The Whale and the Weirdness Beyond
On the 168th anniversary of the publication of Moby-Dick, a brief appreciation of the most extravagant of American authors.
Herman Melville’s career started off well enough. After years on the seas, his early autobiographical novels detailing adventures in exotic climes sold brilliantly, and he was on course to become one of the leading writers of the age. But when his immense novel Moby-Dick appeared in 1851, the reviews were scathing — “so much trash belonging to the worst school of Bedlam literature,” said one — and sales were worse. Melville’s reputation never recovered. Pierre: or, The Ambiguities, which he published the next year, bombed completely. Publishers rejected later novels, and he ended up working as a customs inspector at the Port of New York, channeling his literary energy into rather impenetrable poetry, including the epic Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land (1876). He was so forgotten that his last masterpiece, the novella Billy Budd, went undiscovered for nearly three decades after his death, and was published only in 1924. In retrospect, of course, his great novel of the white whale takes up most of Melville’s legacy, but even though Moby-Dick remains in a class by itself, readers should not let its long shadow obscure the startling originality of his other work, which comprises one of the quirkiest and most surprising authorial shelves in all literature.
Moby-Dick: An Unparalleled Literary Voyage
A rollicking ocean of maritime adventure, Christian allegory, metaphysical disquisition, natural history, literary escapade, and social criticism, Moby-Dick was, at the time of its original publication, the most ambitious novel ever written in America. While its scale still scares off readers today, no sailor setting out upon its pages can fail to be impressed by its astounding intensity.
On board the Pequod, a ship that sets off from Nantucket, our narrator Ishmael and his fellow crewmen think they are in the business of hunting whales for oil. But Captain Ahab, the ship’s grim, peg-legged skipper, has other ideas: He is out for revenge on the white whale who bit off his limb. His obsessive hunt for Moby-Dick will occupy him and the rest of the crew until the novel’s end — but not before Melville takes us on an imaginative journey that is at once a seafaring thriller, a workplace comedy (complete with scenes of grizzled sailors harvesting whale sperm), and an almost Shakespearean dramatization of man’s fate.
Today Moby-Dick appears both in its complete version and in abridged forms that elide whole chapters on the economics of whaling or the biology of sea mammals. But if you’re going to tackle this monumental work, embrace the whole conception. For, despite the fact that critics chase the specter of the Great American Novel with the single-mindedness with which Ahab pursues the whale across these pages, Melville’s masterpiece long ago delivered the goods. From bustling seaport to shipboard society, from the isolated ocean wilderness to expanses of ideas as forbidding as nature itself, Moby-Dick is a literary voyage unlike any other you’ll undertake, a strange and compelling secular Bible that has all the character and incident, lamentations and longueurs of the original — and more than a little of its sense of revelation, too.
The Piazza Tales: A Cabinet of Curiosities
If Moby-Dick is a heaping chest of treasure, the volume known as The Piazza Tales, six stories gathered for book publication in 1856, is a necklace of faceted gems. Three are cut with special ingenuity and polished to high brilliance: “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Tale of Wall Street,” “Benito Cereno,” and “The Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles.”
The first is a strange tale — out of Hawthorne by way of Edgar Allan Poe, with a few digressions down alleys of Dickens, in the direction of the as-yet-undiscovered dominion of Kafka — about a law clerk named Bartleby who starts off his new job with great industry. But he soon begins to refuse to take up his pen, or to tackle any of the tasks demanded of him, responding to every request with the phrase “I would prefer not to.” To say any more about a tale in which, pointedly, nothing gets done, would be a spoiler.
Based on an account of an actual mutiny on a slaving ship off the coast of Chile, “Benito Cereno” artfully angles the mirrors of unreliable narration to illuminate, in a suspenseful tale, the desperate eddies of race and power. “The Encantadas,” a series of prose sketches that combine to form an imaginative travelogue of the Galápagos Islands, encompasses natural history, geological wonders, dramatic incidents, and meditations on isolation and cruelty; the writing might have come from the pen of Charles Darwin if he had brought the works of Samuel Beckett, rather than those of Alexander von Humboldt, to read while voyaging on the Beagle. Combining a fanciful breadth with a kind of spiritual austerity, Melville conveys that nature is strange, and human life stranger still, in ways that only some new kind of narrative might convey; as a result, the episodes of “The Encantadas” seem enchanted indeed.
Together, the stories of The Piazza Tales are so peculiar in atmosphere and expression — not difficult or obscure, but seductively offbeat, like an exploratory new music filled with oddly familiar resonance — that they are among the most remarkable prose works of the nineteenth century, experiments in perception that are quite, and quite wonderfully, weird.