Reading Moby-Dick at the Newberry Why this mid-19th-century novel still has meaning today.

What am I that I should essay to hook the nose of this leviathan!

—Chapter 32, “Cetology”

 

 

 

To honor Herman Melville’s 200th birthday, the Newberry Library in Chicago opened an exhibit, in January, called “Melville: Finding America at Sea.” It draws from the Library’s Melville archive, collected over the course of a leviathan, 50-year project with Northwestern University Press that ended only with the completion, in 2017, of The Writings of Herman Melville in 15-volumes. The exhibit is meant to give visitors the chance “to explore Melville’s interests in democracy, spirituality, Indigeneity, morality, sexuality, labor, nature, and human consciousness.”

A call also was made for volunteers to participate in a 25-hour Moby-Dick readathon. It was not the first. The New Bedford whaling museum has hosted one 23 years in a row, and there is a taped celebrity version with the likes of then-Prime Minister David Cameron—“who delivers the brief text with some clarity but considerably less animation than the speaking clock,” says The Guardian—but it often feels as if we do not celebrate writers in America as we used to. I signed up and was given a morning watch, before dawn on a Sunday.

 

•  •  •

 

Moby-Dick falls into a category I call Big Crazy Books, for their length, texture, depth, range, or difficulty. They include Ulysses (and the Wake), Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans project, In Search of Lost Time, Montaigne’s Essays, Burton’s Anatomy, and Don Quixote. Modern attempts exist, despite publishers’ fear for bottom lines, such as Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead and William T. Vollmann’s Rising Up and Rising Down, a 3,300-page, seven-volume essay on violence.

Even if Melville was abusive to his family, alcoholic, or otherwise unstable, something else or more or different happened in the writing.

The books’ costs to their writers, in effort, time, psychic energy, reputation, and readership, are high. With Melville, they included everything from near-blindness to a reputation for being crazy. Even if Melville was abusive to his family, alcoholic, or otherwise unstable, something else or more or different happened in the writing. It is hard not to compare him to the deck-boy Pip in Moby-Dick, who was “carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the miser-merman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps; and among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, [he] saw…God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad.”

Critic James Wood says, “During the time that Melville wrote Moby-Dick, he underwent a kind of insanity of metaphor.” Going over and over the story, hunting meaning in black wavelets on a sea of white, Melville extracted his own genius from the try-pot of his skull.

“Any true life is a blasphemously exhaustive hunt, and Melville lived a true life,” Wood says. “Poor Melville, lucky Melville!”

Who would not rather be Ishmael, who survives to this day, than poor lucky Melville, who died in 1891, still tangled in his own lines?

 

•  •  •

 

Nathaniel Philbrick: National Book Award-winner, author of Why Read Moby-Dick?, and keynote speaker for the Newberry Library’s marathon Melville reading. (Photo by John Griswold)

Nathaniel Philbrick, National Book Award-winner for In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex (2000), and author of Why Read Moby-Dick? (2011).  was the keynote speaker for the Newberry event. He stood at the wooden lectern, the lance of a microphone at his face; behind him, in the window, was a limestone cathedral built the year after Melville became a customs inspector, because his prose did not pay.

Moby-Dick, Philbrick said, “deserves to be called our American bible,” but it sold just 3,715 copies by Melville’s death and seemed bound for oblivion. Its revival began only in 1919, after the turmoil of WWI had prepared readers for the book, Philbrick said. He used the metaphor of the life-buoy coffin, sunk with the Pequod, which popped up again just when it was needed. He said the book feels relevant now because we are also in a tumultuous time.

Actually, what Philbrick praises most in the novel—its concrete, sensory world of whaling—is as remote to most of us as water-harvesting on Tatooine. It is the novel’s lack of topicality that helps it survive. By anatomizing its unfamiliar subject, then allegorizing the details, the book teaches us to wring out every line and collect their meaning. The novel dramatizes the 19th-century obsession with part to the whole, the way that “a drop … faithfully renders the likeness of the world,” as Emerson said.

Actually, what Philbrick praises most in the novel—its concrete, sensory world of whaling—is as remote to most of us as water-harvesting on Tatooine. It is the novel’s lack of topicality that helps it survive.

Synecdoche and metaphor are how we catch hold of bigger concepts, since everything cannot be held in the mind at once. Big Crazy Books imitate life’s welter, but with more discernible order (usually). When we return to the books, as we might to nature, we see that we have forgotten and reduced them. Being reminded of this reality of scale is the origin of the sublime, “the transporting blow” that can elicit horror as well as joy. Our feelings, thoughts, and memories do not change the great grinding universe. It is Ahab’s main issue, as well as Melville’s.

 

•  •  •

 

Moby-Dick is Melville’s great monument to consciousness. Unlike bronze monuments erected for death-mongers and gamblers, his is spread around the world, as democratic as America wished itself to be. It must be encountered alone, as he wrote it, though it is nice when an institution supports coming together to read it aloud, and the gift shop rings with cash-register bells.

