“Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure. Consider also the devilish brilliance and beauty of many of its most remorseless tribes, as the dainty embellished shape of many species of sharks. Consider, once more, the universal cannibalism of the sea; all whose creatures prey upon each other, carrying on eternal war since the world began.
Consider all this; and then turn to the green, gentle, and most docile earth; consider them both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself? For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half-known life. God keep thee! Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return!” — Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
In 1919, the literary editor at The Nation, Carl Van Doren, asked a Columbia University English Department colleague, Raymond Weaver, to write a piece marking the centennial of an American author’s birth. This author, a man by the name of Herman Melville, had been resigned to the status of a minor author by this point in the nation’s short literary history. For instance, the index to Barrett Wendell’s 1901 A Literary History of America features 19 entries for Nathaniel Hawthorne and 38 for Ralph Waldo Emerson, compared to Melville’s lone one.
Raymond Weaver’s article for The Nation was just the catalyst for a striking series of events; Weaver, it seems, now had an itch. Over the next two years, Weaver would continue reading Melville’s work and write the landmark study, Herman Melville: Mariner and Mystic, in 1921. This book would spur a wave of scholarship and interest in the author of sea-stories in what would become known as the “Melville Revival” of the 1920s. By the time the two volume Literary History of the United States came out in 1948, Melville would be on much more equal footing with his contemporaries — Hawthorne received 86 index entries to Melville’s 69, though Emerson remained on top with 116.
The conclusion drawn again and again from the 20th century reassessment of Melville’s oeuvre would be that Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851), as Weaver put it, was “Melville’s undoubted masterpiece.” While the Greeks had their Odysseus encountering Sirens in Homer’s The Odyssey, and the English had their knights battling dragons in Spenser’s The Fairie Queene, Melville uses a much more prosaic subject matter to reach the heights of the Romantic sublime: commercial whaling. While moments of a Wordsworthian conception of nature are therapeutically pensive, Melville’s ocean is defined principally by its unpredictability, unknown mysteries, and — when it comes to the White Whale — breathtaking awe.
In a letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne after finishing Moby-Dick in November of 1851, Melville wrote, “I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb.” If Melville was referring to “wicked” in a spiritual sense, then he was correct. Moby-Dick is chiefly, on a thematic level, a book about the problem of evil in the world. While Milton set out to “justify the ways of God to men” in Paradise Lost, Melville set out to wrestle with God, like Jacob and the Angel in the desert. Captain Ahab, whom it would be fair to describe as a composite figure of Milton’s Satan and Shakespeare’s King Lear, is the Pequod’s moody ship captain with a whalebone peg leg. He spellbinds his crew to join his quest for supernatural revenge against the legendary White Whale, a leviathan wrapped in superstitious, mythical fear by most whalers. Though a rabble-rouser at times, Ahab delivers dramatic monologues filled with all the bravado and gusto that his metaphysical questioning demands — not to mention the lexicon of English archaisms stylizing his speeches.
So, why read Moby-Dick? Like any good book, Moby-Dick is both challenging and entertaining. Combining the tragic and the comic, there is plenty of room for ironic humor and religious speculation in this tome of encyclopedic literature. It is a genre-bending book that — and this is no hyperbole — is a one of a kind. Melville himself described it as “a strange sort of book.” The student of history will get a realistic account of what it was actually like to be on a commercial whaler in the 19th century. The student of the Anglo literary tradition will get a remarkable blending of Milton, Shakespeare, and the King James Bible. Fueled by an imagination that was on fire with Promethean audaciousness, Melville writes one of the great masterpieces of American Romanticism, only next to, perhaps, The Scarlet Letter and Leaves of Grass. The timeless enigma of the White Whale and of man’s relationship to it is nothing short of American scripture.
Moby-Dick offers readers an opportunity to look inward and wrestle with their relationship to the vicissitudes of Nature. While they may not always like what they see, it is precisely this chance to search within and beyond one’s self that gives Moby-Dick; or, The Whale its deserved place in the Western canon.