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Moby-Dick; or, The Whale is an 1851 novel by American writer Herman Melville. The book is the sailor Ishmael’s narrative of the obsessive quest of Ahab, captain of the whaling ship Pequod, for revenge on Moby Dick, the giant white sperm whale that on the ship’s previous voyage bit off Ahab’s leg at the knee. A contribution to the literature of the American Renaissance, Moby-Dick was published to mixed reviews, was a commercial failure, and was out of print at the time of the author’s death in 1891.
Its reputation as a “Great American Novel” was established only in the 20th century, after the centennial of its author’s birth. William Faulkner said he wished he had written the book himself, and D. H. Lawrence called it “one of the strangest and most wonderful books in the world” and “the greatest book of the sea ever written“. Its opening sentence, “Call me Ishmael”, is among world literature’s most famous.
Melville began writing Moby-Dick in February 1850, and finished 18 months later, a year longer than he had anticipated. Melville drew on his experience as a common sailor from 1841 to 1844, including several years on whalers, and on wide reading in whaling literature. The white whale is modeled on the notoriously hard-to-catch albino whale Mocha Dick, and the book’s ending is based on the sinking of the whaleship Essex in 1820.
The detailed and realistic descriptions of whale hunting and of extracting whale oil, as well as life aboard ship among a culturally diverse crew, are mixed with exploration of class and social status, good and evil, and the existence of God. The book’s literary influences include Shakespeare and the Bible. In addition to narrative prose, Melville uses styles and literary devices ranging from songs, poetry, and catalogs to Shakespearean stage directions, soliloquies, and asides.
In August 1850, with the manuscript perhaps half finished, he met Nathaniel Hawthorne and was deeply impressed by his Mosses from an Old Manse, which he compared to Shakespeare in its cosmic ambitions. This encounter may have inspired him to revise and deepen Moby-Dick, which is dedicated to Hawthorne, “in token of my admiration for his genius”.
The book was first published (in three volumes) as The Whale in London in October 1851, and under its definitive title, Moby-Dick, or, The Whale, in a single-volume edition in New York in November. The London publisher, Richard Bentley, censored or changed sensitive passages; Melville made revisions as well, including a last-minute change of the title for the New York edition.
The whale, however, appears in the text of both editions as “Moby Dick”, without the hyphen. Reviewers in Britain were largely favorable, though some objected that the tale seemed to be told by a narrator who perished with the ship, as the British edition lacked the epilogue recounting Ishmael’s survival. American reviewers were more hostile.
While the technological aspects of the book are outdated, it doesn’t matter. Like any classic literature it surpasses the differences of time and makes you forget that it was written over 166 years ago. I’m also not sure why I thought this book was so long. It’s not short by any means, but compared to say Ulysses the 427 pages of Moby Dick seem very manageable especially when some of the 135 chapters are less than a page long.
You may be wondering why I’m reading a book that I thought was stuffy, old, and boring. Well, to be honest, two of my coworkers bullied me into joining our Moby-Dick reading course with them. Turns out I should thank them for that, as I am really enjoying this novel.
from 4:00-8:00 p.m
I encourage everyone to try reading Moby-Dick. If you don’t like it, you can stop reading—but I bet you won’t. Whether you’ve read the novel or not, please join us on Saturday, November 18th from 4:00-8:00 p.m. for our Moby-Dick Celebration. Enjoying listening to parts of the book read aloud, sea shanties sung by Jonathan Houlon, punch and snacks, and the chance to nerd out with other Melville enthusiasts. Think of it as a miniature indoor Bloomsday: stop by for half an hour, or stay for the whole thing.
If you’re looking for a way to read deeper, I also encourage everyone to join a Rosenbach Course. These guided discussions are all taught by experts and offer a great opportunity to explore books and topics that interest you (or even those that intimidate you), and they are a wonderful way to make new friends and expand your learning.
Moby Dick famously begins with the narratorial invocation “Call me Ishmael.” The narrator, like his biblical counterpart, is an outcast. Ishmael, who turns to the sea for meaning. Relays to the audience the final voyage of the Pequod, a whaling vessel. Amid a story of tribulation, beauty, and madness, the reader is introduced to a number of characters. Many of whom have names with religious resonance. The ship’s captain is Ahab, who Ishmael and his friend Queequeg soon learn is losing his mind.
Starbuck, Ahab’s first-mate, recognizes this problem too, and is the only one throughout the novel to voice his disapproval of Ahab’s increasingly obsessive behavior. This nature of Ahab’s obsession is first revealed to Ishmael and Queequeg. After the Pequod’s owners, Peleg and Bildad, explain to them. That Ahab is still recovering from an encounter with a large whale that resulted in the loss of his leg. That whale’s name is Moby Dick. The Pequod sets sail, and the crew is soon informed that this journey will be unlike their other whaling missions. This time, despite the reluctance of Starbuck, Ahab intends to hunt. And kill the beastly Moby Dick no matter the cost.
A note on the text
The pre-publication history of Moby-Dick has been the subject of endless scholarship. And provides a case study in Anglo-American co-publishing in the mid-19th century.
Melville, who was short of money, actually made his first contract for a new novel. Then known as The Whale, with the British publisher Richard Bentley. But he kept the printing in New York so he could oversee the proofs. And wrote to Hawthorne, from New York. That he must “work and slave on my ‘Whale’ while it is driving through the press”. In fact, he was simultaneously working on revisions to his manuscript and proofreading what had been set.
Meanwhile, Melville had still not yet settled a contract with an American publisher. As a result, the British edition would differ from the American in hundreds of small ways. The most important was the change of title. Rather late in the day, he wrote to Bentley. “Moby-Dick is a legitimate title for the book, being the name given to a particular whale who. If I may so express myself, is the hero of the volume.”
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