Moby-Dick

How to go about capturing the umpteenth reading of this classic work? My copy is pockmarked with post-it notes of things to remember. This was the first time I read the book with the extremely helpful 1952 Hendricks House edition’s hundreds of pages of notes (which also is filling up with my post-it notes, reviewed here). I sip at a chapter of M-D, dive into the Hendricks notes, cross-reference with online notations, look up delicious words in the dictionary, and scribble the good ones into a notebook where I’m collecting words. It’s taking me awhile to swim through, but as always it is a delight. Fart jokes, Shakespeare/Milton/Goethe/Carlyle/Montaigne influences, Biblical stories, alliterative gold. The book is a wonder. You hop from Hamlet to Macbeth to King Lear to Job and back again. The hero of the book swims into view only in the final 3 chapters—masterful!

Chapter 1: Loomings. Nothing comes close to the perfection of this opening chapter. Ishmael finds himself growing grim about the mouth, bringing up the rear of every funeral he meets, wanting to knock people’s hats off, so he goes to sea. Also nestled in this chapter is the timeless reference to a “Grand Contested Election for Presidency of the United States” and a bloody battle in Afghanistan.

Chapter 2: The Carpet-Bag. Ishmael is on his way. Stuck in New Bedford until the next ferry to Nantucket, he looks for a cheap hotel. Melville makes me weak at the knees: “Yet Dives himself, he too lives like a Czar in an ice palace made of frozen sighs, and being a president of a temperance society, he only drinks the tepid tears of orphans.” And don’t miss the fart joke: “For as in this world, head winds are far more prevalent than winds from astern (that is, if you never violate the Pythagorean maxim)”—e.g. don’t eat beans.

Chapter 3: The Spouter-Inn. Enter Queequeg, Ishmael’s sleeping companion and soon bosom buddy. Here we find M-D‘s first aphorism: “Better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.”

I can’t continue to go chapter by chapter else I write the longest entry ever, but I also want to call out the beautiful explanation of Jonah’s Biblical story in Chapter 9: The Sermon. If church were always so lyrical, I might be tempted to attend.

Alliteration

Something that strikes the ear repeatedly is Melville’s masterful use of alliteration. These are some of my favorites, by no means an exhaustive list:

Huge hills and mountains of casks on casks were piled upon her wharves, and side by side the world-wandering whale ships lay silent and safely moored at last; while from others came a sound of carpenters and coopers, with blended noises of fires and forges to melt the pitch… (Ch 13)

On Ahab: “There was an infinity of firmest fortitude, a determinate, unsurrenderable wilfulness, in the fixed and fearless, forward dedication of that glance.” (Ch 28, when Ahab first arrives on the scene)

Having impulsively, it is probable, and perhaps somewhat prematurely revealed the prime but private purpose of the Pequod’s voyage, Ahab was now entirely conscious that, in so doing, he had indirectly laid himself open to the unanswerable charge of usurpation; (Ch 46)

It was while gliding through these latter waters that one serene and moonlight night, when all the waves rolled by like scrolls of silver; and, by their soft, suffusing seethings, made what seemed a silvery silence, not a solitude: on such a silent night a silvery jet was seen far in advance of the white bubbles at the bow. (Ch 51)

As morning mowers, who side by side slowly and seethingly advance their scythes through the long wet grass of marshy meads; even so these monsters swam, making a strange, grassy, cutting sound; and leaving behind them endless swaths of blue upon the yellow sea. (Ch 58)

Mingling their mumblings with his own mastications, thousands on thousands of sharks, swarming round the dead leviathan, smackingly feasted on its fatness. (Ch 64)

So suddenly seen in the blue plain of the sea, and relieved against the still bluer margin of the sky, the spray that he raised, for the moment, intolerably glittered and glared like a glacier; and stood there gradually fading and fading away from its first sparkling intensity, to the dim mistiness of an advancing shower in a vale. (Ch 134)

Rhyme, humor, or playing with words:

Go it, Pip! Bang it, bell-boy! Rig it, dig it stig it, quig it, bell-boy! Make fire-flies; break the jinglers! (Ch 40)

The more I consider this mighty tail, the more do I deplore my inability to express it. (Ch 86)

Ch 15, while eating chowder, wondering what the effect is on the head (e.g. chowder-headed people)

… this same cash would soon cashier Ahab. (Ch 46)

