I finally read Moby Dick. For some time now I have been working to correct the enormous gaps in my "classical" education (note my attempt to comprehend the The Illiad earlier) and so I decided to try Melville. It was worth the effort. I will not attempt to critique Herman Melville's masterpiece here, but would like to note a few observations about the novel, and my interaction with it.
If you are the product of a mediocre high school education and a college experience where you avoided the English department (as I am), Melville is going to make you feel tremendously undereducated. The Kindle edition I read (a Penquin enriched ebook) was chock full of footnotes for the myriad Greek, Roman, Shakespearean, Biblical and other references that Mr. Melville weaves in to his story and with rare exception I had to look up each and every one. This experience is humbling, but enlightening. It also means that my quest for shoring up my classical education is likely to last the rest of my natural life.
This is not (as I had expected) the story about a whale, it is a story about whaling. Moby Dick may dominate the mood and context, but the vast majority of the action is about whaling, whalers, and the physical, psychological, and metaphysical implications and requirements of whaling. Melville spends many of his 135 chapters (don't worry, they are short chapters) discussing the various skills, arts, tools, and approaches required for successful whaling. Written more than 150 years ago, Melville can more than hold your interest.
Moby Dick is as much a book of Melville's view of America and Americans as anything else. Not to get too thick, but Melville sees whaling - the risk taking, the requirements of courage and skill, the individual effort required as well as the specialization of tasks all fitting together in a well-functioning team. That team is a combination and integration of all types of people from all types of places who together and separately reflect what Melville sees as a quintessentially American set of characteristics. Oh, yes, other countries can be whalers, but no one is as good at is as Americans (even as many of the participants did not enter this life as Americans).
Melville says, "The urbane activity with which a man receives money is really marvellous, considering that we so earnestly believe money to be the root of all earthly ills, and that on no account can a monied man enter heaven. Ah! How cheerfully we consign ourselves to perdition". Later Stubb observes, "..that though man loves his fellow, yet man is a money-making animal, which propensity too often interferes with his benevolence. Shall I say, this could only be written by a man who understands what it is to try to make a living by working - and by working for someone else.
Melville also knows human nature - he has keen insights - from Ishmael's observations on man and religion, Starbucks attitudes towards his shipmates (..."I will have no man in my boat who is not afraid of a whale....an utterly fearless man is a far more dangerous comrade than a coward), to Stubb's observation on the human condition referenced above to Ahab's motivations and behavior, Melville provides us with a glimpse into the human condition.
Melville's whale is the centerpiece for Philip Hoare's The Whale, a biography of sorts of whales and whaling. I read The Whale in parallel with Moby Dick, using it as a reference of sorts - much like Torah students rely on the Talmud for commentary. Interesting, readable, and intriguing in its own right, Hoare helped me understand Moby Dick. Hoare says of Melville's story, "what began as an exercise in propaganda for the American whaling industry ended up as a warning to all mankind of its own evil." If by evil we mean the human ability to become fixated on ends without regard to means, I think Hoare captures the lesson well.
The Whale is chock full of whale and whaling information (and sometimes arcana) and the story of Philip Hoare's fascination with whales is a really good one....from his first glimpses to his investigation of New Bedford to his swimming with whales, Hoare really sets out to tell the whale's story - sometimes in all of its unfortunately depressing detail of killing, destruction and death of nearly entire species. Hoare also accuses Melville of plagiarizing Thomas Beale's "The Natural History of the Sperm Whale" for most of the whale "facts" in Moby Dick. Now that is interesting. Hoare believes that Melville used Beale's observations (along with Melville's own visits to the popular traveling whale exhibits of the time) to create "an elaborate conceit...an arch architectural exercise in irony, a wry and witty metaphor for man's use of the whale" -- and one that Hoare obviously believes is poor justification for the ruthless killing of all cetaceans.
By the time you are done, you will be ready to write to the International Whaling Commission (IWC). To reinforce our human inability to do the right thing (and thereby underlining the importance Melville's warning), the IWC just lifted the moratorium on hunting humpback whales - so now Greenland, Norway, and Japan can get back to the slaughter. Not much progress in 150 years, eh?