Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs is a penetrating profile of an obsessive-compulsive visionary (or flaming asshole, if you had the ill fortune to suffer his storied wrath and frequent temper tantrums). Reading about Jobs’ larger-than-life persona stirred long-dormant images of Captain Ahab and his equally obsessed creator, Herman Melville. But obsession is where the similarity ends: Where Jobs was committed to stripping his creations down to their very essence (“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”), Melville shares more in common with Bill Gates and Microsoft, determined to encumber a bloated product/manuscript with every bell and whistle possible.
Coincidentally, Moby-Dick; or, the Whale has enjoyed a resurgence of interest in the humanities of late. I was bemused by Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page by Matt Kish (which, I confess, looked like a portfolio of absent-minded doodles on scratch paper to my plebian eye) and entertained by Nathaniel Philbrick’s passionate defense of Melville’s epic teasingly titled Why Read Moby-Dick?
Why indeed. Philbrick anoints Moby-Dick as “the greatest American novel ever written” and rhapsodizes over the “magisterial power” of Melville’s prose. Beyond the actual plot, he claims the tale offers a trenchant allegory of mid-nineteenth century America. According to Philbrick, Moby-Dick is a cultural icon that is “as close to our American bible as we have.” I guess he likes it.
At the risk of blaspheming American literary scripture, I offer the following counterpoint to Philbrick’s gushing exegesis.
“A strange sort of a book”
After cranking out several banal sea yarns in the narrative genre which he himself termed “romance of adventure,” Melville made a critical error in judgment by deciding it was time to produce his literary legacy, his masterpiece. He also needed to pay the rent.
His neighbor and confidant, Nathaniel Hawthorne, saw a diamond in the rough in Melville and was shocked to discover that he had never read Shakespeare (or most other literary masterworks). Hawthorne plied his colleague/protégé with the great books of English literature. Melville gratefully absorbed them and (consciously or otherwise) incorporated a variety of literary styles in his magnum opus. Hawthorne believed his friend was gifted but green; writing in 1850, he noted that Melville’s novel, Mardi (which immediately preceded Moby-Dick), was “so good that one scarcely pardons the writer for not having brooded long over it, so as to make it a great deal better.” Melville “brooded long” over Moby-Dick, but in the end, the sprawling epic could have been “a great deal better” had a good editor intervened.
As the head of the household, Herman Melville was torn between attempting to churn out a bestseller and crafting a literary masterpiece—he desperately desired to accomplish both, but didn’t know how to go about it. Midway through the process he shared his frustration with his revered mentor: “What I feel most moved to write, that is banned, —it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot.” As the manuscript took shape, he forewarned Richard Henry Dana, “It will be a strange sort of a book, … I fear.”
When it finally appeared, the work confounded the critics. Evert Duyckinck, a close friend of the author and leading light of the New York literary publishing scene, labeled Moby-Dick “an intellectual chowder,” and Joseph Conrad later called it “a rather strained rhapsody with whaling for a subject and not a single sincere line in the three vols of it.” A generation hence, Bernard DeVoto extrapolated, “Moby-Dick has, as fiction, no structure whatever. Its lines of force mercilessly intercept one another. Its improvisations are commoner and falser than those in Huck Finn. It does not suffer from burlesque (exuberant humor had no place in Melville’s nature) but its verbal humor is sometimes more vicariously humiliating than such passages as Huck’s discussion of kings … . And, though Melville could write great prose, his book frequently escapes into a passionately swooning rhetoric that is unconscious burlesque. He was no surer than Mark, he was in fact less sure, of the true object of his book, and much less sure of the technical instruments necessary to achieve it.”
The book’s schizophrenic cosmic dance is a disjointed romp through a litany of diverse voices: from romantic narrative to moralistic parable; from Elizabethan soliloquy to Calvinist sermon; from a satire on legal discourse to a parody of naturalist erudition—there’s even a deranged comic opera sequence worthy of a Gilbert and Sullivan–Tom Waits collaboration. Melville’s ponderous prose is rendered more obtuse by his peripatetic linguistic gymnastics that wander aimlessly through the rolling seascape of the novel. Witness: “That certain sultanism of his brain, which had otherwise in a good degree remained unmanifested; through those forms that sultanism became incarnate in an irresistible dictatorship.” Say wha?
