Ishmael, the All-American Boy

Well, it’s Summertime, and I’ve been on the road, and as usual, it seems like more fun to write about something completely different. Recently I saw a production of the opera Moby Dick, composed by Jake Heggie, libretto by Gene Scheer, which inspired me to re-read the book. I say re-read, although it’s been so long that I barely remember it

About ten years ago I started re-reading books that meant a lot to me as a young person, including Kidnapped by Robert Lewis Stevenson, Men of Iron by Howard Pyle, One, Two, Three … Infinity by George Gamow, The Myth of Sisyphus and other books by Albert Camus, and a whole bunch of science fiction, my first serious love, to name a few. I have vivid memories of these books, and was not often disappointed; they held the same intensity that I remembered. I also reread several books every two or three years, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Possession by A.S. Byatt, and chapters of Philosophy and Social Hope by Richard Rorty,

There is a lot to be said for re-reading. For one thing, I read more carefully when I’m not desperate to find out how it all comes out. For another, as I grow older I see different things in old favorites. In the case of Pride and Prejudice, for example, my earliest readings were focused on the courtship of Elizabeth and Darcy. In later readings, I began to appreciate the way Austen contrasts existing family relationships and those formed throughout the novel. I also began to see the ways other characters saw these relationships, especially the sharp-witted Charlotte. In Capital In The Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty talks about the basis of Darcy’s wealth, which I had not understood. Then my colleague Rayne pointed out that each of the women in the novel negotiates their economic situation differently, and how much Elizabeth risked by turning down Mr. Collins, something I hadn’t noticed on multiple readings over decades. She also posted insightful comments on the book in response to this post.

I’m about 2/3 of the way through Moby Dick. I’ve learned a lot about whales and something about the work of the crew on whalers, and read several fascinating stories about other ships and crews. Two larger themes have emerged for me: religious and civic tolerance.

Religion enters in the first sentence: “Call me Ishmael.” Ishmael is identified in the Bible as the son of Abraham by Hagar. Sarah suggested that Abraham sleep with her slave to conceive a child when it becomes clear that Sarah is too old to bear children. When Sarah produces a son in accordance with the promise of the Almighty, Sarah insists that Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael away. in the desert as she weeps in desolation, an angel appears and tells her that Ishmael is a son of Abraham, and therefore the Almighty will make a great nation of him and his children.

Ishmael is claimed by Muslims as an ancestor of the Prophet. It is said that Abraham took Hagar and Ishmael to Mecca, and that Abraham returned to construct the Kaaba. That Ishmael is included in both Jewish/Christian texts and Islamic texts is a duality that seems relevant to the personality Melville’s Ishmael reveals to us.

Ahab too is a Biblically freighted name. Ahab was a king of Israel, and Ishmael knows this:

And a very vile one. When that wicked King was slain, the dogs, did they no lick his blood?

Compare 2 Kings 21:19 with 2 Kings 22:38.

In the beginning, Ishmael is on his way to Nantucket, planning to ship out on a whaler. He stops in New Bedford at the Spouter Inn for a couple of nights. The bar is made to resemble a whale’s head, including the entire jaw bone of a sperm whale. Standing under this arch is the bartender, called Jonah. The story of Jonah and the Whale is one religious thread.

Ishmael goes to a whaler’s church for Sunday services. The church is built on the model of a ship. There are plaques on the walls commemorating men who died at sea. The preacher, an ex-whaler, climbs into the tall pulpit on a ship’s ladder, and gives a sermon on Jonah. He paints the story from the perspective of a sailor, with vivid descriptions of the ship’s crew and captain, and the storm. He draws two lessons. For the sinner, Jonah is a tale of proper repentance:

.., Jonah does not weep and wail for direct deliverance. He feels that his dreadful punishment is just. He leaves all his deliverance to God, contenting himself with this, that spite of all his pains and pangs, he will sill look towards His holy Temple. And here, shipmates, is true and faithful repentance: not clamorous for pardon, but grateful for punishment.

Compare this to the words of Abraham Lincoln in the Second Inaugural Address.