Moby-Dick is a novel of aloneness. It portrays a small community, but Ishmael starts and ends alone and bears witness to others’ “desolation of solitude.”

“I stand alone here upon an open sea, with two oceans and a whole continent between me and law,” Starbuck says.

“I stand in [Ahab’s] air,—but I’m alone,” Pip says.

“Ahab stands alone among the millions of the peopled earth,” Ahab says.

“And I only am escaped alone to tell thee,” says Ishmael, by way of Job.

We do not actually know who Ishmael is. He wants to be called Ishmael, and like his namesake in Genesis, there are indications “he shall be a wild ass of a man: his hand shall be against every man, and every man’s hand against him. … ” He is a lowly deckhand by choice, and at the start of the book something of a misanthrope, sadist, brawler, and near-suicide. (He disappears from the narration for long stretches, an extinction of self.)

Moby-Dick must be encountered alone, as he wrote it, though it is nice when an institution supports coming together to read it aloud, and the gift shop rings with cash-register bells.

Philbrick equated him with Melville during his talk and spoke on Ishmael’s being of two worlds, and of his good humor and wisdom. That is true too. Ishmael’s voice booms with authority and erudition, yet he is humble. He is healthy and not at all neurotic. He makes friends. He is curious, open, and fair, all things considered.

Ishmael becomes an orphan—his final word in the book—once he loses his possessions, name, family, mates, captain, and ship. By the end he is adrift, in all ways, left only with two things: the “uncivilized seas,” which for him are part idyll and part nightmare; and his tale. “But the awful lonesomeness is intolerable,” he says of Pip, previously alone in the sea. “The intense concentration of self in the middle of such a heartless immensity, my God! who can tell it?”

This, I think, is where the compulsion of first-person narrators often comes from. They feel orphaned, exiled, alone, and cannot stop telling it. Charlie Marlow in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness also believes himself wrecked and alone, after witnessing death, waste, and greed in a monomaniacal stripping of natural resources, without concern for their true cost, let alone for other people.

It was the promise of 19th-century technology—ships; guns; industrial processes, products, and markets—that the world was domitable. We could take anything we wanted from the sea; denude a continent; flatten mountains; subjugate others, without consequence to ourselves. That turned out to be a lie, and the hubris of the enterprise was seen to be a “horror”—Mr. Kurtz’s final pronouncement on the adventures of his soul—to which both Ishmael and Marlow bear witness. This is the connection between loneliness and impiety, something Mrs. Melville surely understood.

After Philbrick finished his talk distilled from his books and read Moby-Dick’s first chapter to kick-off the readathon, I went to see the Library’s exhibit. The first British edition was there. It accidentally left out the Epilogue, which explained that Ishmael survived the sinking of the Pequod. This made readers at the time uneasy, beyond its unsatisfying ending. If Ishmael did not survive, did they, his auditors?

Leaving the Library I looked at the names of donors engraved in the marble, people who were likely no longer around to enjoy it, and it made me think of others not present, including poor Melville, and my sons, who would have loved all this. Outside the Newberry a boy my son’s age was peeling up the rind of snow and ice from the sidewalk with a spading tool, like whalers do with blubber, as his buddies hollered advice and mockery. There had been a blizzard warning for two days. Chicago seemed grim, gray, and dark.

“Oh, ye frozen heavens! look down here,” Ahab cries. “Ye did beget this luckless child, and have abandoned him, ye creative libertines.”

My hypos had gotten the upper hand of me, so in honor of Ishmael I went out and had a good time.

 

•  •  •

 

It was tempting to think of the snowstorm, when it came, as a malevolent white deluge. But that was Ahab’s folly. The universe does not care about us any more than it does a rum buffer. Only when we throw ourselves in its way does it seem to conspire against us. We dart at meaning every hour of our waking lives, and through most of our dreams, so that we barely get any rest at all.

My alarm went off at 3:45 am. The snow was still falling. Music blared in the stinking lobby of the hotel, as a man mopped water from the floor. I struck off for the Newberry with the Rockwell Kent edition in my hand, like a little black Bible. It was Lakefront cold.

An older volunteer named Barry was sitting in the sign-in room in the basement of the Library. He showed me the copy of the Newberry edition that marked where each of us should start and stop reading. Barry had had an event in Evanston earlier that night but had been at the Newberry since 11 pm, and now it was 4:15 am. He had read three short bits already. He said he didn’t know where that fear of getting up in front of people came from, but you do not get a chance to read in front of a large group very often, and it was interesting to see if you could do it.

Moby-Dick is like the horoscope pages; you find something that fits, wherever you look, which was the point of the Newberry’s exhibit. Other readers told me they felt similarly.

“After the first few words, you’re right into it,” he assured me.

He swept his white hair back and held up a small bag of rainbow-colored snacks. “All the Goldfish I can eat!” he said. He clapped his hands. “As we said in the ‘60s, this is a happening!”

