Herman Melville’s masterpiece Moby-Dick is perhaps the best American novel. Certainly, no other book in the American canon compares to it in psychological power, formal originality, or voice. Nathaniel Philbrick, the bestselling author of In the Heart of the Seas and Why Read Moby Dick? and a pre-eminent expert on Melville, spoke to us about why the book is so important and what it can teach us.
Octavian Report: To borrow the title of your own book on the subject, why should we read Moby-Dick? What makes it so valuable?
Nathaniel Philbrick: For me Moby-Dick is really the American Bible. It transcends any one religion. Embedded within it is the DNA of America's culture. And really the metaphysics of the Western world. It's something so full of timeless meaning that you can read it as many times as you want and you always discover something new in it. It will always be a book that will be relevant, no matter how the times change.
OR: When did you first encounter the book, and what did it say to you the first time you read it?
Philbrick: My father was an English professor. He taught American literature and would often teach Moby-Dick. He always talked about how great the book was. As a teenager in high school in Pittsburgh that meant that I had to despise it — even though I had never read it. But then as a senior in an AP English class, I had to read Moby-Dick. It was remarkable. I was so predisposed to be bored by it that when the opposite happened, it astonished me. When I read that first chapter; when Ishmael described New York City and the people on a Sunday making their way down to the Battery and looking out at the harbor and the sea beyond it in search of that ungraspable phantom of life. I was a kid. I was a small-boat sailboat racer in Pittsburgh. And this just hit me like a ton of bricks. I was harpooned. Ishmael was the voice I had been waiting for all my life. It was really Ishmael, the voice of Moby-Dick (which changes, of course) that snagged me from the very beginning, that meant that I had to read on.
OR: How has the experience of reading the book changed as you've aged?
Philbrick: People change. We all change, and as you get older you have experiences and perspectives that you could never have imagined when you were young. I read it, I dip into it almost all the time. I do full re-readings in about five-year increments. For the most recent reading it was Ahab I was focusing on a way that I never really had before, where it really had been Ishmael's perspective that had captivated me. Now I was older, and I think I had had a little more experience living under different political leaders in America, and to watch the rise of Ahab on the Pequod just resonated and continues to resonate now as we move through time and under our present political circumstances. It's become more of a political book for me, which I never would have imagined when I was 18.
OR: Whom do you have in mind as a proponent of political Ahab-ism?
Philbrick: The current times are ones in which people seem to feel the potential pull of totalitarianism and how insidious that can be. Everyone, even Ishmael, admits to coming under its spell. And sure enough, here we are with the President we have now. This book is more relevant than ever.
OR: Why do you think it had such a lackluster contemporary critical reception and what led to its eventual rediscovery and adoption into the American canon?
Philbrick: It's almost like falling in love with a band that then gains critical acclaim, and you feel diminished the more famous the band gets. Moby-Dick was a classic long before I was born, but it's just continually in the news no matter what happens because there's something about it that works that way. When it came out, in the middle of the 19th century, its appearance was surrounded by the buildup to the Civil War. Melville was really aware of those tensions, and they ripple throughout Moby-Dick. It's a story of a society on the edge of a catastrophe, and Melville was in it. His father-in-law was a judge who had just been involved in the fugitive slave law riots in Boston. He could feel it, and it's in there, but most American audiences at that time were into reading Dickens. English literature that provided them, really, with an escape. To have this strange novel pulsating with the scariness of what's happening in American culture — under the guise of whaling, of all things — it just missed completely when it came to finding a significant audience in America.
A side note here: by the 1850’s whaling in America has its best days behind it. The sea no longer represents the foremost wilderness of America. By the 1850’s that is the American West. We've discovered gold in California, and everybody's looking to the interior wilderness. And so Moby-Dick, even though it's amazingly prescient, is outmoded in a way because it's talking about whaling at a time when people are infatuated with the movement west.
But you see even before Melville’s death that there are people in Canada and England who latch on to the book and see something special about it. But I think you really had to have World War I, which completely obliterated the romantic sense of possibility that so many people had. I think that creates an audience for Moby-Dick.
I don't think it's an accident that Ernest Hemingway was very proud of the fact that he read Moby-Dick in high school unassigned. He just read it. He had a mother who had Nantucket connections, and who had taken him to Nantucket when he was in elementary school. And I think that may have contributed to his interest in the topic even though he lived outside Chicago. But after World War I there is a sense of being on the edge of yet another cataclysm — a truly global one. And Moby-Dick is a truly a global book. The circumstances of the 20th century created an audience that was finally (and finely) in tune with what Melville was talking about.