Columns > Published on February 23rd, 2016

Why 'Moby-Dick' Matters

illustration by Robert Kent, from the 1930 Random House edition of 'Moby Dick,' courtesy Plattsburgh State Art Museum

Call Me Dumbfounded.

I pitched this idea for a column to LitReactor’s dedicated editors knowing that, if they accepted it, I’d be reading Moby-Dick for the fourth time. Rattling off reasons why Moby-Dick still mattered? A snap! I’d roared through Herman Melville’s masterpiece in college, in my late 20s, and again in my early 40s. Loved it each time. The narrator’s voice? Like hearing a grand and familiar symphony! Those whaling classification chapters other folks find boring? No problem! What’s wrong with learning cetology? And the story’s driving motor—the clash between demented man and super-horrific beast? I was certain it would be as action-packed and troubling as anything I’d ever read. One more time!

Melville is writing personally, honestly, and humorously about his novel’s conceit as well as its Leviathan antihero. Let’s face it: most of us write about fleas.

And then I started reading. The love was still there, but my ideas—well, as they say in hardboiled crime fiction, my ideas took a powder. The tender Nantucket bedmates scene blew me away just as it had done three times earlier, but it didn’t have the shock value it once had. The drastically different styles Melville employs—here’s a chapter from the narrator’s point of view, there’s one that reads as though it was written for the Elizabethan stage, here are a few that are omniscient…. They weren’t radically pre-Joycean this time. They just mystified me. Maybe my expectations were too high. I feared I’d have to change the column’s title from “Why Moby-Dick Matters” to “Does Moby-Dick Matter?” and answer the question with either a hesitant “maybe” or a sullen, bitter “no.”

The cosmos sensed my despair. On January 27, Bart Bishop’s perfectly timed “Patton Oswalt’s Night Café, The Great Gatsby, and How Guided Reading Can Reinvigorate a Classic” went up on LitReactor and gave me permission to find a knowledgeable reading companion. As Bishop wisely advises, “So give a classic a chance. Pick up Chaucer or Jane Austen or William Burroughs, but be willing to do a little research to understand the context. If it’s in a college class all the better, but a human being with an informed opinion is always a plus. In the end, before they were touchstones they were words put to paper by people looking for universal truth just trying to express themselves.” Google steered me (in 0.77 seconds) to exactly the person to help me reconnect with Moby-Dick: Nathaniel Philbrick.

Put bluntly, Philbrick is a Melville nut. In addition to writing the foreword to the Penguin edition of Moby-Dick, he’s the author of the National Book Award-winning In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, the story of the disastrous 1820 encounter between a ship and a sperm whale that—at least partly—inspired Melville to write Moby-Dick. Philbrick’s book is the basis for Ron Howard’s latest film, In the Heart of the Sea (which, if you care what reviewers think, earned a meager 43% approval rating on Named for Nathaniel Hawthorne, Philbrick is conversant with Melville’s intense friendship with Hawthorne. He’s also damn entertaining.

So here’s why Moby-Dick matters—to me—with many thanks to Nathaniel Philbrick:

Ambition and Scope

Moby-Dick is vast. Encyclopedic. Titanic. And I didn’t need Nathaniel Philbrick to inform me of it. Melville is aiming very, very high with this, his sixth novel. He deliberately wrote a book as huge as its subject:

One often hears of writers that rise and swell with their subject, though it may seem but an ordinary one. How, then, with me, writing of this Leviathan? Unconsciously my chirography expands into placard capitals. Give me a condor's quill! Give me Vesuvius' crater for an inkstand! Friends, hold my arms! For in the mere act of penning my thoughts of this Leviathan, they weary me, and make me faint with their outreaching comprehensiveness of sweep, as if to include the whole circle of the sciences, and all the generations of whales, and men, and mastodons, past, present, and to come, with all the revolving panoramas of empire on earth, and throughout the whole universe, not excluding its suburbs. Such, and so magnifying, is the virtue of a large and liberal theme! We expand to its bulk. To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it. (Chapter 104)

Although he puts it through the pen of his narrator, Melville is writing personally, honestly, and humorously (“not excluding its suburbs”!) about his novel’s conceit as well as its Leviathan antihero. Let’s face it: most of us write about fleas. We tend to create stories about little people living little lives. Dysfunctional families. Drug addicts. Broken souls. Criminals. Ourselves. Memoirs and noir novels and stories, to cite two genres popular with LitReactor writers and readers, don’t really try to tackle very much of the big, wide world; they’re about mood, not mankind—individual experience rather than all of humanity. My own (unpublished) novel isn’t about fleas. No, it’s about crabs—the STD kind. You can’t get much smaller than that, as Melville knew.

