The Pequod Review:
Herman Melville broke through with Moby-Dick, a wildly experimental adventure story that has it all: a gripping narrative, endlessly inventive prose, intelligent digressions, and darkly humorous wit.
The book is loosely structured as the first-person narrative of Ishmael, a sailor hired aboard a whaling ship (the Pequod) captained by the vengeful Ahab. The opening sections of the novel take place before the Pequod sets sail, and trace Ishmael’s journey by land from New York City to Nantucket. His encounters along the way are described in a series of observational set pieces that are themselves minor masterpieces. Here is his vivid image of Manhattan:
There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs — commerce surrounds it with her surf. Right and left, the streets take you waterward. Its extreme downtown is the battery, where that noble mole is washed by waves, and cooled by breezes, which a few hours previous were out of sight of land. Look at the crowds of water-gazers there.
Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon. Go from Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip, and from thence, by Whitehall, northward. What do you see? — Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries. Some leaning against the spites; some seated upon the pier-heads; some looking over the bulwarks glasses! of ships from China; some high aloft in the rigging, as if striving to get a still better seaward peep. But these are all landsmen; of week days pent up in lath and plaster — tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks. How then is this? Are the green fields gone?
But look! here come more crowds, pacing straight for the water, and seemingly bound for a dive. Strange! Nothing will content them but the extremest limit of the land; loitering under the shady lee of yonder warehouses will not suffice. No. They must get just as nigh the water as they possibly can without falling in. And there they stand — miles of them — leagues, Inlanders all, they come from lanes and alleys, streets and avenues — north, east, south, and west. Yet here they all unite. Tell me, does the magnetic virtue of the needles of the compasses of all those ships attract them thither?
Here is his detailed profile of Nantucket:
Nantucket! Take out your map and look at it. See what a real corner of the world it occupies; how it stands there, away off shore, more lonely than the Eddystone lighthouse. Look at it — a mere hillock, and elbow of sand; all beach, without a background. There is more sand there than you would use in twenty years as a substitute for blotting paper. Some gamesome wights will tell you that they have to plant weeds there, they don't grow naturally; that they import Canada thistles; that they have to send beyond seas for a spile to stop a leak in an oil cask; that pieces of wood in Nantucket are carried about like bits of the true cross in Rome; that people there plant toadstools before their houses, to get under the shade in summer time; that one blade of grass makes an oasis, three blades in a day's walk a prairie; that they wear quicksand shoes, something like Laplander snow-shoes; that they are so shut up, belted about, every way inclosed, surrounded, and made an utter island of by the ocean, that to their very chairs and tables small clams will sometimes be found adhering as to the backs of sea turtles. But these extravaganzas only show that Nantucket is no Illinois.
Look now at the wondrous traditional story of how this island was settled by the red-men. Thus goes the legend. In olden times an eagle swooped down upon the New England coast and carried off an infant Indian in his talons. With loud lament the parents saw their child borne out of sight over the wide waters. They resolved to follow in the same direction. Setting out in their canoes, after a perilous passage they discovered the island, and there they found an empty ivory casket — the poor little Indian's skeleton.
And, in one of the funnier moments in the novel, Ishmael describes his experience sharing a room at an overcrowded New Bedford (Mass.) inn with a tattooed Polynesian cannibal named Queequeg. Already Melville’s wit and playfulness are apparent:
For all his tattooings he was on the whole a clean, comely looking cannibal. What's all this fuss I have been making about, thought I to myself — the man's a human being just as I am: he has just as much reason to fear me, as I have to be afraid of him. Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.
"Landlord," said I, "tell him to stash his tomahawk there, or pipe, or whatever you call it; tell him to stop smoking, in short, and I will turn in with him. But I don't fancy having a man smoking in bed with me. It's dangerous. Besides, I ain't insured."
This being told to Queequeg, he at once complied, and again politely motioned me to get into bed — rolling over to one side as much as to say — I won't touch a leg of ye."
"Good night, landlord," said I, "you may go."