Fondly do we hope — fervently do we pray — that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether”

Christianity isn’t the only religion. Ishmael meets the harpooner Queequeg at the Spouter Inn. He is the son of royalty on the island of Rokovoko, “an island far away to the west and South”. He’s Black, and a cannibal, and a head hunter; he’s bald, has sharply filed teeth and is a large and imposing man and a highly skilled harpooner. He also practices his religion, seemingly centered on a small ebony figure he calls Yojo. Queequeg explains to Ishmael that Yojo wants Ishmael to select a ship for them. While Ishmael somewhat unwillingly sets out on this errand, Queequeg begins a ritual with Yojo: he sits cross-legged with Yojo perched on his head and stays that way for 24 hours, unmoving. Ishmael calls this a “sort of Lent or Ramadan or day of fasting, humiliation and prayer”, the best explanation he can envision because Queequeg doesn’t explain and Ishmael doesn’t aask.

A strange scene of religious import takes place after the Pequod kills its first whale, flenses it, and beheads it, preparatory to extracting the valuable sperm oil. Ahab leans over rail staring at “…that blood-dripping head hung to the Pequod’s waist like the giant Holofernes’s from the girdle of Judith”, and gives this elegy:

“Speak, thou vast and venerable head … which, though ungarnished with a beard, yet here and there lookest hoary with mosses; speak, mighty head, and tell us the secret thing that is in thee. Of all divers, thou hast dived the deepest. That head upon which the upper sun now gleams, has moved amid this world’s foundations. Where unrecorded names and navies rust, and untold hopes and anchors rot; where in her murderous hold this frigate earth is ballasted with bones of millions of the drowned; there, in that awful water-land, there was thy most familiar home. Thou hast been where bell or diver never went; hast slept by many a sailor’s side, where sleepless mothers would give their lives to lay them down. Thou saw’st the locked lovers when leaping from their flaming ship; heart to heart they sank beneath the exulting wave; true to each other, when heaven seemed false to them. Thou saw’st the murdered mate when tossed by pirates from the midnight deck; for hours he fell into the deeper midnight of the insatiate maw; and his murderers still sailed on unharmed — while swift lightnings shivered the neighboring ship that would have borne a righteous husband to outstretched, longing arms. O head! thou hast seen enough to split the planets and make an infidel of Abraham, and not one syllable is thine!”

Chapter 70. Later the crew is drawing out buckets of sperm oil from a hole drilled in the whale’s head guided by the harpooner Tashtego. Suddenly the hooks holding the head slip out, and Tashtego is thrown into the hole in the whale’s head. The head breaks away from the tackle holding it to the ship and falls into the sea, carrying Tashtego down into the deeps. Queequeg somehow manages a rescue. The godless parallel to the Jonah story suggests Ishmael’s secular religion.

That brings us to the second point: civic tolerance. Recall that Ishmael met Queequeg at an inn, forced to share a bunk. Ishmael is in bed when Queequeg arrives and scares the daylights out of Ishmael. But shortly, Ishmael reconsiders. Queequeg agrees to the joint sleeping arrangement, and the tomahawk in this passage is both a pipe and an ax:

“You gettee in,” he added, motioning to me with his tomahawk, and throwing the clothes to one side. He really did this in not only a civil but a really kind and charitable way. I stood looking at him a moment. 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.

Chapter 3. It doesn’t take long for the two men to become actual friends as well as co-workers, and the respect each has for the other becomes relevant in several episodes in the book.

Ishmael’s attitude is genuine. He’s interested in people, and observant without judging his crewmates by class or nationality or cannibalism. There are several chapters discussing the members of the crew, and there is not a word of judgment, just statements of fact.

It’s also a parallel to the treatment of religion. He is most familiar with the Christian Bible, but has a basic knowledge of other religions, again without judgment, and without making much of his own views, at least directly.

This kind of tolerance, religious and civic, cheerfully informed by wide experience of various people and an open mind, seems to me to be a perfect demonstration of an important virtue of idealized America. It turns out it’s a sad reminder of what we no longer care about in this country, of what we have abandoned as civic virtue. Maybe I just can’t read anything without recognizing our own times, with our depleted national identity.