The whole scene in Ch 91 where Stubb speaks disrespectfully to the French captain through an interpreter. “You may as well tell him now that – that – in fact, tell him I’ve diddled him…”

Top-heavy was the ship as a dinnerless student with all Aristotle in his head. (Ch 110)

Oh! jolly is the gale, And a joker is the whale, A’ flourishin’ his tail, – Such a funny, sporty, gamy, jesty, joky, hoky-poky lad, is the Ocean, oh! The scud all a flyin’, That’s his flip only foamin’; When he stirs in the spicin’, – Such a funny, sporty, gamy, jesty, joky, hoky-poky lad, is the Ocean, oh! Thunder splits the ships, But he only smacks his lips, A tastin’ of this flip, – Such a funny, sporty, gamy, jesty, joky, hoky-poky lad, is the Ocean, oh! (Ch 119)

Melancholy:

A noble craft, but somehow a most melancholy! All noble things are touched with that. (Ch 16)

For nowadays, the whale-fishery furnishes an asylum for many romantic, melancholy, and absent-minded young men, disgusted with the carking cares of earth, and seeking sentiment in tar and blubber. (Ch 35)

Defiant:

And, as for me, if, by any possibility, there be any as yet undiscovered prime thing in me; if I shall ever deserve any real repute in that small but high hushed world which I might not be unreasonably ambitious of; if hereafter I shall do anything that, upon the whole, a man might rather have done than to have left undone; if, at my death, my executors, or more properly my creditors, find any precious MSS. in my desk, then here I prospectively ascribe all the honor and the glory to whaling; for a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard. (Ch 24)

Self-referential (or on writing)

For small erections may be finished by their first architects; grand ones, true ones, ever leave the copestone to posterity. God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught – nay, but the draught of a draught. Oh Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience! (Ch 32)

But I have swam through libraries and sailed through oceans; I have had to do with whales with these visible hands; I am in earnest; and I will try. (Ch 32)

So ignorant are most landsmen of some of the plainest and most palpable wonders of the world, that without some hints touching the plain facts, historical and otherwise, of the fishery, they might scout at Moby Dick as a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory. (Ch 45)

Now then, thought I, unconsciously rolling up the sleeves of my frock, here goes a cool, collected dive at death and destruction, and the devil fetch the hindmost. (Ch 49)

Seldom have I known any profound being that had anything to say to this world, unless forced to stammer out something by way of getting a living. (Ch 85)

One often hears of writers that rise and swell with their subject, though it may seem but an ordinary one. How, then, with me, writing of this Leviathan? Unconsciously my chirography expands into placard capitals. Give me a condor’s quill! Give me Vesuvius’ crater for an inkstand! Friends, hold my arms! For in the mere act of penning my thoughts of this Leviathan, they weary me, and make me faint with their out-reaching comprehensiveness of sweep, as if to include the whole circle of the sciences, and all the generations of whales, and men, and mastodons, past, present, and to come, with all the revolving panoramas of empire on earth, and throughout the whole universe, not excluding its suburbs. Such, and so magnifying, is the virtue of a large and liberal theme! We expand to its bulk. To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. (Ch 104)

Words to love:

portentous, ponderous, fain, arrant, toper, obstreperous, farrago, bosky, withal, tarry, stalwart, inexorable, nonce, wights, celerity, stultify, brindled, palavering, apotheosis, puissant, pallid, expatiate, flummery, solecism, legerdemain, howdah, windrow, cozening, scaramouch, freshet, vicissitude, ineffable, recondite, expatiate, chriography, stolidity, effulgences

Annotated edition of Moby-Dick

The best edition of Moby-Dick for scholars is the 1952 Hendricks House edition (edited by Luther Mansfield & Howard Vincent), which is incredibly hard to find, a copy currently retailing online for almost $6k. Luckily, the extended library network sent me a copy and I kept it handy while reading the text. Melville’s borrowings and embellishments and source material are all exposed here, and you can see just how closely he adhered to those sources or exactly the magic sprinkle he gave words to make them jump. He was deeply indebted to:

  • Thomas Beale’s The Natural History of the Sperm Whale (1839)
  • Frederick Bennett’s Narrative of a Whaling Voyage Round the Globe (1840)
  • J. Ross Browne’s Etchings of a Whaling Cruise (1850)
  • Henry Cheever’s The Whale and his Captors (1850)
  • Scoresby’s Account of the Arctic Regions (1820) – the notes make continual reference to the fact that Melville pokes fun, “indulges in baiting the humorless Scoresby,” throughout the text.

