Ishmael’s Call

| May 5, 2011

I just barely escaped reading Moby-Dick in college. My American literature class, part of the reading-heavy curriculum meant to introduce the English majors to the big guys of lit, ran a bit long and we didn’t have time for old Melville’s watery masterpiece. I admit I rejoiced in this; in my years on the prose ocean I’ve oft glimpsed and occasionally tangled with this legend and I’ve always known that one day we would have our reckoning.

Well, blow me down. I loved it. It was so ominous and metaphysical! It was by turns adorable, disgusting, exciting, nautical and stuffy! I didn’t know I had so much in common with Melville. His action spirit endears him to me. We both love boats, appreciate a good beard, are relatively cavalier about animal rights and have a tumultuous relationship with Nathaniel Hawthorne. There’s something to be said about a novel that can utterly transfix a person born 134 years (to the day, strangely) after its release.

I was also surprised at how informative the book was! It did get a bit flowery in its explanations. Whaling really can’t be that important, Melly, but props for owning it:

One often hears of writers that rise and swell with their subject, though it may seem but an ordinary one. How, then, with me, writing of this Leviathan? Unconsciously my chirography expands into placard capitals. Give me a condor’s quill! Give me Vesuvius’ crater for an inkstand! Friends, hold my arms! For in the mere act of penning my thoughts of this Leviathan, they weary me, and make me faint with their outreaching comprehensiveness of sweep, as if to include the whole circle of the sciences, and all the generations of whales, and men, and mastodons, past, present, and to come, with all the revolving panoramas of empire on earth, and throughout the whole universe, not excluding its suburbs. Such, and so magnifying, is the virtue of a large and liberal theme! We expand to its bulk. To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. (M-D, 104:452)

When the book first hit the scene critics had similar feelings, the December 6, 1851 London Literary Gazette review stated “This is an odd book, professing to be a novel; wantonly eccentric; outrageously bombastic; in places charmingly and vividly descriptive.” It also mentioned that the nonfiction whale and whaling industry descriptions were boring. I thought not, I knew nothing about sperm whales before I began reading this book but they are incredibly cool.

Your immature side will be gratified to know that sperm whales are actually named for the cache of pearly, viscous spermaceti in their cranium. It’s not what it looks like though, scientists are pretty sure that it’s a buoyancy thing1…or it’s for putting the hurt on pitiful humans.2 Your inner English major will also be delighted that Melville hearts symbolism and certainly doesn’t miss out on this gem of a homograph. Ye whalers of olde were not only after these behemoths for their spermaceti, blubber, delicious whale steaks and ivory for peg legs but also for a strange substance called ambergris, produced in whale intestines as a result of stresses (like attempting to digest squid beaks) and is primarily extracted via whale vomit.3 Ambergris was primarily used as a scent fixative in perfumes and cosmetics.

Sperm whales have been measured to dive over 1.5 miles down into the ocean4 which is useful for fighting and eating giant squids. Clearly, per the excellent documentary Squid Invasion (stream on Netflix), any enemy to squids is a friend to humans. Pity we spent so many years killing sperm whales in horrible ways. That was possibly my only stickler with this tome, there was so much stabbing. Sperm whales, though adorable, were shown to be pretty fierce and the fight was pretty even considering all the capsizing boats, attacking sharks and myriad freakier ways to die in the ocean. It was just really intense. But I guess that’s what has inspired the love and hatred of this book, the criticisms, films, paintings, video games and houses of kabob. It’s transported generations of readers as it has transported me. Ye did a solid, Melly.


2 (The Wikipedia article is actually great and full of rad pictures!)