72 replies
  1. Valley girl says:

    Ed, I am a great admirer of Jane Austen’s books.

    ‘Emma” is imho the best Austen novel. It is full of sly wit and much more. I had an email exchange a few years ago with one of my college English Lit. professors. He told me “My favorite Jane Austen is Emma, which I think is perfect in all its parts.” Needless to say, I was very gratified by his response. If you have never read “Emma”, I urge you to do so.

    • Tom says:

      Jane Austen’s female heroines almost always seem to be more admirable human beings than her male characters, chiefly because of the social and economic constraints under which they have to operate in their society. I also admire the way Austen can use a word or a phrase to slip the stiletto between the ribs of any pompous or conceited personage. So sad that she died so young with only six novels and some other minor works to her name. I like to imagine that in the Afterlife she’s had time to explore her talents further and that when we all pass on we’ll find that one of the delights of Heaven will be another 200 years’ worth of Jane Austen novels to read.

    • Ed Walker says:

      I have read all of Austen’s novels and the partial novel completed by Anne Telscombe and Marie Dobbs. I enjoyed thaem all immensely. I’ve also read some of the fan fiction around the parties, and seen all the movies, Let me put in a word for Edna Mae Oliver as Lady Catherine, because let’s face it, British character actors are just the best.

      • Mongoose says:

        May I suggest that Austen fans also try Charlotte Bronte’s Villette? I picked it up recently after years of avoiding it because of its length and was stunned to realize that Charlotte was also far ahead of her time. Villette is a masterpiece.

    • John K says:

      I loved Emma and all of Austen’s work. She constructed so many beautiful sentences that are capable of standing alone on their own merits, without taking into consideration that they comprise the working parts of intricately plotted novels bursting with incisive social commentary.

  2. PSWebster says:

    Love that book The White Whale. Many consider it the greatest American novel ever written. “with a drunk Christian” always jumped out as well as the rescue. Also the mate barbecuing freshly removed fat in celebration.
    I re-read Don Quixote and found it equally rewarding with its revealing social satires and just meandering around Gargantua and Joyce’s Ulysses (the last 4000 word sentence is worth a couple of reads at least.).
    Good show, sir.

    • jhand says:

      Luckily, I read all three books as an adult, and they have all stayed with me in different but important ways. Yet we live in a country where a liberal education, one that exposes young people to such works as these, is thought of–even by educators!–as a waste of time and money. I guess that those of us who care just have to keep caring. Thanks for the thoughtful post.

      • Americana says:

        I’ve heard so many discussions among educators who are trying to redraft reading lists to include modern authors while dropping authors they consider dated. Some educators are in favor of dropping older authors whose works reflect the realities and ethics of past times just because the language is dated and/or difficult. Their claims are today’s kids won’t read/don’t grasp the language or the significance of Shakespeare or Chaucer or Melville. This despite the fact authors are often the ones who make the first reveal of the social angst of their times.

        Ed pointed to the breadth of sociological subject matter covered in Moby Dick and considering its publication date (1850s?), I’m wondering if Melville was an abolitionist? Anyone know? It’s enlightening to see those first glimmers of human inclusivity and awareness in Ishmael. I don’t think it’s a coincidence.

        • John B. says:

          yes, Melville was an abolitionist and one history I am reading now said that he patterned Ahab after John Calhoun.

          • Rayne says:

            He believed in abolition but was not an abolitionist — the distinction between possessing an ethic or belief and activism based on that ethic.

        • Rayne says:

          If you took the time to research you’d learn the answer to your question.

          As for the changes to western literary canon: some of the changes aren’t merely because of antique language but because the canon has overwhelmingly favored straight white European males, most of whom have been aided by capital in some way. A canon of this sort only continues to center society upon the straight white European male, obscuring more than half of society on which their success is owed. Melville’s work came much closer than most American authors of his time to acknowledging the challenges of a society built on slavery, but even his own work ended up censored when it became too nearly abolitionist, undermining the supremacy of straight white European males and their capital.