Here is where I found detailed information about the Pythagoras fart joke, his maxim being “To abstain from beans because they are flatulent and partake most of the breath of life.” Here also is the explanation for the “Grand Contested Election” that freaked me out as a 2017 reader. Melville was talking about the Tippecanoe and Tyler too victory that unseated Van Buren. The recommendation to read Poe’s excellent Arthur Pym came from here as well.

There must have been a dozen pages each explaining the name Ishmael, Ahab, and the other main characters. Catching a whiff of Shakespeare in the text? Turn to the notes to see if it’s coming from Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, Julius Caesar. The exposition on good/evil is off the charts. Unending pages about Satan (Melville writes in The Confidence-Man that the 3 great original characters in fiction are Hamlet, Don Quixote, and Milton’s Satan.)

One of the things I liked best about the notes was that they incorporated reference to all of M’s other works as well; like the example of discussing the “condor’s quill” reference, saying that Melville’s finest account of his creative process was in Mardi, chap 180, along with letters to Duyckinck in Dec 1850 and Hawthorne June 1851, printed in Thorp’s Representative Selections of Herman Melville.

The note about Pompey’s Pillar explains that the Egyptian hieroglyphics and the Greek inscription on the pedestal “by the middle of the nineteen century had been much effaced by initial-carving tourists.” What is this base desire to leave an “I wuz here” mark wherever tourists go???

Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page

An interesting idea that would have been vastly aided by better execution. If you’re going to look at 500+ drawings, it’s best if you appreciate the style of the artist. I admit that it was a nice break, as I was reading Moby-Dick and cross-referencing with the 1952 Hendricks House notes, to then dip into this book and flip through the pages that I had just read. But I never looked forward to seeing how Kish had depicted the scenes. Most interesting is his summarizing of Melville’s sayings as Aphorisms (although I noted a few in reading that he missed):

  • Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian
  • A good laugh is a mighty good thing and rather too scarce a thing
  • I’ll try a pagan friend… since Christian kindness has proved but hollow courtesy.
  • Nothing exists in itself
  • If you can get nothing better out of the world, get a good dinner out of it, at least
  • When a fellow’s soaked through, it’s hard to be sensible, that’s a fact

Various Moby-Dick notations, essays, and explanations

From the Northwestern University and Newberry Library 1988 edition of Moby-Dick, I gleaned very little new, except confirmation that Melville was reading Shakespeare in the months leading up to writing Moby. Letter above from 1849.

I also perused two volumes of Jay Leyda’s Melville Log, wherein he lays out every bit of Melville-miscellany and invites you to write your own biography. From these hundreds if pages I confirmed that he stopped in San Francisco between Oct 11-20, 1860.

Hendricks House 1952 edition has helpful notes, such as the fact that Chapter 25: Postscript was left out of the British edition since it’s a bit blasphemous about the king’s coronation, “a king’s head is solemnly oiled at his coronation, even as a head of salad.” Also, the Epilogue was unaccountably left out of the British edition, making a lot of reviewers feel that the ending was too hasty, unfinished.

Other useful resources:

The Outermost House: A Year of Life On The Great Beach of Cape Cod

An account of a year spent living alone on a spit of land at the edge of Cape Cod in 1926. He hikes into town twice a week for eggs and butter, spends his days collecting driftwood and watching birds, chats with the coast guardsmen that patrol the beach at night. It’s a watered down attempt at what Thoreau perfected over the years he reworked Walden. Skip this and read that instead. Or Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

Best parts are descriptions of the cold sleety beach during the dark winter months, as he piles up wood wherever he can in the cabin to keep it dry. Also of scavenging from the many shipwrecks that happen right off the spit of land.

He instructs you to view birds sitting but be sure to clap your hands to send them into flight. “They will take no real alarm and will soon forgive you.” Hmm, ok. Expending precious energy for human’s amusement.

“The world today is sick to its thin blood for lack of elemental things, for fire before the hands, for water welling from the earth, for air, for the dear earth itself underfoot.”

