Melville Our Contemporary

Gregory Peck as Ahab in “Moby-Dick.”

I spent a good part of August 1, 2019, the 200th anniversary of the birth of Herman Melville, by doing what every red-blooded American ought to have done: I reread Moby-Dick, that “staggering work of genius.” Dave Eggers used that phrase as a part of the title for his own memoir, which was published in 2000. It fits Moby-Dick more than Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

No, I did not reread every single word of Melville’s masterpiece on August 1. That feat would have taken days. But I opened my well-worn paperback copy with sentences underlined from the beginning to the end, and marveled all over again about the characters, the plot (which sometimes vanishes), the myths, the language and the contemporaneity of Melville ocean-going epic.

Moby-Dick lambasts capitalism, individualism, dictatorship, and celebrates love, brotherhood, the Pacific Ocean and whales, too, those great and wonderful mammals of the oceans that have been hunted down all through the centuries and nearly exterminated.

There are no women in Moby-Dick. That’s true. Unlike his pal, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Melville didn’t know how to portray women. That is a flaw, though it’s not fatal. Melville had so much going for him; there’s heaps that’s going on today in Moby-Dick, more than enough, to entertain ecologists, philosophers, historians and devotees of American literature who have much the same abiding curiosity that D.H. Lawrence exhibited in Studies in Classic American Literature.

I don’t mean to forget Mark Twain’s brilliant The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from 1884, but in many it’s a kind of sport that stands all by itself, in much the same way that Wuthering Heights (1847) stands by itself in the field of English literature.

One of the things about Moby-Dick that has always amazed me is that it was published in 1851, in the thick of what has been called “The American Renaissance,” when Emily Dickinson wrote some of her best poetry and her near contemporaries were creating the classics of our culture.

In fact, Moby-Dick appeared a year after Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, a year before Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, three years before Henry David Thoreau’s Walden and four years before Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, in which the poet sings “I am not a bit tamed,” and “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.” Melville was as untamed and as barbaric as Whitman; they both embraced the workers of the world, American Indians and South Sea Islanders, and they both scorned the civilization that was mass-produced by the factory.

In the 1850s, when Melville and Whitman were young men in their 30s, and when American society was careening toward the catastrophic Civil War, our writers produced great works of literature—fiction, non-fiction and poetry— that explore the contradictions between democracy and slavery, freedom and tyranny, spirituality and materialism. Melville, Hawthorne, Stowe, Whitman, Dickinson and Thoreau were visionaries and futurists who created a body of experimental work that wasn’t matched until Faulkner, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Jean Toomer and F. Scott Fitzgerald came along in the 1920s, and continued the tradition of the avant-garde that started in the 1850s.

But back to Moby-Dick, which always grabs me, from the opening line, “Call me Ishmael,” to the last line in the Epilogue where Ishmael is rescued from the sea and describes himself as “another orphan.” I don’t skip the passages about whales and whaling, but rather lap them up. I also dig deep into the sections in which Melville writes about “chance, free will and necessity.” When Ishmael, the narrator, weaves a mat with Queequeg— whom he describes as “George Washington cannibalistically developed”— he waxes philosophical and poetical about how the creation of his own “destiny” in a pre-determined universe.

Naturally, I love to hate Captain Ahab, the killer of whales and a demagogue, who twists the multi-cultural crew around his fingers and forces them to follow his diabolical orders. Moby-Dick is authentic tragedy, not cheap Victorian melodrama, though the book also has moments of comedy, as when Ishmael wakes in the Spouter-Inn and finds Queequeg in bed with him.

The title itself, Moby-Dick, is pretty funny for a novel that has a permanent hard-on—a whale-sized erection—especially in the chapter titled “A Squeeze of the Hand,” in which the crew on The Pequod squeezes the sperm from a whale and Ishmael has a vision of “angels in paradise.” He enjoys a kind of orgasm.

The whole novel moves inexorably toward the final, apocalyptic chase for Moby-Dick himself, which lasts three days and ends with “the great shroud of the sea” as it rolls on “as it rolled five thousand years ago.”

Jack London wrote the best critique or criticism of Moby-Dick ever. He didn’t do it in an essay, but rather in his own novel, The Sea-Wolf, in which he reincarnated Captain Ahab as Captain Wolf Larsen, who hunts and kills seals. He also revived Ishmael as Humphrey Van Weyden. London grappled with Melville’s homoeroticism and with his depiction of the amity and enmity between the worker-sailors aboard The Ghost, which takes the place of The Pequod. The author of The Sea-Wolf tried to go one better than the author of Moby-Dick by introducing a woman character named Maud and by having the narrator fall in love with her and she with him.

The Sea-Wolf degenerates into cheap Victorian melodrama. London wanted to sell books and be a celebrity. Melville didn’t care about success or fame. To Hawthorne, he wrote in June 1851, “I have come to regard this matter of Fame as the most transparent of all vanities!” When it came to success and money, London parted company from Melville, but he admired the orgiastic nature of Melville’s prose and provided some of his own, as when he wrote of Wolf Larsen’s eyes, “that masked the soul of a thousand guises…eyes that could brood with the hopeless somberness of leaden skies; that could snap and crackle points of fire like those which sparkle from a whirling sword.”

If Melville were alive today, he would write about the employees in the tech world who are no better than slaves and serfs. He would also portray with empathy the consumers of technology aboard the modern day versions of The Pequod. He would write an American tragedy in which democracy is profaned and blasphemy pours from our diabolical circles of wealth and power.

Melville would also echo his own words from Moby-Dick in which he exclaimed, “Whatever is truly wondrous and fearful in man, never yet was put into words or books.” If that isn’t an invitation to writers to get busy, I don’t know what is. Herman Melville, you are my inspiration and not just mine, but poets, novelists and essayists in every corner of the world.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.