Melville, on the other hand, set out to write a “mighty book” with a “mighty theme.” Kudos to Herman for effort alone.

Aware of the sheer weight of his “mighty theme,” Melville provides quantifiable proof:

According to my careful calculation, I say, a Sperm Whale of the largest magnitude, between eighty-five and ninety feet in length, and something less than forty feet in its fullest circumference, such a whale will weigh at least ninety tons; so that, reckoning thirteen men to a ton, he would considerably outweigh the combined population of a whole village of one thousand one hundred inhabitants. (Chapter 103)


Writing the Real

Moby-Dick’s readers—including almost all American Studies and American Literature professors—spend a lot of time and energy on analyzing what the white whale means. Philbrick will have none of it:

Before we continue, I need to make something perfectly clear. The White Whale is not a symbol. He is as real as you or I. He has a crooked jaw, a humped back, and a wiggle-waggle when he’s really moving fast. He is a thing of blubber, blood, muscle, and bone—a creation of the natural world that transcends any fiction. So forget about what the White Whale signifies….don’t fall into the Ahab trap of seeing Moby Dick as a stand-in for some paltry human complaint.

I love those last three words dearly.

Terrific Opening Line

“Call me Ishmael.” So simple, so magnificent. Technically, these are not the first three words of the novel. They’re actually the 3,603rd, 3,604th, and 3,605th words. As Philbrick points out, Melville begins Moby-Dick with two lengthy digressions. He digresses before even getting to the story at hand; the book begins with an “Etymology” and a section called “Extracts." In fact, they’re not really digressions, which the dictionary defines as “temporary departures from the main subject in speech or writing.” How can one depart from the main subject of a novel before the novel proper begins?

Strikingly, the name Ishmael appears rarely in the novel, leading me to question whether Ishmael is in fact the narrator’s real name. Consider the difference between “Call me Ishmael” and “My name is Ishmael.” The distinction is crucial. Our seemingly trustworthy narrator may be hiding his real identity, a possibility Melville raises at the very beginning of Chapter 1 in three words. Brilliant. I think it’s fair to say (without insulting any of us, as I do above with that bit about the fleas—I apologize) that “Call me Ishmael” is a masterstroke that has few if any parallels in all of literature. Are any of your first sentences this good? Mine aren’t, that’s for certain.

A Digression

The novel is called Moby-Dick. The whale’s name is Moby Dick. So what’s with the hyphen? No one knows for sure, but it may appear in the title because Melville’s brother, Allan, changed the title from The Whale—as it was in the earlier British edition—to Moby-Dick for the American edition and included the hyphen on a whim. “But why did Allan have anything to do with the…?” Who knows, and who cares?

And finally….

Sexual Tension, or Why Do Sailors Go on an All-Male Three-Year Cruise?

A strange, mostly hidden sexuality pervades Moby-Dick. I’d love to be able to claim that Melville’s purportedly gay desire led him to name his huge and much sought antihero Dick, but the word didn’t arrive at its current, vulgar meaning until the 1880s, thirty years after he wrote the book. That said, the gay-hinting scenes in Moby-Dick may be few, but they’re powerfully suggestive. Two are downright filthy.

The first surprise comes while so-called Ishmael is still in Nantucket. He checks into an inn, finds that there are no empty rooms, and lands in a bed occupied by a South Seas Islander named Queequeg. The beginning of Chapter 4:

Upon waking next morning about daylight, I found Queequeg's arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner. You had almost thought I had been his wife. The counterpane was of patchwork, full of odd little parti-coloured squares and triangles; and this arm of his tattooed all over with an interminable Cretan labyrinth of a figure, no two parts of which were of one precise shade—owing I suppose to his keeping his arm at sea unmethodically in sun and shade, his shirt sleeves irregularly rolled up at various times—this same arm of his, I say, looked for all the world like a strip of that same patchwork quilt. Indeed, partly lying on it as the arm did when I first awoke, I could hardly tell it from the quilt, they so blended their hues together; and it was only by the sense of weight and pressure that I could tell that Queequeg was hugging me.