Views A-foot; Or, Europe Seen with Knapsack and Staff

Some books are meant to be lost in the sands of time. There’s really no reason you would ever read this book unless you were going down a rabbit hole to investigate influences on Melville’s writing, and this is one of those influences. Taylor’s reminisces of an 1844-46 journey to the Old World were gobbled up by Melville in 1846; Herman also traveled with Taylor’s cousin, Franklin, on his ship to London, and knew Bayard well, according to the Hendricks House edition of Moby-Dick. Still, I was curious, so I hunted down a copy of the book, obtaining an 1869 edition which came from Boston via ILL.

Taylor was a 20-year-old entitled white man who set out to prove that Europe could be conquered cheaply by the pedestrian traveler. He was basically one of the first terrible American tourists abroad. His attitudes towards women, Jews, gypsies, the Irish, are as loathsome as you’d expect. On the voyage out, there are some Iowa Indians headed to England, and while the men are handsome, “the squaws were all ugly.” This sets the tone for his women-hating, with frequent comments about how ugly and dull-looking are the women he encounters. “I regret to say, one looks almost in vain, in Germany, for a handsome female countenance… In a public walk, the number of positively ugly faces is really astonishing.” One hotelier is described as a “shrill-voiced hostess.”

He has intolerable views about Jews as well, giving them all a sinister look, except for Mendelssohn (the composer) who he compliments as having a Jewish face “softened and spiritualised, retaining none of its coarser characteristics.” Of the Irish, “there was scarcely a mark of intelligence; they were a most brutalized and degraded company of beings.”

Taylor has no qualms about begging for a loan of $50 from a stranger, an artist in Italy (the equivalent of $2k in today’s currency). He’s a busybody who almost tells fellow travelers (a German family) who are headed to Texas not to bother because the climate is bad and Indians are violent. Weirdly, he recommends pouring brandy into your boots to alleviate blisters. He steals flowers from Beethoven’s grave and is constantly climbing up hills to grab wildflowers to press into his books as gifts for people at home. Not having enough money to afford a cabin on a ship, he huddles on deck in the rain looking miserable until someone takes pity on him. He later tips one servant but “the other servant who had not taken the least notice of us, laughed sneeringly” until he saw the tips getting handed out. Then Taylor turns his back on the sneering servant and walks off without giving him anything.

Most of the book is mind-numbing descriptions of the sights he sees along the way, the kind of stuff that you glaze over when someone tells you every last detail of their latest trip. More interesting are the crumbs of personal stories he drops along the way, little details like eating oat cakes and milk for dinner or various altercations he gets in.

N.P. Willis crops up again (Fanny Fern’s brother), and Taylor gets a letter of introduction from him to his brother Richard Willis in Frankfort, Germany.

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket

Gorgeous book by Edgar Allan Poe that I stumbled onto by way of reading the extensive notes to Moby-Dick (Hendricks House edition) wherein they claim several instances of influence that Poe’s 1838 novel had on Melville (especially in the whiteness of the whale aspect, compared closely with Poe’s eerie last chapter where everything turns white: white powder, white animals, white ashy material, down to the last sentence: “And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of the snow.”

Things kick into high gear quickly, where Arthur and his pal Augustus get drunk and take a boat out; nearly dying after being run down by a larger ship, they’re rescued and plopped back on shore. This whets Arthur’s appetite for sea-faring, and he stows away when Augustus sails off on a whaling voyage. A mutiny prevents Augustus from helping Arthur bust out of the hold, and he nearly dies of thirst/hunger. Many are killed, but Augustus is spared, the mutineers start to drink and argue and eventually Arthur appears as the ghost of one of the crew that was killed, helping his friends take control of the ship. Then a huge storm, they’re almost flooded, and near starvation because the stores are flooded. Cannibalism ensues. Eventually, Arthur and Peters are rescued (Augustus doesn’t make it) and head off to polar expedition with the new ship. At this point, the story lags and starts to fall apart, but Poe continues on, has his hero encounter natives in the Arctic that ambush the whites but Arthur hides in a crevice with Peters. Eventually they escape in a canoe and head off into the weird wild whiteness. A lot of the arctic piece was cribbed from A Narrative of Four Voyages published by Benjamin Morrell in 1832; seems like that was the thing to do (as Melville relied heavily on Beale’s The Natural History of the Sperm Whale).

This was Poe’s only novel published, and it leaves me wanting much more. I guess I’ll have to dip into the tales.