Deep Waters

An Interview with Nathaniel Philbrick

OR: How does it fit in with the rest of Melville’s work?

Philbrick: It's funny. His first novel, Typee, is terrific. And it's exuberant, and you can sort of feel the Ishmael voice in it. And then you have Moby-Dick, which came with such a thud. Then you have the strange circumstance of him coming to Nantucket the summer after Moby-Dick was published — you just can't make this stuff up — and accompanying his father-in-law, who's the circuit judge on Nantucket. He sends his good friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, to whom Moby-Dick is dedicated, a story idea that he has learned during this trip to the Cape and Island about a woman named Agatha who has been abandoned by her sailor husband for decades. You can sort of see Melville working out that sense of abandonment, I think not only in terms of an audience, but also in terms of Hawthorne who had been the great inspiration in a way for Moby-Dick.

Then Melville produces some the greatest short stories we have. It's not like his career ended, by any means. Bartleby. The Encantadas. He goes through an incredible phase. He then moves into poetry, but was always continuing to write. One of the most moving things about Melville's career is that he such knew great personal unhappiness. His marriage was clearly not a happy marriage. One of his sons would commit suicide. He was saved from penury only by a small inheritance. But then he dies with Billy Budd on his desk, one of the greatest novellas ever written. It's sad, and yet he was a survivor, in a very essential way, to the very end.

OR: What are we really meant to understand about life from reading Moby-Dick?

Philbrick: You can find just about every point of view at one point or another expressed in it. That said, I think it is the Ishmael approach to life that is the main thing. It's in the chapter called “The Hyena” where he talks about reaching that point where you see the world as one vast practical joke at your expense and yet maintaining a sense of humor and an openness to experience. He talks about getting to know evil. It's not like you shut it off. You've got to be able to — in a sense — accommodate and commune with it to understand it. It's really an openness to experience that was shocking to most people then, when white people taking over the world. His depiction of Ishmael's relationship with Queequeg was not the way most people were thinking of life.

I think it's his openness to experience outside of his own and realizing that perhaps that what you though was alien, in the case of Queequeg, probably in many ways has more going for it than the culture you've grown up with. That has become, I think, and has continued to be an approach to life that people have increasingly embraced as this becomes a global culture.

OR: What are the most indelible moments and characters from the book, and why?

Philbrick: I've talked about Ishmael. Queequeg is just one of the great creations. Inscrutable, in his own way, and yet such a good guy. The novel begins as a buddy flick, really, and so that relationship is for me fascinating. Particularly when Queequeg sickens at one point, and thinks he's going to die, and builds his own coffin. This coffin will then become, of course, the vessel Ishmael will use for his own salvation.

I live on Nantucket, the port of the Pequod, so I've always been increasingly interested in the Nantucket he creates. Particularly when it comes to the two other whaling captains, Bildad and Peleg. The interesting thing is there's no evidence that Melville had been to Nantucket when he wrote Moby-Dick. But what he creates is this fascinating sense of the American economic force. It's greed. But it's also the almost spiritual need to be cheap, which the Quakers embodied in a very essential way. And clearly Melville had had some direct experience with that.

Starbuck is, after Ishmael, the one I identify with the most. He realizes what Ishmael is up to and is the only one who could successfully stand against him, but ultimately doesn't. He is the classic good guy who doesn't have the strength of character to ultimately stand for what he knows is right. That is a personality I think we can all can identify with. Particularly when you have a threat such as an Ahab insinuating himself into the society around him.

OR: What is it that makes Captain Ahab so compelling?

Philbrick: He has charisma. There are people with outsized charisma, people who fill up a room in a way that's almost supernatural, and it's something you're born with or your sufferings are such that they're created. But it's a force of personality, a social IQ that's off the charts. An ability to manipulate people, to say exactly what people want to hear. To both frighten people and inspire them. Ahab's speeches before the crew are masterworks in working the people. There is such a darkness in him that he is able to conceal, in a way, and yet only adds to that overpowering sense of personal force, to his ability to get inside people's heads. We, as readers, know more about him than any character in the book knows. We know the darkness and the suffering that are contributing to his monomania. He's basically insane, but able to conduct himself as a seemingly sane person, which is the deception that ultimately leads to his success in manipulating the crew.

OR: Where does the book belong in the pantheon of great American novels? Are there any books written after it that distinctly bear its imprint?

Philbrick: For me, Moby-Dick really stands alone. The one comparison I have is with William Faulkner. That language, the lengthy, poetic sentences that heap upon one another. The author's interest in characters that are possessed. I was on book tour in Oxford, Mississippi and got a chance to visit Faulkner's house. There is one of Rockwell Kent's engravings of Ahab in his living room. So clearly there was an influence.