          Even works written by women of the era shouldn’t be consumed uncritically — like Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, better consumed in tandem with Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea in order to examine more fully the role and meaning of the mad woman in the attic.

  3. OmAli says:

    Good morning, Ed, and thank you for a fascinating essay. I enjoyed every word, and Moby Dick is now next on my reading list.

      • Democritus says:

        And LPT in the comments…

        I loved this article Ed, adding some of these to my reading list. I also reread books, I think in part since I read hundreds of books every year, even so the fiction in particular seems to be forgotten after five or so years until I’ve reread it at least once. Which I only do with the best stuff.

        Terry Pratchett is more fantasy than sci-fi, but I think it is far enough past his death I can dive back in and not be thinking of the great author and man we lost. Loved reading his take on social issues, the City Watch and Lord V, and his Death characters love of cats.

        • Ed Walker says:

          My excellent daughter loves Terry Pratchett, and was devastated by his sad death. I’ll look into reading some.

          • Democritus says:

            Oh, if you enjoy silliness, wordplay, looking at economics the industrial revolution, political and societal issues like feminism and criminal justice through a fairly odd view this is the series for you.

            But heads up, I’d recommend not starting with Colour if Magic! Yes it’s the first book, but the series books can be read alone and have four or so sub-series. I loved it (I ❤️ Silly, keeps me sane) but you really can tell it’s an early book and not the best intro. Maybe try Equal Rites or one of the City Watch novels like Guards, Guards.

            Here is the goodreads link that should have all the sub series on the right, just pick the first from which category floats your boat.

            Your daughter has good taste! I also feel in love with the series as a teenager, but that was a bit ago. Ha :)

        • OmAli says:

          If Death doesn’t show up at my end, I am planning to sleep through it. Also love Vimes, the Watch, and the Patrician!

          Apologies, I messed up my email address.

  4. Rayne says:

    Thanks for tackling Moby-Dick here, Ed. I have a different take on Melville’s tolerance. Re-read the excerpted paragraph about Queequeg again, ending with “Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.”

    Now consider this text through a bisexual or pansexual lens. Tolerance becomes an even bigger issue than religion alone; when one’s drifting world has shrunk to the span between fore and aft, starboard and port, appreciation for one’s fellow human can and should change.

    • Tom says:

      The book, “Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition: English Sea Rovers in the Seventeenth-Century Caribbean” by Barry R. Burg (1983), deals with the history of “one of the most homosexually oriented groups in history, the Caribbean pirates …”

    • Democritus says:

      That was exactly what I was thinking of also, especially with the intimacy of sharing a bed and being vulnerable while sleeping.

      I may have to look for that book also. I had no idea! Pirates of the Caribbean indeed ;-)

      • Tom says:

        Winston Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty in 1913 when some hidebound admirals objected to his program of modernization because they viewed it as a threat to the traditions of the Royal Navy. “The traditions of the Royal Navy?”, replied Churchill, “I’ll tell you what the traditions of the Royal Navy are: rum, sodomy, and the lash!”

    • PSWebster says:

      Well, if you are lacking one hole and another one similar in structure is available and you are stuck for months at sea, it will usually suffice. There was considerable Freudian efforts looking at this. The quote below by Churchill aptly summaries the traditions of the Royal Navy (all old sailing navies).
      Keynes remarked “so that’s what that’s for” when he made his self-discovery.

  5. Tom says:

    The books we read as children stay with us the longest. I have fond memories of long golden summer afternoons reading and re-reading “Treasure Island”, “Tom Sawyer”, “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”, Howard Pyle’s “The Merrie Adventures of Robin Hood”, and Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. I still remember feeling very grown up when I saved up 75 cents from my allowance to buy my first hardcover book, “Biggles: Pioneer Air Fighter” by Captain W.E. Johns, which I still treasure. As an adult, you can read these books with a fuller appreciation of the authors’ talents as writers and, in the case of Howard Pyle, as illustrators as well. I was fortunate to have parents who encouraged my love of books and reading and I set the same example for my own kids when they came along.