I turned in, and never slept better in my life.
Upon waking next morning about daylight, I found Queequeg's arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner. You had almost thought I had been his wife. The counterpane was of patchwork, full of odd little parti-colored squares and triangles; and this arm of his tattooed all over with an interminable Cretan labyrinth of a figure, no two parts of which were of one precise shade — owing I suppose to his keeping his arm at sea unmethodically in sun and shade, his shirt sleeves irregularly rolled up at various times — this same arm of his, I say, looked for all the world like a strip of that same patchwork quilt. Indeed, partly lying on it as the arm did when I first awoke, I could hardly tell it from the quilt, they so blended their hues together; and it was only by the sense of weight and pressure that I could tell that Queequeg was hugging me.
My sensations were strange. Let me try to explain them…
The remainder of the novel takes place aboard the Pequod, as Ishmael joins a memorable cast of shipmates: the harpooner Queequeg (Ishmael’s roommate at the Spouter-Inn), the chief mate Starbuck (an intelligent Quaker from Nantucket), second mate Stubb (good-natured and cheerful, with unexpected wisdom), third mate Flask (diminutive but tough-minded), and many others. They are all under the leadership of Captain Ahab, a fanatical madman who lost his leg on an earlier voyage after being attacked by a white whale, and who now seeks to embark on a single-minded journey of revenge.
Within this loose narrative framework, Melville improvises extensively and launches into tangents and digressions on all kinds of subjects: the natural history of whales, how sea creatures have been portrayed in visual art, the meaning of the color white, the customs of seafaring culture, and much more. Here for example is an extended discussion on the merits of various types of rope:
With reference to the whaling scene shortly to be described, as well as for the better understanding of all similar scenes elsewhere presented, I have here to speak of the magical, sometimes horrible whale-line. The line originally used in the fishery was of the best hemp, slightly vapored with tar, not impregnated with it, as in the case of ordinary ropes; for while tar, as ordinarily used, makes the hemp more pliable to the rope-maker, and also renders the rope itself more convenient to the sailor for common ship use; yet, not only would the ordinary quantity too much stiffen the whale-line for the close coiling to which it must be subjected; but as most seamen are beginning to learn, tar in general by no means adds to the rope's durability or strength, however much it may give it compactness and gloss. Of late years the Manilla rope has in the American fishery almost entirely superseded hemp as a material for whale-lines; for, though not so durable as hemp, it is stronger, and far more soft and elastic; and I will add (since there is an aesthetics in all things), is much more handsome and becoming to the boat, than hemp. Hemp is a dusky, dark fellow, a sort of Indian; but Manilla is as a golden-haired Circassian to behold.
It is difficult to convey the cumulative impact of all of these moments. Melville breaks all the rules of how a traditional narrative should be structured, but yet somehow it comes together into a joyous and all-encompassing story. It is as though the diversity of its subjects has captured the entire range of human experience — emotional, logical, moral, social, psychological, and even sexual. Meanwhile, the book’s imperfections (its strained descriptions, its characters who awkwardly disappear and later reappear) seem to only add to its brilliance and personality. Like great rock music, its flaws give it a style and texture that are missing from more polished works of fiction.
One of the pleasures of Moby-Dick is the way it derives so much of its power and authority from Melville’s own experiences. It is a book that could only have been written by someone who spent several years at sea and learned first-hand what life on a whaling vessel was really like. Because he is able to draw on such specific details and characters, Melville's scenes become vivid and realistic. Perhaps this explains the sad state of modern American fiction, in which authors are trained first and foremost as writers instead of gaining experience elsewhere and then writing about it.
With Moby-Dick, as with many great works of art, Herman Melville opened himself up and seemingly poured out his soul onto the page. In hindsight, it is apparent how he had been building to this moment — beginning with the simple adventure stories of Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847), through the flashes of brilliance in Mardi (1849). Moby-Dick is the comprehensive fulfillment of his enormous talent, and one of the most exhilarating works of American fiction.