Many early reviewers shared their disdain of Melville’s discordant attempt at mastering the novel form, complaining that “all the regular rules of narrative or story are spurned and set at defiance.” Still others were shocked by his abuse of style; one literary scribe noted how Ahab “raves by the hour in a lingo borrowed from Rabelais, Carlyle, Emerson, newspapers transcendental and transatlantic, and the magnificent proems of our Christmas pantomimes.” The London Literary Gazette called Melville’s prose “wantonly eccentric” and “outrageously bombastic,” while another (more discreet) British critic pronounced, “Mr. Melville is endowed with a fatal facility for the writing of rhapsodies.”
In all fairness, at this point in his career, Herman Melville was a young man and a relatively immature author. He was just beginning to plumb the depths of his soul for the meaning of life—in short, he was dazed and confused. “And so, through all the thick mists of the dim doubts in my mind, divine intuitions now and then shoot, enkindling my fog with a heavenly ray,” reveals Ishmael/Melville. “And for this I thank God; for all have doubts; many deny; but doubts or denials, few along with them have intuitions. Doubts of all things earthly, and intuitions of some things heavenly; this combination makes neither believer nor infidel, but makes a man who regards them both with equal eye.”
Hawthorne kenned Melville’s metaphysical struggle, noting that his friend could “neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief.”
“A final hash”
The protracted section dealing with the nature of the whale and the whaling industry (known in scholarly circles as the “cetological center”) could certainly stand on its own as a worthy contribution to the corpus of natural history (not surprising, coming from an author for whom “a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard”), but it also effectively fractures the narrative arc. This perplexing stylistic dichotomy results in Moby-Dick being a book-within-a-book; indeed, Duyckinck felt that there might even be “three books in Moby Dick rolled into one,” and he enumerated them: a transcendental, soul-searching romance (with a healthy dose of Faustian melodrama thrown in for good measure); “a thorough exhaustive account … of the great Sperm Whale”; and a “moralizing, half essay, half rhapsody, in which much refinement and subtlety, and no little poetical feeling, are mingled with quaint conceit and extravagant daring speculation.” And as a rousing sea-faring adventure saga, Moby-Dick puts Captain Horatio Hornblower in the shade.
Considering its stubborn refusal to be classified, perhaps we shouldn’t label Moby-Dick a novel at all. Addressing this theory, one modern scholar offered, “Moby-Dick both in its quest plot and in its plot of cetological inquiry manages to refine the basic interests of an adventure narrative into what can only be called an epistemological suspense.” Melville’s masterpiece would very likely be the lone entry in this new literary genre. The author was painfully aware of his story’s multiple personality disorder; he declared resignedly to Hawthorne, “the product is a final hash.”
In addition to being a befuddling admixture of literary styles, the text is simply too long. An early British reviewer suggested that the book “might very conceivably have been comprised in half of these interminable volumes.” Duyckinck, too, weighed in on the subject: “The intense Captain Ahab is too long drawn out … . If we had as much of Hamlet or Macbeth as Mr. Melville gives us of Ahab, we should be tired even of their sublime company.”
Melville’s obsessive proclivities are well documented and according to one biographer, his correspondence during the critical period in which he expanded and largely rewrote the manuscript is peppered with the mantra, “I can’t stop yet.” A reviewer echoed this declaration: “… once embarked on a flourishing topic he knows not when or how to stop.” More characteristic of his weakness for declamatory rhetoric, Melville (in the persona of his alter ego Ishmael) feverishly spouts, “Unconsciously my chirography expands into placard capitals. Give me a condor’s quill! Give me Vesuvius’ crater for an inkstand! Friends, hold my arms!” One wag of a critic lamented, “Oh that his friends had obeyed that summons!”
