The Enduring Power of Moby-Dick

Writing Moby-Dick when he was only thirty-one (between 1850 and 1851), Herman Melville could not have imagined that his novel would one day serve as a cornerstone of American literature. In fact, the concept of “American literature” was a fairly new one back then. For some context, consider that Harriet Beecher Stowe had not yet published The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Thoreau was still writing Walden, and Walt Whitman was still composing the first of many drafts of Leaves of Grass.

The outlook of the country was rather grim. In 1850, Congress signed The Fugitive Slave Act into law which required all citizens regardless of geography to return any escaped slaves to their purported owners. The Northerners could no longer regard slavery as a “Southern problem,” and old animosities and disagreements flared up over this new law. The country was on the edge of a catastrophe, and that catastrophe is embedded in the pages of Moby-Dick. In fact, some scholars argue that The Pequod was intended to be a symbol of the country as there were thirty sailors and, at the time, thirty states in the Union (the book mentions forty-four sailors earlier on, but the later chapters clearly reference thirty, suggesting there might have been an editing error). Melville scholar Nathaniel Philbrick writes in his book Why Read Moby-Dick? that Moby-Dick is as close to an American Bible as we can get and argues:

Contained in 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.

“The Gospels in This Century.” Why Read Moby Dick? by Nathaniel Philbrick, 2013.

It is this American D.N.A. that Philbrick described in his keynote speech on January 19, 2019, kicking off The Newberry Library’s Moby-Dick Read-a-Thon coinciding with their new exhibit on the author in honor of the two hundredth anniversary of Herman Melville’s birth. Philbrick argued that every time we are on the brink of a catastrophe, the novel takes on new meaning and importance. After all, consider the relevance of a figure essentially hijacking a ship for an illegal personal mission to pursue vengeance — no matter what the cost.

In case we had any doubts about the relevance of the novel to our current political situation, recall that in Chapter 36, Starbuck is the only character to voice his uncertainty and disagreement with Captain Ahab’s announced mission asking him, “How many [oil] barrels will thy vengeance guide thee even if thou gettest it, Captain Ahab?” Ahab’s infamous response is, “….let me tell thee, that my vengeance will fetch a great premium here,” and he thumps his chest. Embedded in the D.N.A. of America indeed.

As I listened to Philbrick’s keynote and reading of Chapter One, I thought about other aspects of Herman Melville himself that seem quintessentially “American.” Melville sported a distinguished pedigree, including a grandfather who had participated in the Boston Tea Party. Growing up, Melville enjoyed a family that seemed to have a relatively stable financial outlook — that is, until it was revealed that Melville’s father was living a complete economic lie and owed his father and father-in-law thousands of dollars. Cut off from the family finances, Alan Melvill (how he spelled his name) moved the family around, all the while exhibiting signs of instability. He eventually died from an infection ostensibly made worse by traveling for two days in an open carriage in negative two-degree weather. It is thought that Melville witnessed his father’s descent into delirium and death because of the father’s death described in his novel Pierre.

Melville’s misfortunes took him to various means of employ, including bank teller, farmer, schoolteacher, merchant ship sailor, whaleship sailor, merchant clerk, and United States Navy sailor. As a writer, Melville rocketed to literary stardom with the publication of Typee, a novel sensationalizing a Polynesian island and the time Melville spent “among cannibals,” crashed with the publication of Moby-Dick, and positively scuttled his literary career with the publication of Pierre. He ultimately landed as a customs official for twenty years, holding the reputation of being the only honest customs official in the land.

No matter where Melville ended up in life, he attempted to remake himself in a way we could call undeniably American. Even though Melville’s private life and affairs were disasters, there is something compelling about his constant attempts to reinvent who he was. Even after his professional writing career was over, he continued to write, turning to poetry.

After Melville died, a copy of Billy Budd, Sailor was found amongst his papers. In true American style, Melville would never know that Billy Budd, Sailor was a critical success and made him famous again. It would not be until after The Great War that the public would “rediscover” Moby-Dick. Pasted to his desk was this Frederick Schiller quote: “Keep true to the dreams of thy youth.” Even though Schiller is German, there is something so undeniably American about Melville’s selection of that quotation to inspire him to keep pursuing his dreams.

I didn’t stay for the entire twenty-five hour Read-a-Thon, but I did listen to the prefatory material and several subsequent chapters. There will never be a time that “Call me Ishmael” fails to produce a shiver down my spine. Ishmael — that quintessential American survivor. That is a discussion for another day, though.

Originally published at on January 22, 2019.



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