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‘Moby-Dick’ in the Mainstream

This week, 161 years ago, on an icy day in much of the Northeast, Harper & Brothers released the American edition of Moby-Dick. Although published long ago, Moby-Dick breaches ubiquitous at this moment. Log into your computer and go to Moby Dick Big Read to find daily a project that features celebrities such as Tilda Swinton and, eventually we are told, Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain, reading a chapter aloud. Don’t miss the actor Simon Callow reciting Father Mapple’s sermon about faith.

It has just been reported that Lynne Ramsay, who made the film We Need to Talk About Kevin, will bring the story of Moby, Ahab, Ishmael, and company to film, with them somehow situated in outer space. Another filmmaker of note, M. Night Shyamalan, plans a television series about the book. Jake Heggie’s opera version of the story will have eight performances beginning this month in San Francisco. And this is only the tip of the great white iceberg of Moby-Dick in popular culture.

Why, then, this immense interest in a novel and its characters, in a book that was composed in a fury in the mid-19th century by Herman Melville? A novel, it must be admitted, that initially lacked readers and became part of the literary canon only in the 1930s. Even today, Moby-Dick is considered by many as too bulky, sloppy, difficult (read the chapters on cetology), and gory.

Nathaniel Philbrick suggested in a lovely, slim volume, Why Read Moby-Dick?, published a year ago, that Moby-Dick is our literary “genetic code,” presumably meaning that we return to the novel because we encounter ourselves and our national history through it. Understood in this manner, the novel is about race (the multicultural backgrounds of the crew are striking, as well as historically accurate) and imperialism on one level, and about the metaphysics of yearning for absolute knowledge on another. It is, then, relevant to both the daily grind of politics and the itching of existential longing. The critic Greil Marcus, with his ear always attuned to American culture, found Moby-Dick “the sea we swim in.”

Certainly our culture needs Melville and Moby-Dick now more than ever. We live in a culture drowning in the shallow waters of reality television, steamy soft-core porn novels, and tepid politics. Although the novel flirts with apocalyptic visions and opens with Ishmael’s admission of suicidal thoughts, the book ends with the open, impressionable Ishmael as a survivor, redeemed by the good ship Rachel. Melville gives us plenty of heroism, insanity, and tomfoolery, but in the end, he leaves us with a lifeboat fashioned literally (in his wonderful manner) out of a coffin. He tells us—and I presume that is what attracts Ramsay and Shyamalan to the novel—that we are always aboard a ship that is in search of something, often leaking, sometimes under attack by threats real and imagined. We inhabit a world of tragic proportions but also of immense possibility.

It is a mistake, however, to presume that such attention bestowed on Moby-Dick is something new. Intellectuals aplenty in the 1920s embraced the book as a critique of bourgeois culture; they identified, too, with Melville, who had lived among cannibals, shown homoerotic tendencies, and written a book that he knew was blasphemous. At various times, American thinkers have favored Starbuck’s moderation over Ahab’s fanaticism, and looked to Ishmael as either an ineffective American dreamer or an exemplar of pluralistic liberalism.

Popular culture joined with intellectuals of the 1920s toward the uptick of the present moment, to represent Moby-Dick. The initial film version, a silent feature of 1926, was called The Sea Beast and starred John Barrymore. It took many liberties with the novel, but it retained some of its tragic proportions. A few years later, it was remade as a talkie. John Huston’s 1956 version has etched in our minds the face of Gregory Peck upon the dismasted body of Ahab.

Who can forget that scene with Peck’s dead Ahab entangled by ropes with the white whale? Many other films and television adaptations have followed (Patrick Stewart, John Hurt, and Barry Bostwick have all played Ahab), making Ramsay and Shyamalan latecomers. But the depths of Moby-Dick are sufficient to welcome all interpreters. Few writers worth their creative salt have failed to confront Moby-Dick as a model, both to emulate and overcome. Novelists as varied as Norman Mailer, Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, Charles Johnson, Cormac McCarthy, Chad Harbach, and most recently China Miéville have begged, borrowed, and stolen from it. The poets Hart Crane, Charles Olson, W.H. Auden, and Dan Beachy-Quick have been inspired by it to ponder the power of nature and the depths of emotion. Most of the abstract expressionists sought to engage the novel; how could they not given its intimation that the great white whale would “remain unpainted to the last”? As the illustrations accompanying Moby-Dick Big Read attest, the book continues apace as a source of images and inspiration.

Our cultural moment demands Moby-Dick, but that is not unusual. Whenever cultural creators feel that “damp, drizzly November” of the soul, when creativity is paltry and the outrages of insipidness drag them down, they pick up their copies of Moby-Dick and take to sea with it. They hope, as had Melville, to extend their own reach, to get to the meaning of America, both its past and present, and to try to punch through the ever-present “paste-board mask” of reality.

In the novel, Melville remarks, “Give me a condor’s quill! Give me Vesuvius’ crater for an inkstand!” Let’s hope that all creative artists dip into this inkwell of a novel. Bob Dylan in his “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,” from 1965, invokes Ahab, who tells his crew to “forget the whale” as they alight upon the shores of a new land. Ishmael suggests they name it America, and the rollicking tune ends, appropriately, with “Good Luck” as the American motto. So, good luck to all those at present and in the future embarking on their own Ahabian creative endeavors.

George Cotkin, a professor of history at California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo, has just published Dive Deeper: Journeys With Moby-Dick (Oxford University Press).

Correction (11/19/12, 12:35 p.m.): This post originally listed an incorrect first initial, N., for the filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan. The text has been corrected.

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