    • Democritus says:

      Anyone here if an age to remember the scholastic book flyers in elementary school that they would hand out in school and you could order books through it?

      I used to have to carry my box home since all my books wouldn’t fit in my bag. As an military officer’s kid we never lived on base, but moved practically every year almost so I would always dig into my books- especially in the beginning of new school years.

      • P J Evans says:

        I bought books that way. I may still have some. (My parents’ library was such that the city librarian would occasionally call to see if we had a particular book that someone wanted to read and who he trusted to not deface it. They had a long-time membership in the Heritage Book Club, which did beautiful editions of classic works from earlier periods; “Moby-Dick” was one of them. Not all were novels: I remember reading Brillat-Savarin and “Mont-St-Michel and Chartres”.)

        • Tom says:

          My public school was a literal three-room red brick schoolhouse out in the country. There was a bookmobile that came around about once a month or so (as best as I can recall) and a couple of lucky students would be picked to go out to the converted panel van and pick a few dozen books from the shelves for use by the school until the bookmobile came around again.

      • Eureka says:

        OH I remember those, Democritus (now that you mention them). They abruptly stopped (idk if that was due to a change of schools, or just ‘time’). I remember more reading from the elementary school library, especially a biography of the Blackwell sisters (one was Elizabeth).

  6. fpo says:

    “…it’s a sad reminder of what we no longer care about in this country, of what we have abandoned as civic virtue.’

    How true. And to think that the simple act of reading a book – an act that seems to be losing favor as time (and technology) march along – can serve as part of a foundation for that and other virtues, that can last a lifetime.

    Wonderful essay. Thank you.

    • Tom says:

      On the other hand, the success of Harry Potter and the Twilight series seem to show that there is still an appetite for reading among young people, which I think is great. Also, I seem to recall hearing news reports that independent book stores have made a comeback across the U.S. because they offer items that the big box stores don’t–such as actual books (!) as opposed to coffee mugs, napkin rings, scented candles, cutting boards, potpourris, more scented candles, yoga mats, baby clothes, etc.

      • P J Evans says:

        …key fobs, tote bags (I have one I bought at Borders – it’s a good bag), ornaments for Xmas and other holidays. (I got a bunch at Borders, the one-inch-diameter balls – it’s a good size for smaller trees or hanging in windows.) Vroman’s, in Pasadena, has bags and mugs and stuff like that, but primarily they sell books – they’re a long-standing independent store.

  7. Peacerme says:

    Reminded me of the book “Ishmael” by Daniel Quinn. (At first I thought that’s where you were going, but then I saw even more clearly why Daniel Quinn chose the name. I loved this book because the first time I read it, I had to argue with it, every two pages. Today, not so much. It lays out an answer. Like all answers (lose 50 lbs, quit drinking, sleep more, practice yoga, read more), it can feel impossible. But then I think of jelly fish and I know there is only one path forward. Today at a time.

  8. AitchD says:

    Paraphrasing Annie Dillard: spending all day indoors reading can be dull and boring, but a lifetime of reading is a treasure.

  9. Mooser says:

    “Queequeg explains to Ishmael that Yojo wants Ishmael to select a ship for them”
    ‘I’ve got my Yojo working’, he said, ‘but it just don’t work on you.’

  10. Badger Robert says:

    Ahab is extremely relevant. A man consumed with the need for vengeance, with his rationally corrupted by absolute power, slipping his duty to his owners and leading his mates and crew to an apocalypse.

    • Mooser says:

      Ah, yes, as the song says “The Crew That’s Dispensable”.
      And there’s a word in Moby Dick which might be relevant: “usurpation.”

  11. Jono says:

    Thank you, Ed, for reminding of the richness in Moby Dick. I had not noticed the similarity between Father Mapple’s sermon and the Second Inaugural. Your essay is a fine invitation to plunge back into the depths of Melville’s observations and the genial good heartedness of the character Ishmael.

