we know of any other great authors who met at a picnic?).

What is astonishing about this book even at a third or fourth reading (though it’s been over forty years) is the sheer beauty of the sentences, and the magnificence of the style.  Melville was writing one of those 19th century Everything books—Walden is another example, and Leaves of Grass—where he seemed to want to put all he knew between two covers, at least everything about whaling and the sea, and he was apparently composing at a furious rate, but the sentences are uniformly good, and sometimes magnificent.  He created a kind of Ship of Fools, with sailors from every corner of the globe, put an obsessed madman at the helm, and set them off in search of the Great White Whale, an allegorical quest if there ever was one.

As a reader who has recently professed admiration for the clean lean plotting of Elmore Leonard, I will confess to moments of impatience when Melville gives yet another chapter to trivialities of Cetology, however interesting they might be.  It isn’t that the expository sections aren’t good; it’s that the dramatic sections are so much more compelling.  Novels like Melville’s are a different way of thinking about books, about life, than our jagged, what’s-the-latest-on-my-I-phone experience these days.  It’s blasphemous to suggest it, but I wonder what the reading experience would be if someone took just the narrative chapters of Moby Dick and strung them together into a leaner tighter story.  The resulting book might be Faulknerian in its pace and tension.

I’ve always thought that Ahab’s real problem was not just his previous encounters with the white whale, not the fact that it had taken off his leg, not the way their fates seem weirdly intertwined, so that even if he had retired and stayed on land with his wife and young son Moby Dick would somehow have shown up, but the sheer irrationality of it all, the absurdity of the whole experience (and if you had to find one word to describe the magnificent final scene, when the sealed coffin pops out of the maelstrom to save only Ishamael, absurd certainly comes to mind).  One thing about nineteenth century literature (or the earlier British literature that seems to have been Melville’s model; he is said to have based his style on that of the 17th century writer Sir Thomas Browne) is that it has a tidy world view, God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world, or at least it all makes sense, people are punished and rewarded according to their deserts.

Melville railed against that, against even the tidier allegories of Hawthorne, who was obviously a mentor for him.  He was getting at the fact that it all doesn’t finally make sense, the center does not hold, you don’t know what’s going to happen and the good guy sure as hell doesn’t always win.  Not that Ahab was exactly a good guy.  But the terrifying blankness of the white whale is what really seems to obsess Melville, just as the blankness of a wall would later obsess Bartleby, in a much tamer but in some ways weirder story.  Melville never stopped seeing that blank void.

I can still remember the first time I read the novel, finishing it late one night on the porch of the Lafayette Hotel in Cape May, New Jersey, and walking out on the boardwalk to listen to the dark sea crashing against the beach, then a few years later the second time, in a class with the great English professor Buford Jones, who taught us what allegory was and how important it was to American literature as a whole, even to later writers like Henry James and Faulkner who were much different from these early allegorists but nevertheless influenced by them.  A great novel is a different book every time you read it.  I thought of Melville when I was in college as an old bearded guy, but this seems the work of a brilliant young man.