A slip of paper told me I was the 104th reader and would read at 4:40 am, from Chapter 87, “The Grand Armada.” I felt a cat’s-paw of fate, since Philbrick had said this was his favorite chapter, and it was mine too. I wrote about it in my last book, this chapter where the whalers give chase but get caught among thousands of whales in concentric circles around a still center in the sea. The Sperm whales copulate and give birth and snuffle at the gunwales like puppies, and the men from the Pequod cannot harpoon one, because they will die themselves in the panic. Uterine blood, mammal milk, and long loops of umbilical cords like rope hang in the water table. “In a novel about guys out to kill stuff, those life-giving, maternal circles are significant,” I wrote.

Moby-Dick is like the horoscope pages; you find something that fits, wherever you look, which was the point of the Newberry’s exhibit. Other readers told me they felt similarly.

Robbie Ellis, a broadcaster, felt “pretty privileged” to read Chapter 28, because it is where Ahab makes his first appearance.

Dmitry Samasov, an artist, read Chapter 57, “Of Whales and Paint,” “which, appropriately enough, was about skrimshanders,” he said. Also, “I first read Moby-Dick when I was thirty-three years old and going through a divorce. I’m glad I didn’t read it as a child the way so many kids in America are made to because I doubt I would have understood what it was about. I think life has to kick you in the ass a bit before you can feel what Melville is getting at.”

Mary Wisniewski, a biographer of Nelson Algren and a reporter and columnist for the Chicago Tribune, says she had done a readathon before, but this one “reminded me how funny, strange and gorgeously written this book is. It’s a book meant to be read aloud, because the language is so rich. It also is oddly modern. It doesn’t seem like it belongs to any time, but to all times. Ahab’s obsession with the whale represents the dark side of the American dream—it is ambition curdled into something sour and destructive.”

“I’m glad I didn’t read it as a child the way so many kids in America are made to because I doubt I would have understood what it was about. I think life has to kick you in the ass a bit before you can feel what Melville is getting at.”

Wilda Morris, 80, read four times, the first at 2:20 am. She says she decided, some years ago, “to fill in some gaps in my education” by listening to the novel while driving. Then she took a course on Moby-Dick at the Newberry. Now she has just published a book of poems “sparked by” the novel. She read “to share time with other lovers of Moby-Dick, to hear the words again—in a variety of voices—and to have … a totally new experience.”

The instructions for readers said I should “report to the front of the room to sit in the ‘on deck’ area” until my turn. It explained how to handle footnotes and said to see a Reading Manager with questions about pronunciation.

Upstairs, 14 people sat in Ruggles Hall while a boy read as well as any professional voice actor. One woman at the back was slumped, asleep, in her chair, but everyone else listened closely. I fell into the passage too, marveling at how, in the chapters about breaching and spouting, Melville makes something symbolic from concrete details on every page, and sometimes every line. Wilda and I were on deck, and then it was my turn.

I had not read aloud in a while but felt myself relax into it—the prose carries its own instructions—and was enjoying speaking for my friend Ish, who went through so much.

When I was done I sat in the audience and listened. The guy who started Chapter 88, at 5:40, was cheery. “Good Morning!” he said, as if indicating the long morning watch was finally over, the forenoon watch about to begin. The audience, who had been silent except for polite applause after each reading, enthusiastically, gratefully, said good morning in return.

Despite my expectations for that hour, the reading was homey, communal, and warm. Art, architecture, and books may arrive hand-in-hand with the worst that humans do, but they are the opposite return on the usual wages of sin. We meet in books and share our humanity, which is not the same as acting like humans. I slipped out between chapters.

My shoes crunched in the new snow still falling softly. All the cars parked along the road were mounded with it, as were the little iron railings around the trees and square-foot gardens, and the quiet townhouses, with their concrete urns at the bases of stairs with wrought railings, their bay windows decorated with stained glass and lights left on by hearths near the front windows, which reminded in their architecture that Melville was not so distant.

Art, architecture, and books may arrive hand-in-hand with the worst that humans do, but they are the opposite return on the usual wages of sin. We meet in books and share our humanity, which is not the same as acting like humans. I slipped out between chapters.

I went back to the hotel, looked for a cannibal in my bed, then slept hard until midmorning, herds of walruses and whales rushing under my very pillow.

I woke thinking of Emerson: “The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?”

Most of us, like Philbrick, turn metaphorical when discussing Melville, as we do when praising nature. He encourages it; everything to Melville was like or as. Ahab confuses Moby Dick with malevolence; Ishmael pours metaphors until they run out his scuppers.

But metaphor is not the thing itself; it is the poetry of comparison, used when something is too much itself to make human sense. If we were looking for the mightiest being in American literature, the one with the most original relation to the universe, it might be The Whale—like Ishmael an orphan, a near-suicide, a survivor filled with splinters and darts, and bound by lines, but beyond language, and indomitable within its own measure.

Poor land mammal, I held my face in the shower stream a long time, breached, spouted, and rolled on.

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