  12. rosalind says:

    Ed, how did you like the opera? I saw it a few years back at L.A. Opera, but have seen so few operas I don’t know how to judge the musical qualities.

    • Ed Walker says:

      I absolutely loved it, and I hope you did too. The music is very accessible for a contemprary work. It’s melodic for the most part, and frequently touching and beautiful. The orchestration is complex, but not pretentiously so as I have seen is some other contemporary works. The less melodic parts are natural, given the text and the action. The libretto tracks the book, and a good bit of the text is close to that of the book. The book is episodic, so that suits the opera format really well.

      The principal singers were excellent, and they too were excellent at acting. I think that tends to be true of younger professionals. I wanted to see it twice and would happily travel to see it again. I look forward to next seasons Lyric production of Heggie’s Dead Man Walking.

      Moby Dick was produced by the Chicago Opera Theater, which specializes in new operas and contemporary reimaginings of older operas. It has the distinction of being led by women: Ashley Magnus is the General Director, and Lidiya Yankovskaya is the Music Director and Principal Conductor. I am a big fan of this company. It gives a lot of younger singers excellent opportunities to try new things, and works with other companies to produce these shows. Last season included The Scarlet Ibis and Tschaikovsky’s Iolanta, both of which were stunning. The Company also workshopped a work in progress: The Life And Death(s) of Alan Turing. Pretty ambitious stuff for a small company.

      • rosalind says:

        i DID like it, very much. found the staging very ingenious. saw “Carmen” at the Royal Opera House last year, the Frankfurt Opera production. Found my attention wandering away from the singing to the staging and the Royal freakin’ Opera House surrounds.

      • Tom says:

        Bernard Herrmann is best known for his film scores but he composed a cantata based on Moby Dick in 1937-’38.

  13. Ed Walker says:

    Salmon Rushdie has a piece in the New Yorker on Kurt Vonnegut, which concludes with this:

    Around the same time that I first read “Slaughterhouse-Five” and “Catch-22,” I also read another novel about a similar subject. That novel was “War and Peace,” which is longer than Heller’s book and Vonnegut’s book combined and isn’t funny at all. On that first reading of Tolstoy’s masterpiece, my twenty-five-year-old self thought, in summary: Loved peace, hated war. I was absorbed by the stories of Natasha Rostov, Prince Andrei, and Pierre Bezukhov, and found the extremely long descriptions of fighting, especially of the Battle of Borodino, pretty boring, to be frank. When I reread “War and Peace” perhaps thirty years later, I discovered that I felt exactly the opposite. The description of men at war, I thought, had never been bettered, and the greatness of the novel was to be found in those descriptions, and not in the somewhat more conventional stories of the leading characters. Loved war, hated peace.

    • Eureka says:

      That’s interesting. I had just made a note in recent weeks to (re-?)read _All Quiet on the Western Front_. The ? is because I really can’t recall if this was one of the adult books read as a kid.

      Gosh, there is always so much to read and re-read, and for that I have always been thankful, even when it can feel overwhelming.

    • Tom says:

      Tolstoy was a veteran of the Crimean War so his battle scenes drew on his own experiences. I saw the Sergei Bondarchuk film version on the big screen back in 1967 or ’68 and it remains one of my favourite movies.

      “So many books, so little time.”

  14. DAT says:

    Moderators, moderated, Ed, et al.,
    First, I manfully resist the urge (you are welcome) to give a long list of recent reading pleasures. Instead I come to sing the praises of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, by Laurence Sterne. I was thoroughly charmed by it. I urged it on my wife, may her memory be for a blessing, who read it. “I didn’t like it. Nothing happened” she said. She was right, no story is ever concluded! Each digression only peeters out, falls fallow, and is the field for the sprouting of yet one more “Cock-and-Bull story.” For myself, I felt I was in the hands of a Master. My attention was only his plaything. Unlike her, I enjoyed that sensation. There is allot to say about it’s foreshadowing of many of the tropes and techniques of modern novel writing, but here I only want to report my pure visceral enjoyment of reading that book.

