Book Review: "Why Read Moby-Dick?"

Why Read Moby-Dick?
By Nathaniel Philbrick.
144 pp. Viking Adult. $25.

If such a thing as the Great American Novel exists, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick is almost certainly the finest example of the species—and not just because of its high quality. Moby-Dick serves as a model for the way that American writers of “literary fiction” see themselves, in that it was composed by an autodidact who had one foot in with the working class and one with high culture; that it supports dozens upon dozens of interpretive frameworks, including one that posits the book as the key to understanding America itself; and, of course, that it was (the story goes) widely hated upon its initial publication, only to be understood, accepted, and praised a full lifetime later. Most American writers of serious novels, I suspect, see themselves as heirs to this tradition.

Unfortunately, as Nathaniel Philbrick notes in his new apology for the novel,

Moby-Dick may be well known, but of the handful of novels considered American classics, such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Great Gatsby, it is the most reluctantly read. It is too long and too maddeningly digressive to be properly appreciated by a sleep-deprived adolescent, particularly in this age of digital distractions.

No Melville fan who has attempted to discuss Moby-Dick with nonbelievers will disagree with this statement. An otherwise educated and thoughtful person will twist her face into a grimace when you bring up Moby-Dick. “Oh,” she will say with a strange mixture of shame and disdain. “I’ve never read that.” And who can blame her? Moby-Dick is a glorious mess of a novel, pieced together from multiple drafts with little apparent effort to make its pieces cohere. My advice for those approaching the novel for the first time is always the same: Do not try to interpret every piece of it, and for crying out loud, don’t waste your time trying to figure out what the whale “represents.” You have to steer into the skid with Moby-Dick; submit yourself to its strange whims and demands, and you will emerge better for the experience. Try to fight it, and you’ll end up in a snow bank.

That’s not to say that interpretations of Moby-Dick have no value; it’s just that one can’t approach the novel with a scalpel. Some of the world’s greatest literary critics, from the early rediscoverers of Melville in the 1920s to Lionel Trilling to Andrew Delbanco, have written with great insight and originality on Moby-Dick, and we as readers are all better for it. Philbrick, for his part, does not seem to aim to join the ranks of academic scholars; in the afterword to Why Read Moby-Dick?, he cites Delbanco’s 2005 biography of Melville as a major influence but does not engage directly with any other scholars. Rather, this short, eminently readable book is aimed at a general-market reader who is otherwise educated but who might grimace at the mention of the novel. Philbrick does not “explain”; rather, he contextualizes and ultimately makes a fairly convincing case that every educated person should at least dip into the novel.

His approach is rather like that of the great “heroic critics” of the middle of the last century. While the book lacks a coherent message beyond “You must read this,” Philbrick returns again and again to the idea that

Contained within the pages of Moby-Dick is nothing less than the genetic code of America: all the promises, problems, conflicts, and ideals that contributed to the outbreak of a revolution in 1775 as well as a civil war in 1861 and continue to drive this country’s ever-contentious march into the future. This means that whenever a new crisis grips this country, Moby-Dick becomes newly important. It is why subsequent generations have seen Ahab as Hitler during World War II or as a profit-crazed deep-drilling oil company in 2010 or as a power-crazed Middle Eastern dictator in 2011.

It’s a good thing that Philbrick is writing for a popular, rather than an scholarly, audience, because this sort of grandiose language—intense fandom couched in the terminology of national history—is no longer permitted by the guardians of academic prose. (Delbanco is an exception to this and most other rules.) I will admit that Philbrick’s new heroic criticism appeals to me. When he says that “As individuals trying to find our way through the darkness, as citizens of a nation trying to live up to the ideals set forth in our constitution, we need, more than ever before, Moby-Dick,” I am inclined to agree—although I doubt that our politics would be made less odious by a national book club.

Philbrick goes into quite a bit of detail about the background, composition, and historical context of Moby-Dick, quoting generously from the letters of Melville and of his once-friends Nathaniel and Sophia Hawthorne. These details serve to make his appeals simultaneously specific and universal, concerned simultaneously with the importance of Moby-Dick to Melville’s life and with its importance to our grand national mythos. These two concerns occasionally sit uncomfortably next to each other, but that discomfort is entirely appropriate for a book about a book like Moby-Dick, where thousands of words on the practical issues of cetalogy sit wedged between chapters on philosophical idealism and bizarre Shakespearean playlets about monomania and power.

Indeed, Philbrick is savvy enough about the structure of Moby-Dick to make his book similarly fragmented and crooked. Like Melville, he utilizes a series of very short chapters. Each approaches the book from a different direction. In this way, Philbrick creates a pattern of thrusts and parries surrounding the interpretation of the novel. His major theme is his understanding of American history and myth through Moby-Dick, but his minor themes are legion: religion, homosexuality, race, politics, environmentalism, and so forth. The novel is not “about” any of these things in the sense that high-school English teachers sometimes tell their students that the white whale “represents” God or the id or the vanishing wilderness—but Philbrick is quite right in pointing out that it contains all of these subjects, and he writes about them thoughtfully and with gusto.

Sometimes, in fact, he writes with a little too much gusto. Early in the book, he attempts to take on Melville’s authorial voice in a discussion about—of all things—clam chowder. The results are decidedly mixed: “Remember this, all ye modern-day clam chowder makers, forgo the cloying chunks of needless potato and go with the biscuit bits!” The sentence is going along fine until Philbrick slips in the modern slang “go with,” at which point the effect is ruined.

