Shortly, we begin lectures and tutorial discussions on Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, or the Whale (1851), which I consider to be an event rather than a book.
Of Melville’s imposing tome, Stephan Kinzer of the British newspaper The Guardian says, “No book more deeply and revealingly explains the spasm of madness through which the United States has passed in recent years than Moby Dick. For generations, it has been considered a masterpiece of world literature, but now [it can] be seen as an eerily prophetic allegory about 21st-century America. It is now truly the nation’s epic” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2008/dec/08/moby-dick-national-book).
Kinzer’s colleague, Robert McCrum, calls Melville the last great enigma of American Literature (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/jan/30/herman-melville-mark-twain-parini). Melville was 31 when he met Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was 46, during a hike on Monument Mountain in Massachusetts in early August, 1850. They quickly became friends. At the time, Melville’s first novel, Typee, had been published and met with praise. He was working, without ease, on Moby-Dick. “All we can say for certain,” states McCrum, “is that, after climbing Monument Mountain, Melville’s creative genius was somehow released.”
McCrum further says – and he is worth quoting at length – that:
“Everything about Melville seems to illustrate the enigma of creativity. If ever a writer was a mystery inside a puzzle, wrapped in a riddle, it’s the author of Moby-Dick. His masterpiece is ostensibly about one man’s quest to kill a whale, yet it has become the supreme American novel. Its opening sentence is just three words (“Call me Ishmael”), but it summons a universe of self-invention.”
“Captain Ahab is every demented Yankee individualist from Henry Ford to George W Bush. Next to that other pole of American fiction, Mark Twain, Melville is deeper, darker and stranger than the white-suited showman from the Mississippi.”
No matter how heavy this massive stone of a book may seem to students of American Literature in late 2011, we cannot forget that when Melville died in 1891 he was, for the most part, an unknown. Between its publication in 1851 and the outbreak of the First World War, Moby-Dick had sold less than 10 000 copies. It was not until the 1920s that a wider audience began to notice and appreciate this odyssey about the violent horizons obsession.
Since then, Gregory Peck has portrayed Captain Ahab in a Hollywood adaptation, as has Sir Patrick Stewart of Star Trek fame. I’m convinced that almost every character Daniel Day Lewis has played in recent years has been Ahab in disguise; think of Bill “the Butcher” Cutting in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2002) and Daniel Plainview in P.T. Anderson’s oil epic There Will Be Blood (2007) – though I hope Lewis never becomes so literal as to attempt Ahab directly, for he’s a much fiercer creature, like the whale, when left to the imagination.
Recently, darling of the film festival circuit, Lynn Ramsay (director of We Need to Talk about Kevin, 2011), has announced that she plans to adapt a science fiction version of Moby-Dick in space (http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2011/oct/25/lynne-ramsay-moby-dick-space?newsfeed=true).
And a relatively unknown American illustrator named Matt Kish has completed a beautiful “one drawing for every page of Moby-Dick” project, an odyssey through obsession in it’s own right . The image at the top of this post is one of Kish’s works. (http://everypageofmobydick.blogspot.com/)
The point is, Moby-Dick is everywhere. It haunts the depths of our own lives like a ghost. Confront it head on, attempt to conquer it, and it leaves you afloat on a coffin, alone amid a vast and roiling ocean, another orphan.
In my next post, a challenge!