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Five Books Every American Should Read: Moby Dick
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By Jessica Hooten, April 25, 2011 in Uncategorized

Five Books Every American Should Read:

Number One: Moby Dick

If there is one book that every American should read, it is Moby Dick. Herman Melville’s 1851 novel is our American epic: it is our Odyssey, our Aeneid, our Paradise Lost. Epics begin by calling on muses to enlighten the author and readers about their subject—journeys, wars, humankind’s great fall. Melville both adheres to this formula and thwarts it. He begins by addressing a muse—though an earthly one, the reader: “Call me Ishmael.” From the first sentence, Melville hands the authority over to the reader to determine the good and evil in the novel. Yet, he also holds back. He attempts a personal relationship with his reader, but the imperative “Call me Ishmael” suggests that may not even be his real name. The ambiguous narrator then reveals his subject—a journey on the ocean, one without destination or immediate purpose. Only after boarding the ship do we discover the purpose of the voyage.

The captain of the ship, Ahab, has declared vengeance on the white whale Moby Dick who chewed off his leg, and he enlists everyone aboard in his mad chase. For a synopsis of the book, see the AT&T Blackberry Torch commercial (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MXu8MO7JkvA), John Huston’s 1956 film rendition starring Gregory Peck and adapted by Ray Bradbury, or attend the three-day read-a-thon in New Bedford (http://www.whalingmuseum.org/prog/marathon.html). What the film cannot capture is the variety of genres and polyphony of voices in the text: Melville incorporates poetry, theology, philosophy, and drama in under 600 pages. Reading Moby Dick is like taking a tour through American culture.

The first time I “read” the book, I was finishing my dissertation. I could not imagine claiming a doctorate in English without having read Moby Dick (with this same motivation, I read Middlemarch). I place “read” in quotes because I bought the audiobook to listen to on my drive. Unexpectedly enraptured by the language, I purchased a hard copy to meditate more closely on the words. Some critics say the novel begins before the first page with Melville’s prefatory “Etymology.” Before he dives into (water puns are inevitable when talking about Moby Dick) a hundred definitions of “whale,” Melville establishes a context: “The pale Usher—threadbare in coat, heart, body and brain; I see him now.” This sentence exhibits Melville’s fascination with poetical syntax.

When teaching the book in my American literature survey (yes, I required them to read the entire novel), I would stop and read sentences aloud. Robert Alter claims in Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible that Melville’s prose was the reason that he was unappreciated in his time: “Nothing like the prose of Moby Dick had been seen before in American fiction” (See Alter’s book for a treatment of how the KJV language appears in Moby Dick). For instance, when describing the whiteness of the whale, Melville writes, “Nature in her least palpable but not the less malicious agencies, [does not] fail to enlist among her forces this crowning attribute of the terrible.” (Why do students memorize SAT vocabulary lists when they could just read Moby Dick?) The sentence takes advantage of the full range of possible motions of tongue, teeth, and lips, as well as uses personification, metaphors, and parataxis: one must savor the poetry of Moby Dick.

In my American literature survey Moby Dick provided the map of our journey from the beginning to the end of the course, and we read other texts intermittently with the novel. For example, when discussing the Puritan sermons of Winthrop, Mather, and Edwards, we examined Melville’s sermon by Father Mapple. This character exemplifies early American religion, preaching similar tenants of faith to that of the aforementioned Puritans. We compared Melville’s worldview with Emerson’s Self-Reliance. Like the famous transcendentalist, Melville asserts, “Men may seem detestable as joint stock-companies…but, man, in the ideal, is so noble and so sparkling.” As a testament to this belief, Melville juxtaposes the mass of shipmates with the individual characters. Melville explores polyphony of voices: Ahab’s, Starbuck’s, Stubb’s, etc. Each character has his say.

Melville inserts a drama into the novel with the different characters’ lines divided as though the scene should be acted. I had my students perform this section aloud, while I played Ahab (sounding more like a pirate than like Peck or like the Ahab of their imaginations). “Who’s over me?” I growled. “I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.” Here, Ahab sets up the conflict of Moby Dick: man against his limitations. Once all the students have read their parts, they realize that they have joined the rebellion. Like Ishmael, each of their “shouts had gone up with the rest.” Therein lies the catch with Moby Dick—the reader must join the journey. The reader never supposes when Ishmael amiably invites her into the story that she will be complicit in the blasphemy of the plot.

In the epilogue, Ishmael quotes Job, “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.” By quoting the biblical character that questioned God’s justice, Melville expresses his ambivalent faith. Melville confessed to Hawthorne, “I have written a wicked book and feel spotless as a lamb.” The confession is ambiguous: what is wicked about the book and why does it then leave him innocent? Perhaps the book is wicked because it causes readers to experience the dark desires of Ahab, yet the desperate acts born of vengeance and pride destroy Ahab and his ship while the reader, alongside the floating Ishmael, survives. Thus, the wicked book leaves the reader “spotless” by acting as a purgatorial venture.

Tags: American Literature

8 Comments
Ed Briody on Apr 28, 2011 at 6:50 pm

What are the other 4?