My sensations were strange…. [Ishmael goes on to describe a night of troubling dreams he’d experienced as a boy.] But at length all the past night's events soberly recurred, one by one, in fixed reality, and then I lay only alive to the comical predicament. For though I tried to move his arm—unlock his bridegroom clasp—yet, sleeping as he was, he still hugged me tightly, as though naught but death should part us twain. I now strove to rouse him—’Queequeg!’—but his only answer was a snore. I then rolled over, my neck feeling as if it were in a horse-collar; and suddenly felt a slight scratch. Throwing aside the counterpane, there lay the tomahawk sleeping by the savage's side, as if it were a hatchet-faced baby. A pretty pickle, truly, thought I; abed here in a strange house in the broad day, with a cannibal and a tomahawk! ‘Queequeg!—in the name of goodness, Queequeg, wake!’ At length, by dint of much wriggling, and loud and incessant expostulations upon the unbecomingness of his hugging a fellow male in that matrimonial sort of style, I succeeded in extracting a grunt....

Was Melville gay, you may well be asking? The fact is, nobody knows. He and whomever he may have fucked are long dead, and there are no records that prove anything. But there are sure signs that he loved a man at least as much as he loved his wife. Readers of all sexualities, I give you Robert McCrum, writing in The Guardian:

In 5 August 1850, a boisterous party of writers and publishers climbed Monument Mountain in Massachusetts, on roughly the American equivalent of a hike in the Lakes. Among the literati on this famous excursion were Nathaniel Hawthorne, aged 46, the author of The Scarlet Letter, a contemporary sensation, and Herman Melville who, after a very successful debut (Typee), was struggling to complete an unwieldy coming-of-age tale about a South Seas whaler.

Melville, who was just 31, had never met Hawthorne. But it's no exaggeration to say that, after a day of open-air larks, a quantity of Heidsieck champagne, several impromptu toasts and a sudden downpour, the younger man was enraptured with his new friend who had, he wrote, ‘dropped germinous seeds into my soul’. Rarely in Anglo-American literature has there been such a momentous meeting...

The two men began a fervent correspondence. Melville became so infatuated that he moved with his wife and family to the Berkshires to become Hawthorne's neighbour. Thus liberated, fulfilled, and inspired to say ‘NO! in thunder’ to Christianity, he completed Moby-Dick, or, The Whale. After an early reading of the manuscript—another inscrutable moment—Hawthorne acclaimed it in a letter that remains, tantalisingly, lost.

All we have is Melville's ecstatic response (‘Your heart beat in my ribs and mine in yours, and both in God's...’). So how homoerotic was this friendship ? No one will ever know. It remains one of the mysteries of American letters. All we can say for certain is that, after climbing Monument Mountain, Melville's creative genius was somehow released.

It’s no surprise that I come down on the side of “yes, it was erotic.” You are free to disagree.

But what, then, do you make of the fact that Melville writes in a very peculiar chapter of Moby-Dick that one of the shipmates proudly fashions for himself a coat made out of a whale’s—you should pardon the expression—dick? Here’s how Philbrick describes it:

Ishmael begins by describing how the mincer, the sailor who cuts up the whale blubber into thin pieces known as bible leaves, secures a very special coat made from—get this—the foreskin of a sperm whale’s penis… that’s right, the foreskin of a whale. I won’t go into details (for that you have to read the book), but suffice it to say that once the mincer is dressed in this black tubular outfit, he looks, Ishmael insists, just like a clergyman…. It’s then that Ishmael delivers the punchline. ‘What a candidate for an archbishoprick,’ he enthuses, ‘what a lad for a Pope were this mincer!’

Who else in all of literature has dressed a man in a whale’s foreskin?

Sperm whales are so named because their heads contain a vast amount of spermaceti, an oil which was precious in New England because it remained liquid—and easily burnable—in the dead of winter, and which, when exposed to air, begins to look a lot like semen. The shipmates need to get up to their armpits in it and muck. Ishmael glories in the communal act of squeezing the thick stuff. Philbrick quotes him as he joins his mates in the delightful act of practically bathing in what looks and feels like whale cum:

'Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.' For the record, the word “come” has meant achieve orgasm since the 17th century.

That’s why I love Moby-Dick. That’s why it matters—to me, anyway.


About the author

Ed Sikov is the author of 7 books about films and filmmakers, including On Sunset Boulevard:; The Life and Times of Billy Wilder; Mr. Strangelove: A Biography of Peter Sellers; and Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis.

Reedsy Marketplace UI

1 million authors trust the professionals on Reedsy. Come meet them.

Enter your email or get started with a social account: