Friday, January 3, 2014

Nathaniel Philbrick's "Why Read Moby-Dick?": Book Review

Here's 28 brief essays, not an extended critique, taking on the relevance and verve of this challenging epic. It's very accessible, and easily perused in a couple of hours. Therefore, it provides enough insight to better an article or chapter in another, less expansive source, but it's more cogent and less daunting than a tome for specialists, certainly.

Highlights for me included Nathaniel Philbrick touching on Herman Melville's importuning a seemingly cautious Nathaniel Hawthorne early on as his conversations shifted Melville's composition and aims for the whaling yarn. Philbrick credits the New England man as "the figure that moved" Melville "to take Shakespeare's lead and dive into the darkness. Just as Ahab co-opted the 'Pequod,' Melville used Hawthorne's fiction only as it served its own purposes. Philbrick seems to regard Melville as annoying Hawthorne, manipulating him somewhat for his own ends.

Speaking of Ahab, Philbrick reminds us that the captain needs such as Fedallah as a necessary co-conspirator, and the author reminds us that no villain can act alone. In fact, he also notes how Ahab has his sensitive side, as Chapter 132. "The Symphony" shows Ahab regretting most of his adult life spent at sea, apart from his family. Meanwhile, Starbuck tries to talk him out of the pursuit, but he is rebuffed. Philbrick directs us to Fedallah, waiting in the shadow.

Philbrick makes a sensible case for the novel's weight and balance. "By the last third of the novel, we know all there is to know about the anatomy of the whale and the specifics of killing a whale; we have also come to appreciate the whale's awe-inspiring mystery and beauty. As a consequence, Melville is free to describe the final clash between Ahab and Moby-Dick with the unapologetic specificity required to make an otherwise improbable and overwrought confrontation seem astonishingly real." That's as pithy a rationale as any for Philbrick's title.

I read this immediately after finishing Nicholas Delbanco's 2005 "Melville: His World and Work" (also reviewed by me); Philbrick credits this for his own take. Both critics agree about the Fugitive Slave Act and debates over slavery as influencing the novel, and this interpretation focuses on the injustices, and the tensions, aboard the "Pequod" and its real counterparts. This may not convince all readers of either book. (By the way, Delbanco's substantial but approachable book is only a small amount more than Philbrick's which is packaged nicely as a stocking-stuffer but a fraction of that biography in length or depth.) However, the larger and more direct issue of relevance finds Nathaniel Philbrick alluding to his earlier book on another inspiration for Melville, the tragedy of the "Essex," which Philbrick integrates as logical context for "Moby-Dick."

Near the end, Philbrick recounts how Melville's family, after his death, found taped in his writing desk a motto from Schiller: "Keep fresh the dreams of thy youth." His chronicler figures this served as a reminder of Melville's stance, "neither believer nor infidel," but judging both carefully, as both a romantic and a realist. That "redemptive mixture of skepticism and hope, this genial stoicism in the face of a short, ridiculous, and irrational life, is why I read 'Moby-Dick."'' Amazon US 11-23-13

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