    • PSWebster says:

      Totally agree. Some accuse Stern of ripping off Rebelais’ Gargantua but who cares; both are great.. I read and re-read Tristram laughing all the way. He asks the woman if she wants to see where he was shot….which is the running joke through the book.
      A ribald book with constant digressions. Very funny sets of great battles, etc. Love the book.

  15. Dave says:

    If you were a kid in the 60s-70s you had to have a collection of Mad books. I remember having some very cutting things to say about those idiots on Madison Ave when I was seven…(the furshlugginer of the little potrzebie…)

  16. Broderie says:

    You might want to consider reading Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Maslund for the feminine perspective missing from Moby Dick. Beautifully written. “Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last.”

  17. Savage Librarian says:

    I read Moby Dick in college and the short story, “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” when I was in high school. My teenage self immediately fell in love with Bartleby who repeatedly uttered his iconic phrase, “I would prefer not to.”

    Being at that rebellious age, I soon began repeating the phrase at home to my siblings. And, because I thought it was hilarious (at the time,) I would occasionally say it in college. When I went out into the work world, I would think of it from time to time. But by then I had definitely learned not to say it out loud.

    It was not until a couple of years ago that I learned Melville had written Bartleby shortly after Moby Dick. Some scholars believe he wrote it as a result of being despondent after Moby Dick received poor reviews.

    Scholars also believe that he actually received more good reviews in Europe than bad, but a couple of poor reviews received more press coverage and were picked up (in meme fashion) in the States where Puritanical sentiments prevailed. So, he was unaware of the good reviews.

    That resulted in Melville writing Bartleby the Scrivener. If you have not read it, it is something I would recommend. It may demonstrate how crushed and frustrated he was that people were so intolerant. He was distressed that people wanted him to revert back to his best seller books that were in island settings. He may have thought of Moby Dick as his masterpiece.

  18. Savage Librarian says:

    Here is a classic song sung in tribute to another ship and its crew. My grandparents lived on the banks of Lake Erie, east of Cleveland. So, this has always resonated with me.

    Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald –
    Gordon Lightfoot

  19. readerOfTeaLeaves says:

    Moby Dick is now on my list for summer reading.

    FWIW, on the topic of ‘civic virtue’, I spent part of the day relishing Michael Bennet’s recent ‘The Land of Flickering Lights: Restoring America in an Age of Broken Politics’.

    I’ve set myself a goal this summer to try and read at least one book by each of the presidential aspirants. Last weekend was Warren’s “Claim All Your Worth” (2005), which is superb.

    This weekend, Bennet’s “Land of Flickering Lights” has been clear-eyed, concise, and calming.
    My reason for leaving this comment is because this book (June 2019 publ date) is very much about ‘civic virtue’, and how it might be recovered. The book is helping me realize that although we are in exceptionally dangerous times politically, we still remain a nation of book clubs, Bible studies, food drives, pancake breakfasts, scout troops, motorcycle clubs, garden clubs, football and baseball teams, and it is these community-based experiences that are the basis for tolerance and civic virtue.

    As for the history behind the book Moby Dick, this might be of interest:

    The friend of a friend wrote a book that made quite a stir several years ago: “In the Heart of the Sea: The Story of the Whale Ship Essex”, about the origins of Moby Dick. Apparently, some old seaman’s journals had come into his hands, and the more contemporary book is one hell of a read:

    Loved this post, as well as the comments.

  20. 'Stargirl says:

    Ed…great words. Thanks very much. Thinking of my old Eastern Long Island friends who built a ferro cement schooner, later turned into a ketch. They sailed from Long Island to the Caribbean, having lashed their their two young kids to the mast to survive during a fall storm out in the Atlantic.

  21. Watson says:

    I appreciate Ed’s insights upon his re-reading ‘Moby Dick’, and the many knowledgeable responses. Permit me a memory in a somewhat different vein about books that we read in our youth, or were supposed to have read. In college I was part of a crew that was a bit erratic in attending classes and completing the reading assignments. (I’m not bragging about this.) So one day a buddy was in the frat lounge cadging morsels of info to get through a midterm exam. ‘Tell me about Doctor Zagoon’, he entreated. It took us a while to figure out that he was referring to ‘Darkness at Noon’.

