Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Reading Moby Dick, 6: Everything You Wanted to Know about Whales but Were Afraid to Ask

I’m on page 368 and have learned a lot about whales; in fact, I’ve had more than one dream about whales. I’m in the midst of what people who bemoan the book might remember as “all that long boring crap about whales.” From time to time, I find these passages a little slow, but overall, I’m still totally engaged by this book.

In particular, I was moved at the way Melville juxtaposed several of these beautiful, insightful chapters about the whale with the horrible chase and capture of the old, feeble, crippled whale…which then sank, unusable to the crew.

I’m no expert on these matters, but this might be the first post-modern American novel. Melville uses the following bells-and-whistles to contribute to the telling of his story:

--etymology of the word “whale”
--a section of literary allusions to whales
--the format of a play
--intense factual exploration of one subject
--categories and lists
--stories within the story, including tales
--direct address to the reader
--obsession merging as form and content
--tricks with point of view

The point of view is the most interesting to me as it’s technically first person (“Call me Ishmael”), yet Ishmael freely reports direct dialogue and conversations that he is not present to hear and he seems to know a LOT about whales, beyond what we might assume someone of his background to know (though I guess we don’t know much at all about his background).

Any classroom writing workshop would be all over this—“Ishmael can’t know what Ahab is saying to himself while he’s alone on the deck; we need more about Ishmael’s family history to understand how he’s so smart and different than these other sailors”—and yet I don’t think this way at all as I’m reading. As they say, writing is always a little bit easier if you’re a genius….

Speaking of genius, here’s a fun fact about Moby Dick from the foreword to my edition: The book was completed in eighteen months of "feverish writing" and published in 1851 when Melville was thirty-one years old. !!


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.