The Great American Novel Project: Moby-Dick, or How Melville Spent One Million Hours Researching Whales and Now Wants to Share Everything He Knows with You

February 26, 2011 § 4 Comments

Like with The Scarlet Letter, somehow I’d escaped both high school and college without reading Moby-Dick. I have a feeling that Moby-Dick‘s star is on the wane–not only did I not read it in college, but neither did any of my English major friends. In fact, I never heard of it being assigned in an English class at all. If we read Melville, it was one of his shorter works–“Bartleby the Scrivener” or Benito Cereno. Maybe our professors, who grew up force-fed Moby-Dick, had developed an aversion to it and thought it was boring. Maybe they felt it was less relevant to a modern audience than it had been to theirs. Or maybe it was just too long for the average English class–at a very dense and symbol-packed 500 pages, Moby-Dick is just too long to cram into the kind of survey-based class that likes to fly through novels in a week or two. (It took me a month, ten days of which were while I was on vacation and had nothing to do but sit in the sand and read, and I still felt like I missed a lot because I went through it too quickly.)

Also like with The Scarlet Letter, I’d heard that Moby-Dick was one of the most boring books in the American canon. I was happy to find out this was only half-true. Let me put it this way: Moby-Dick is 135 chapters long. Approximately 50 chapters of that is actual plot–call me Ishmael, Captain Ahab’s monomania, the hunt for the White Whale, et cetera. That part was actually interesting. (Did you know that Ishmael and Queequeg were probably having gay sex? True facts.) The other 85 chapters are pure lecture. We get a chapter on the head of the whale, a chapter on the tail, a chapter on different types of whales, a chapter on how you decide who owns a whale, a chapter on how you turn whales into oil, a chapter on ambergris . . . Eighty-five chapters! What I was surprised to find in this mess of didacticism is that Melville can turn a pretty sentence. Example:

“The Nantucketer, he alone resides and riots on the sea; he alone, in Bible language, goes down to it in ships; to and fro ploughing it as his own special plantation. There is his home; there lies his business, which a Noah’s flood would not interrupt, though it is overwhelmed with all the millions in China. He lives on the sea, as prairie cocks in the prairie; he hides among the waves, he climbs them as chamois hunters climb the Alps. For years he knows not the land; so that when he comes to it at last, it smells like another world, more strangely than the moon would to an Earthsman. With the landless gull, that at sunset folds her wings and is rocked to sleep between billows; so at nightfall, the Nantucketer, out of sight of land, furls his sails, and lays him to his rest, while under his very pillow rush herds of walruses and whales.”

Sequences like that make me just want to give up as a writer. There’s no way I could top it. But you know what makes me want to give up as a reader? Eighty-five chapters worth of essays on whales. Moby-Dick is the kind of book that feels like a workout with a sadistic personal trainer–after it’s all over, I’m glad I did it, but damn, did I work for it.

Previously: The Scarlet Letter

Next up: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

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§ 4 Responses to The Great American Novel Project: Moby-Dick, or How Melville Spent One Million Hours Researching Whales and Now Wants to Share Everything He Knows with You

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