Politics, Moderate



Moby-Dick and the whale's tale of America's destiny

Esther J. Cepeda on

CHICAGO -- There are few things in life that inspire more joy than being exposed to the enthusiasm of someone who is deeply in love.

Such it is with "Why Read Moby-Dick," a slim, 2011 volume by Nathaniel Philbrick that not only convinces you that the classic whale tale is worth the read, but romances you into taking it on.

Truthfully, it's highly likely that the only people who might be attracted to a book about the greatness of Herman Melville's lengthy, meandering, sometimes-psychedelic masterpiece are those who have already read and enjoyed it multiple times and need but the tiniest prod to revisit it.

Still, with the 166th anniversary of the U.S. publication of "Moby-Dick" coming up in mid-November -- and with the cool chill of autumn making for just the right atmosphere in which to go out to literary sea -- Philbrick's love letter hits the spot.

So why read it?

"Moby-Dick" is not just a novel about chasing a whale across the high seas-and it's not just a huge metaphor for Americans' often-tragic pursuit of a dream. It is the American epic, containing, in Philbrick's words, "nothing less than the genetic code of America: all the promises, problems, conflicts, and ideals" that fomented the country's violent separation from Britain and led to its near self-destruction four score and seven years later. Those same passions and contradictions "continue to drive this country's ever-contentious march into the future." And along that march, generations of Americans have continually turned to Moby-Dick to understand not only themselves but also their adversaries. In Ahab, the Greatest Generation saw Hitler, and today's generation sees "a profit-crazed deep-drilling oil company in 2010" and "a power-crazed Middle Eastern dictator in 2011."

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(Indeed, it's hard not to think about a certain self-centered president when reading Ishmael's observation about Captain Ahab: "But shall this crazed old man be tamely suffered to drag a whole ship's company down to doom with him?")

Philbrick notes how much of our culture has been influenced by "Moby Dick" -- "plays, films, operas, comic books, a television miniseries, and even a pop-up book," -- by no means an exhaustive list, to which I'd add the beautiful symphonic tone poem "Of Sailors and Whales: Five Scenes from Melville" by the American composer William Francis McBeth, which you can listen to for free on YouTube.

But Philbrick adds a reality check: "Those who have never read a word of it know the story of Ahab and the White Whale. Moby-Dick may be well known, but of the handful of novels considered American classics, such as 'The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn' and 'The Great Gatsby,' it is the most reluctantly read. It is too long and too maddeningly digressive to be properly appreciated by a sleep-deprived adolescent, particularly in this age of digital distractions."

(Another aside: Perhaps those of us who love "Moby-Dick" find ourselves in the intersection of a bizarre Venn diagram including that other overly long, obsessively detailed and deliciously digressive classic, "Infinite Jest," by David Foster Wallace. Such fans will squeal with glee when they come across Melville's reference to "metempsychosis," and I was surprised to know that university research papers have been written on Wallace's study and use of "Moby-Dick" in his work, and similarities in both authors' investigation of obsession and addiction.)


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