Thursday, Aug. 1, will be the bicentennial of Herman Melville’s birth, an occasion that has many celebrating the author’s grandest achievement, “Moby-Dick,” often hailed as one the first and greatest Great American Novels.
While the novel is well known for its mythological characters and dramatic tale many of today’s readers either have not read, began but never finished or read but did not appreciate the novel.
It is understandable, as many read the novel not because the wanted to but because they had to to pass a class. When reading the 206,052-word, 700-plus page, 136-chapter work of American romanticism as a course assignment it can become a real chore. This has breed real animosity for the book in many readers.
I had the opposite experience.
I had long been interested in reading the book thanks to the 1956 film adaptation directed by John Huston, starring Gregory Peck as Capt. Ahab and featuring a screenplay by Ray Bradbury.
I put off reading it for years because every copy I saw was the size of a dictionary, and I couldn’t see the practicality of reading such a book cover to cover.
When, in college, I discovered a pocket edition I immediately bought it and started reading.
From the first few chapters I was hooked. From the famous first sentence “Call me Ishmael” and the introduction of the heroic cannibal Queequeg, with who Ishmael is forced to share a bed, I was engrossed. (“Better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.”) So much so that my grades began to suffer, as I couldn’t bring myself to put “Moby-Dick” down long enough to get my course reading done. And it took so much time to read.
The language, imagery and events Melville uses to tell this story of a globe-trotting hunt for an albino whale, fueled by blinding hate, are among my favorites in literature.
Aside from my fascination in the characters, the whale and their story, I’m in awe of the enormity and comprehensiveness of the fictional world Melville created. A comparison might be the sprawling, endlessly detailed “Star Wars” universe. The difference is that George Lucas did not create his alone. It was created over decades with the assistance of hundreds, thousands of contributors ⎯ screenwriters, directors, actors, miniature modelers, sound engineers, costume and makeup designers, writers of fan fiction and more.
The four-letter word “epic” found its purpose with this novel.
Melville delves so deeply into this fictional world ⎯ discussing everything from the whiteness of the whale, the size and anatomy of whales, depiction of whales in literature and art to the details of the whaling industry ⎯ that early in the book’s history librarians commonly miscategorized it as nonfiction.
And it is all allegorical examination of personal, American and global concerns ⎯ American capitalism, industry, multiculturalism, racism, colonialism, nationalism, class systems, the existence of God, good and evil, fate and revenge. (“I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.”)
I encourage you, if you haven’t read it, don’t be intimidated. Just be sure to read it at your leisure and at your own pace.
Take inspiration from Ishmael, “I try all things, I achieve what I can.”
If "Moby-Dick" is just too intimidating, try Melville's "Typee." It's a semi-autobiographical account of his being marooned on a Polynesian island and captured by cannibals. It's a classic, but no "Moby-Dick."