    • Mooser says:

      Ahab, of course, didn’t own the Pequod. He was the Captain, and was it Starbuck, who functioned as the owner’s representative? Point is, even when Starbuck (?) perceives that Ahab is ‘usurping’ the ship for his own, not the owner’s purpose, they are not capable of deterring Ahab. And so off we go to doom.
      Is there a lesson there?

  22. THW says:

    In considering the intermingling of religions, turn to Chapter 95, “The Cassock,” in which the whale’s penis is as “jet-black as Yojo,” and presented as an “idol indeed,” at least in the “old times,” “as darkly set forth in the 15th chapter of the first book of Kings.” This “grandissimus” is skinned and the skin stretched, dried, turned inside out, and transformed into a canonical garment for the mincer, whose job it is to slice the whale fat as thin as “bible leaves” (so that they melt quickly), making the mincer “a candidate for an archbishoprick”!

    A further pleasure is to read either the old edition illustrated by Rockwell Kent or a more recent one (1981) with illustrations by Barry Moser, including one of the “grandissimus” itself.

  23. jaango says:

    Since I am among good friends and among a wealth of smarties when it comes to Literary Concoctions, and no, I am not talking about a sip or two of cactus juice.

    For starters, I learned English at the exotic locale of Sidney, Nebraska, and my primer was “Little House on the Priarie” and thusly, I also had to contend with the obvious storyline that included “cowboy and Indians” and thusly, I died a large number of times. Regardless, and over my long-lived life, I have had to scramble to read the assorted literary peans of the many writers. Today, when I consider the latest 500 best-selling books for assorted literary emanations, most authors conveniently ignore Common Sense.

    And a Common Sense that pertains to the Indigenous “imagination.” And one of these, is premised on the 1,000 year-old ‘critique’ of “El Trumpudo.” Therefore, the literal translation is one for “big lips, all mouth, and no brain.” In today’s context, the El Trumpudo is best known as the ‘bully’ and where the tallest Talking Stick has been reduced to the technology of the “daily twitter storm.”

    And unfortunately, today’s historical literacy has come full circle, and the onus is on us to recognize the approach to addressing this inadvertent lack of Common Sense, can only be found in a comedic sense of a self-inflicted Ire. Thus, a few years ago, I wrote a screen play of a situational comedy, and where I “imported” the House and Senate chambers onto the Navajo Rez, and yet, upon completion, I sent the first draft to a few friends. The results were not “good” but were offered as “bad.” Long story short, I couldn’t get the wealth of characters, reduced to a level not to exceed seven character assessments. And as such, this comedic effort is now sitting in the bottomless drawer of my desk.

  24. rosalind says:

    for any tallship folk, very sad news: the schooner “Wander Bird” was hit and sank a few days ago. She spent many decades in San Francisco Bay, restored by among other the legendary Spike Africa. She was back in Germany, had just been overhauled, and taking passengers out. A short video clip shows the accident unfold. Miraculously, no one died.

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        That’s the general rule. For obvious reasons, a ship under power has more control over its speed and direction, notwithstanding wind and wave conditions, than a sailing ship.

        It’s also a rule that a smaller ship should not “embarrass” or get in the way of a larger ship, owing to how much more time and distance it takes for the larger craft to maneuver.

        • Mooser says:

          Give way and right of way can be quite variable, but the overriding principle is: No collision!

      • rosalind says:

        as earl states, that’s the general rule, but as tankers/freighters take so long to turn, and are restricted to their shipping lanes, we sailboats – no matter how long – need to steer clear.

        in this situation, in a river, the Wander Bird’s captain’s actions (or rather IN-actions) are inexplicable. then when he finally makes a move they turn the rudder in the wrong direction, sending the boat directly into the ship.

        • Savage Librarian says:

          Can’t help but see a metaphor here ;-( Feels like Pelosi might be the Wander Bird..

Comments are closed.