Deep Waters

An Interview with Nathaniel Philbrick

Hemingway was clearly proud of having read Moby-Dick, and there's more of Moby-Dick in Hemingway than you might think. One of the failings, if you will, of Moby-Dick is it's all about guys. Obviously it's lacking in that whole realm of experience, and so there is a vacancy there. And yet I think the universality of the issues it's talking about really transcend that concern, in a way.

Or consider Peter Mathiessen's work. Clearly there's Melville oozing out the edges of a lot of what he has written. And the other interesting thing to me is Hawthorne as an influence on Melville. That's an interesting relationship. They share a similar darkness, but Hawthorne is all about maintaining those perfectly manicured rhetorical surfaces when it comes to his short stories and novels while Melville famously throws it all over the place.

Moby-Dick is an experimental novel written at a time when there weren't experimental novels. That slipshod approach to creating a messy novel that gets at things that you just cannot get at with lapidarian prose. I think that will always appeal particularly to younger writers.

OR: You said before that Moby-Dick is an American Bible. In what sense did you mean that?

Philbrick: It's full of vatic pronouncements. You can open it up, read a page or two, or even just a few sentences, and get something out of it that can have a powerful influence. And I think it contains so much of our culture. If you gave Moby-Dick to some other, extraterrestrial society, they could basically re-create American whaling if they had the means to. There's enough specific detail. It's so comprehensive, and its proportions are truly biblical. It's got a society, it's got various competing views of the world. A receptacle for the ages. Something where you can dip into it and find something new no matter how many times you've read it. I think it nourishes the soul in a very essential way.

OR: You are yourself a sailor — how has that enriched your understanding of the novel?

Philbrick: Having at one point in my life spent a lot of time on the water, and knowing how thrilling that can be, how scary that can be, and how ultimately the ocean is a place that really doesn't give a damn about anybody —  well, I don't know if it has enhanced my understanding of Moby-Dick, but it's a novel clearly written by someone who's been at sea. Not that that's an exclusive society by any means, or an experience necessary to appreciate the book. I think one of the great things a great writer does is make an experience accessible to people that haven't necessarily lived through it.

But for me — a 17-year-old kid in Pittsburgh who was infatuated with sailing, and yet felt isolated by where I was — this book unleashed a territory of watery wilderness, a territory that I hadn't really thought of in those kinds of metaphysical, profound terms. Sailing for me was more of a competitive thing, like track. Once I read Moby-Dick I began, every now and then, to see this cosmic side when out there on the water. It's hard to put into words. But here I am living on Nantucket, so I guess I've just surrendered myself to the vortex.

OR: Other than your own work on Melville, are there books that you would recommend reading to get a clearer, closer sense of the writer and his life, and this novel's place within them?

Philbrick: There's a vast literature on the subject. Andrew Delbanco has written a great one-volume biography of Melville, which I think is just terrific and really grounds him as a New Yorker, but also is great at explicating what was happening in America when he was writing. I think he does a better job of that than anything I've seen. I think that's a great place to start. Then there's Call Me Ishmael by the poet Charles Olson. For me, it's the one volume that just gets it — gets the essence. I think those would be two good and very different books that could help give readers a provocative way in.