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.
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.
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.