But I’ll take a cheerful if unsuccessful attempt at talking like Melville over Philbrick’s occasional lapses into a more conversational tone. The worst of these occurs in his discussion of Melville’s filthy joke in “The Cassock,” chapter 95 of Moby-Dick. Something about Melville’s vulgarity turns Philbrick into the smirking frat boy in your American literature survey: “Ishmael begins by describing how the mincer, the sailo who cuts up the whale blubber into thin pieces known as bible leaves, secures a very special coat made from—get this—the foreskin of a sperm whale’s penis…that’s right, the foreskin of a whale.” These lapses are, thankfully, rare, and most of the time Philbrick treats his readers like adults.

These are minor complaints, of course, and they don’t really mar what is on the whole a delightful apologia for a Great Book that many know only by reputation. I do wonder how many non-readers of Moby-Dick will be readers of Why Read Moby-Dick?; I suspect that, despite Philbrick’s noble efforts, the people who have been scared away by the length and opacity of Moby-Dick will not want to read a book that attempts to change their minds. I hope I am wrong.

Philbrick, for his part, attempts to keep his expectations modest at the outset. “I am not one of those purists,” he says, “who insist on reading the entire untruncated text at all costs. Moby-Dick is a long book, and time is short. Even a sentence, a mere phrase, will do.” This is a profoundly stupid thing to say. Very few people will insist on anyone reading every word of Moby-Dick; I have been through it four or five times now, and I am certain there are paragraphs I’ve never read. But a sentence? A phrase? Be reasonable.

Besides, Philbrick contradicts his magnanimity in the very next sentence: “The important thing is to spend some time with the novel, to listen as you read, to feel the prose adapt to the various voices that flowed through Melville during the book’s composition like intermittent ghosts with something urgent and essential to say.” Philbrick does not say how he thinks a reader will be able to hear these “various voices . . . with something urgent and essential to say” when he stops at “a mere phrase” of the novel. We do not need people who read a tiny fragment of Moby-Dick any more than we need people who read a tiny fragment of the Bible. The same is true for any great book with something to say.

So my advice is to ignore Philbrick’s advice and instead watch the way he actually reads the book—watch him rhapsodize and puzzle and swoon over Melville’s prose and ideas. Why Read Moby-Dick? doesn’t break an inch of new ground in Melville scholarship, but it serves as a useful guide for laymen and, perhaps, a reminder to scholars of why we loved the novel in the first place.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: "Why Read Moby-Dick?"

  1. Hey Michial, I am actually reading Moby-Dick for the first time at the moment, and I was wondering: Moby-Dick is a long book, but even so it is half the size of some of the greats of literature, like Les Miserable or the Count of Monte Cristo, and even a few hundred pages shorter than Brothers Karamazov; do you find that people, students and otherwise, are really that daunted by the size? And is it really worth reading this book, when a person could just go read Moby-Dick itself?

    1. Good questions, Carter. I will confess to not having read Les Miserables or the Count of Monte Cristo, but my understanding is that those books, while long, are relatively straightforward narratives. (Even so, I think most people read Les Miserables in a shortened edition, though I could be wrong.) So it may be less the length of Moby-Dick than its bizarre structure that keeps people away from it. The Brothers Karamazov is similarly fragmented, although I think it’s probably an easier initial read than Moby-Dick, even if it’s just as philosophically dense upon interpretation. Even so, I suspect that The Brothers Karamazov is something like the world literature version of Moby-Dick–many, many more people know it by reputation than by direct experience.

      As for your second question: If while you’re reading Melville, you find the novel to be hopelessly obtuse, Philbrick may provide you with a few ways to approach it. It’s a very short book–it says 144 pages, but it’s really closer to 120. I read it in two days while I was teaching and preparing other classes. So it may be worth it just because it doesn’t take much time to go through it. It also provides a nice introduction to Melville scholarship, although of course it doesn’t really give anyone any next steps beyond Delbanco’s biography.

      Are you enjoying Moby-Dick?

  2. In the interest of full disclosure, I haven’t read more than one or two “whaling” chapters yet, so perhaps the worst is yet to come; but Hugo, in Les Miserable, is far worse. He spent 80 pages, at the beginning of the book, describing a character (the priest), whose role in the main story arch, while important, was remarkably brief. That’s just one of many examples. It’s one of my favorite books, but undoubtedly cumbersome to modern sensibilities.

    I am rather enjoying the book. I don’t find Melville’s language too cumbersome, I rather think he has a way with words; he wrote some very beautiful sentences and descriptions. Lots of the dialog between characters is a little blurry to me, but not unreadable. I do find the religious undertones fascinating, because he clearly has a love/hate relationship with the form of Calvinism he was familiar with; it is an interesting glimpse into the religious atmosphere of the time, which I am always intrigued by. I’m not generally averse to literary analysis either, but I have to say that I typically approach these types of books the first time is to just try and absorb oneself in them, without too much said analysis the first time. But then, maybe I’m just lazy. Do you typically try to interpret heavily the first time through?

    I see your point about Philbrink. I don’t think I’ll partake myself, but I understand why it would be a useful tool. Would you recommend Delbanco if one did want to go a bit more in depth on the subject?

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