I am reading and loving Moby-Dick at the moment following my research trips to the whaling museums of Nantucket and New Bedford. This particular edition I am reading from University of California Press is HIGHLY recommended as the typeface is extremely agreeable to the eyes and the illustrations are subtle and instructive without ever interfering or drawing attention away from the story. I haven’t finished it yet – just the first 99 chapters. But, I know that the hunt will be starting relatively soon and wanted to document some observations about the first 3/4 of this incredible book. I think this is the 3rd time I am reading it – the first time, in high school, it was an abridged version but I am fairly sure to have read the unabridged version some years ago. Perhaps that’s where the latent interest grew deep in my soul as regards the whaling museums and since life offered me recently the opportunity to see and enjoy both, I grabbed at the chance and am so glad to have done so. This reading of Melville is so much more interesting having now a lot more background on the various factors (social, economic, and physical) that informed the writing and structure of the story.
Many modern readers have been turned off of the unabridged Moby-Dick due to the many chapters of background information that Ishmael feels compelled to pass us about whales and whaling. I can understand that some folks want to get on with the story and don’t want to have all this detail. Personally, the whole book seems so much more real to me now. When I try to imagine the life of the 21-28 people on a 3-5 year whaling mission with a back-breaking job punctuated with long periods of boredom and intense periods of turmoil (whether from ocean storms or from the hunt and ensuing processing of blubber), I can appreciate how the story moves at its own pace and during those long hours at sea while the sailors are working on their scrimshaw or scanning the horizon for spouts, that Ishmael is in his cabin writing all this detail down about this job that he is so incredibly proud of. If you remove this description, it removes much of the texture of the book and reduces it to an adventure story rather than a more universal chez d’oeuvre.
Several moments merit mention before I sign off and work on finishing the book: Father Mapples’ sermon on Jonah (Chapter 9) which sets the tone for most of the book, the speech of Ahab in recruiting his crew into his diabolical mission against Moby-Dick (Chapter 36) and the heart-breaking acquiescence of Starbuck, and my favorite part so far, The Grand Armada (Chapter 89). The description of the whale nursery with the mothers and children looking up through the water at their hunters was spectacular writing and makes one dream of being out there in one of those flimsy boats to see it.
The writing is by turns ironic, serious, violent, and tender. On one hand is the famous Shark Massacre (Chapter 66) where Melville weaves in an image of the sharks actually eating themselves in their frenzy – amazing realism and exceedingly violent. On the other hand, the cleverness of Stubb as he manages to steal the sick whale with the ambergris away from the hapless French captain of the Rose-Bud (Chapter 91) was hilarious and I laughed out loud. Even the seemingly dry description chapters often have some high degree of tongue-in-cheek such as the suggestion that the Kings and Queens were all coronated in whale-oil (Chapter 25). All of these add a certain unique texture to Moby-Dick and seem to me indispensable to the overall majesty of the book.
OK, off to Chapter 99 and beyond. “Thar she blows! Flukes starboard, boys! Lower and away!”