The Grand Programme

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BOOKS OCTOBER 19, 2011

The Grand Programme

Why Read Moby-Dick?
by Nathaniel Philbrick
Viking, 131 pp., $25

IT IS A PECULIAR genre very much of this moment: the book whose purpose is to introduce another book—personal mash-up trailer, fan-written liner notes, chatty “personalized” trot, Lonely Planet for a barely sketched continent. Proust is the usual subject, but the genre has now stretched in direct proportion to the alarm about the fate of books, or at least long ones. But books are obviously not a moribund form when some writers want to write new ones in order to recommend old ones.  

A book on why to read another book is, you might think, redundant, especially when there are so many predecessors that illuminate Moby-Dick, and by non-slouches such as D. H. Lawrence, C.L.R. James, and Charles Olson, as well as the fine recent biography of Melville by Andrew Delbanco. But the idea behind the current genre, I suppose, begins with the premise that a hard and serious book demands not only the fidgety reader’s patience but also a sort of trial marriage, or at least an initial date; and further that, if the book is great enough, the author is entitled to latch onto it by issuing a sort of long-form Facebook “like” designation.

One might answer the question of whom a curious but inexperienced reader should approach before starting one of the great marvels of English prose by saying, “Nathaniel Philbrick, hélas.” But that would be unfair. This slender, pleasant, sincere book by the maritime historian and naval enthusiast is more than a respectable tribute unencumbered by academic prose. Approaching Moby-Dick from outside the academy is refreshing, and Philbrick’s enthusiasm is contagious—it is possibly the most commendable feature of his book. He recommends Moby-Dick for its “redemptive mixture of skepticism and hope,” and its “genial stoicism.” At least he doesn’t try to convince you that reading Moby-Dick will help you get girls (or boys—a more likely outcome from what it is the nearly entirely same-sex masterpiece of American literature), or re-grow your hair, or make you happier. He does think it contains “the genetic code of America” and that it is “our American bible,” which is fair enough.

The reader gets a sense of what Philbrick does and does not accomplish from this sentence:

For me, Moby-Dick is like the Oldsmobile my grandparents owned in the 1970s, a big boat of a sedan with loosey-goosey power steering that required constant back-and-forth with the wheel to keep the car pointed down the highway.

There is a certain perception here, obvious as it may be—that Moby-Dick doesn’t hold fast to the “arc” of its plot, that it wobbles. But holding on for dear life to the back of his bucking metaphor, Philbrick misses a deeper point—that Melville’s Oldsmobile was designed to wobble. Moby-Dick’s big boat is not trying to transport you directly and comfortably where you want to go. It is moving in more than one dimension. It is trying to jolt you loose from what you think you know, to replace your stale world with a deeper one, and in particular, to make you think about the sum total of the United States of America as a ship of fools who will not be fooled much longer because they are sailing toward a prefigured catastrophe. 

Philbrick is also trying to tell the naïve reader about Melville’s state of mind as, in 1850-1851, he sat on the upper floor of his Pittsfield, Massachusetts, house, staring out the window at Mount Greylock—it does look like a whale—and plunging into the heart of human darkness. While Philbrick does not get very deep into Melville’s psychology, he does make a start, and his ardor for the hunt is bracing. If you haven’t read Moby-Dick he might well convince you that you must, if only to see what the fuss is all about.

More than once, Philbrick refuses to content himself with paying homage to Melville’s evocations of everything mad and glorious about America, its continent, and the continuous oceans enclosing it, but he must gild a whole garden of lilies. Melville “in his preternatural way” anticipates the emergence of Abraham Lincoln. Writing about the destruction of whaleboats, Melville “is also portraying the disintegration of his talent.” His ending of Moby-Dick is “a tender presentiment of his own abandonment by both his audience and the man to whom he would dedicate the novel, Nathaniel Hawthorne.” And if you write a book about your love of a book, you get to sprinkle it with personal notes, like marginalia or Stickies. So Philbrick tells us that his “favorite” passage in Moby-Dick is one in Chapter 85 where Melville tells his readers exactly what time and date it is as he writes.

We have come to a pretty cultural pass where not only do teachers have to justify assignments with claims of practical relevance but an author must do the same. But there we are. This reviewer read the Classic Comics version of Moby-Dick before he ever turned the actual pages of the masterwork. If Philbrick brings a few more readers to Melville, he has performed a cultural service. After all, he did bring this reviewer, who has read Moby-Dick three or four times, to launch again into the opening pages of Ishmael’s account and to realize, with a horror at the pace of the passing of years, that it is past time for him to begin the voyage again. So I turn to the ur-text, and here, in Chapter 1, Ishmael is explaining that his “whaling voyage formed part of the grand programme of Providence,” wherein it formed a “brief interlude and solo between more extensive performances,” as in:

Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States.

Whaling Voyage by one Ishmael.

BLOODY BATTLE IN AFFGHANISTAN.

So put me down for a reading of Moby-Dick in 2012, and count Philbrick’s book a success.

Todd Gitlin’s most recent book is a novel, Undying.

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