Jessica Hooten on Apr 28, 2011 at 8:14 pm

To be continued.... I plan on doing one a week.

Jessica Hooten on May 10, 2011 at 10:22 am

But now that it's summer, I may have to extend my timeline.

Frank Gado on Jul 19, 2011 at 2:13 pm

Jennifer, and readers the world over, PLEASE, if you wish to know what Moby-Dick is about, stay clear of the Peck movie. Read the Classics Comic of the book if you must, but what makes Moby-Dick a great work is NOT the plot.

I had a colleague who used to hand out a sheet of those parts of M-D that could be omitted. That's a little like cutting out all the "inessential" parts of sexual intercourse and just having the orgasm.

Lee Trepanier on May 2, 2011 at 10:30 am

Melville's Mobby Dick is an excellent choice for books for Americans to read. It is often considered the first "American" work, i.e., to step outside of the British literary influence and claim a unique national identity. I wondered what your thoughts about this claim: is it correct? and if so, what makes the novel uniquely American?

Frank Gado on Jul 19, 2011 at 2:03 pm

First "American" work? This is just as much nonsense as Hemingway's utterly ignorant (but nevertheless often quoted statement in Green Hills of Africa) that all American literature begins with Huckleberry Finn. Moby Dick is our greatest literary achievement, and Melville, with no precedent for such an epic work of transcendent ambition, did have to forge his "own" language using Shakespeare, Browne, Milton, and the KJV, but there are many claimants to uniquely American literary expressions prior to it.

And there was no reason to step "outside" British influence; prior British literature remained, and still remains, very much part of our heritage. The charge was to step beyond it to express what was essentially American.

William Cullen Bryant derived much from Wordsworth, but he was nonetheless "American" in his poetry. And in developing his Americanness, he led directly and immediately to Whitman (as well as Frost). (For a more extensive presentation of this argument, see my William Cullen Bryant: An American Voice. Apologies for the self promotion, which may attest my humanness more reliably than the CAPTCHA test.)

Andrew U. on Nov 21, 2011 at 9:59 pm

Frank, I think what Hemingway was getting at in his statement wasn't so much a question of influence, but more one of identity. What Twain did in Huck Finn, though not as profound nor as outrightly philosophical as what Melville did in Moby Dick, was to establish a distinct American voice.

In traveling the Mississippi, Huck intersects America, beginning in the North, in the relatively Eastern, Puritanical Missourri, and ending in the South --completing his life in the West. I don't think Hemingway meant to discount Moby Dick or even Washington Irving (America's first celebrity novelists), for that matter. America, as most of the country is well aware, exists oustide of our Eastern seaboard, and it really wasn't until Huck Finn that that America was really put center stage in an accessible and profound frame. By the 1830's, America was still growing and Melville never could have imagined it becoming what it has.

The fully-devloped dialect, the entertaining plot, the witty insights and metaphors into and of American culture--at the cusp of the Industrial Revolution, no less--marks Twain as an American Dickens. Which is to say, a true American voice.

This, of course drifts away from Lee's question, but I think the real answer is that there really isn't a first. I'd be interested to know what Jessica's take on Lee's question is. But it seems to me that America's elusiveness stems directly from its amorphousness. In every period of American Literature the landscape of the country is drastically different from what it was before. Just as critics point to 10 or 20 different definitive Great American Novels, so too do critics, as far as I can tell, point to 10 or 20 different first novels.

All we can really tell is that Moby Dick continues to inspire many people even to this day, and by some standards it may be the first book to make such a statement in an American context. In my mind, that should garner need for scholarship and multiple readings more than the stigmata of "first," or "best".

Frank Gado on Dec 22, 2011 at 10:26 pm

Andrew: My intent is not to denigrate or degrade Huck Finn. There is greatness in it. But evaluation should be based on honesty--and knowledge. Huck Finn is not a first anything. It is not even early Twain. Let's take your claim about the eastern seaboard. Twain is pretty far along in the tradition of "frontier" writing. I won't claim the T. B. Thorpe, or J. J, Johnson or any of the "half-horse, half-alligator" humorists is at Twain's level, but they were all doing the things you credit Twain with, long before Twain. Have you read J. K. Paulding? There are some very moving passages in Koningsmarke about justice and equality of the races. An American voice? That's what W. C. Bryant was calling for--and to a certain extent achieved-- in his poetry(even though it wasn't the speech of the frontier. Want celebration of the midwest? Check out Bryant's The Prairies.

One could go on and on.The fact is, Hemingway was ignorant, but that didn't stop him from making grand pronunciamentos. OK, it wasn't his job to be a scholar. What bothers me is that those who claim to be scholars support his nonsense and quote it as authority.

about the author

Jessica Hooten
Jessica Hooten

I am an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor. In 2009 I received my doctorate in Religion and Literature from Baylor University. My dissertation explored the theological connections between Dostoevsky and Flannery O'Connor and was directed by Ralph Wood. Currently, I'm researching Dostoevsky's connections to other Southern writers, including Walker Percy and Carson McCullers, to produce a book-length manuscript. I teach courses that support my research, including Southern literature, Totalitarinism and literature, and American literature survey courses.