That he was capable of producing remarkable prose is not in question. Consider this passage from the chapter entitled, “The Symphony”:
Hither, and thither, on high, glided the snow-white wings of small, unspeckled birds; these were the gentle thoughts of the feminine air; but to and fro in the deeps, far down in the bottomless blue, rushed mighty leviathans, sword-fish, and sharks; and these were the strong, troubled, murderous thinkings of the masculine sea.
Yet Melville also had an unsettling penchant for the overuse and misuse of punctuation—particularly the semicolon, of which he was inordinately fond. Couple this quirk with the truly abominable prose he was occasionally capable of spewing, and you are presented with something like this:
Look! here, far water-locked; beyond all hum of human weal or woe; in these most candid and impartial seas; where to traditions no rocks furnish tablets; where for long Chinese ages, the billows have still rolled on speechless and unspoken to, as stars that shine upon the Niger’s unknown source; here, too, life dies sunwards full of faith; but see! no sooner dead, than death whirls round the corpse, and it heads some other way.
Does a novel have to fit a rigid, predetermined structure to be great (or even good)? Should we conclude that a painting can only rise to the level of great art if the artist renders a balanced composition with controlled brush strokes and slavishly adheres to the tenets of an established school? Picasso certainly didn’t think so (and neither do I).
To use a more modern literary analogy, I must admit that while I was initially put off by J.P. Donleavy’s execrable English, I found that as I became drawn into the zany realm of post-World War II bohemian Dublin, I began to feel that the author’s linguistic indiscretions mirrored his characters’ wild behavior. The author’s quirky prose perfectly complements the social milieu he was sketching. But in Donleavy’s case, this literary device was employed quite intentionally and adds a certain piquant veracity to his work. Not so, Melville and his whale story. One must know the rules before breaking them.
Moby-Dick as Allegory
Melville’s masterpiece was composed at the apogee of the Industrial Revolution. It was an epoch of social upheaval and change, a period in which artisans were being methodically and inexorably supplanted by machines in the name of progress. Given this profound sea change, Moby-Dick is to mid-nineteenth century American literature what London’s Crystal Palace exhibition is to the Machine Age—a harbinger of things to come.
The Crystal Palace (which opened its doors in 1851, the same year as the publication of Moby-Dick) was a hulking monolith whose færy-castle aspect held the promise of unimagined wonders within. Its glass skin allowed shafts of filtered light to penetrate the depths of its cavernous interior where seemingly endless “pavilions,” each with its own distinct personality, invited exploration.
Prince Albert grandiosely viewed this inaugural “world’s fair” as an opportunity to promote international peace and goodwill (ahem, and commercial intercourse), but the public wasn’t so philosophical about it. To the typical attendee, the scale of the structure itself was imposing and not a little intimidating, and once inside, there was a mind-boggling array of widgets and gizmos to fill one with awe—a day at the Crystal Palace was likely to wear one to a frazzle.
Yet despite the fact that this massive commingling of fine art and the “useful arts” was assembled under one roof, purportedly with a noble common theme, one would be hard-pressed to find the thread of continuity between the Koh-i-nor diamond and Colt’s revolving pistols. To the working-class folk who attended in droves, it was a palace of the possible, a testament to the cultural and industrial superiority of the British Empire. The Crystal Palace was many things to many people, but at its core it was a celebration of “industry” in the full Victorian sense of the term.
Moby-Dick, too, is many things to many people—both literal and allegorical. But when you strip away the layers of meaning applied after the fact by generations of literature professors, “the greatest American novel ever written” is ultimately little more than a reflection of the angst of a tormented soul attempting to deal with the ephemeral aspects of his spiritual and aesthetic growth while being buffeted about by the pitch and yaw of the artist trying to survive in a crass, unforgiving commercial world. “I am so pulled hither and thither by circumstances,” Melville confided to Hawthorne in a blue funk. “The calm, the coolness, the silent grass-growing mood in which a man ought always to compose, —that, I fear, can seldom be mine. Dollars damn me; and the malicious Devil is forever grinning in upon me, holding the door ajar.”
Herman Melville produced better prose when he wasn’t trying so hard.
Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.