August 1, 2019

How Moby-Dick became the Rosetta Stone of the American republic


In his own era, Melville’s work received at best a mixed reception.  

Said the London Athenaeum of Moby-Dick, “This is an ill-compounded mixture of romance and matter-of-fact…The style of his tale is in places disfigured by mad (rather than bad) English; and its catastrophe is hastily, weakly, and obscurely managed.” The New York Albion was more concise: “We do not like the innovation. It is having oil, mustard, vinegar, and pepper served up as a dish, in place of being scientifically administered sauce-wise.”

Moby-Dick sold but 500 copies in the United Kingdom; here in the States, it was less successful during Melville’s lifetime than any of his five previous works. And Melville’s subsequent novel, Pierre; or, The Ambiguities, fared even less well: his UK publisher refused to give him an advance at all, and his contract with his U.S. house, which offered him just twenty cents on the dollar, was deemed by Maurice Sendak “the most insulting document in American literature.” A New York review of Pierre was headlined, quite simply, “Herman Melville Crazy.”

Yet with the passage of time, it’s clear that American literature is anchored by Melville; by Whitman (also celebrating his bicentennial this year); by Emily Dickinson; by fingers-of-one-hand others.

And it becomes increasingly clear that Moby-Dick, the story of mad Ahab’s quest for the white whale, speaks to our own time like no other work. As Bob Dylan said in another context: “And every one of them words rang true/ And glowed like burnin’ coal/ Pourin’ off of every page/ Like it was written in my soul from me to you.”  

Moby-Dick is, truly, the Rosetta Stone of the American republic. 

Part of what feels so contemporary about Moby-Dick is its refusal to “other” those who are not straight, cis, white. When Moby-Dick’s narrator, Ishmael, bunks down with the tattooed South Pacific Islander Queequeg, he describes it thus: “There is no place like a bed for confidential disclosures between friends.  Man and wife, they say, there open the very bottom of their souls to each other; and some old couples often lie and chat over old times till nearly morning. Thus, then, in our hearts’ honeymoon, lay I and Queequeg—a cosy, loving pair.”

Melville also renders modernity and alienation in a way that feels utterly prescient, coining the word isolato to describe those “not acknowledging the common continent of men, but each living on a separate continent of his own.”

Yet it is in looking at the current landscape that Moby-Dick finds its fullest resonance.  The chapter entitled “The Whiteness of the Whale” might have been written in response to a “Send Her Back!” rally: “This elusive quality it is, which causes the thought of whiteness, when divorced from more kindly associations, and coupled with any object terrible in itself, to heighten that terror to the furthest bounds.”  

And is there, anywhere, a better description for our nation in August, 2019 than this one: “thou all-destroying but unconquering whale”?

In celebrating Melville’s 200th birthday, we revel in the joyousness of his prose, the acuity of his insight, his deep and abiding sense of what it means to be an American, what it means to gaze upon the world entire. But is also with his fierce and magnificent two-hundred-year-old breath that we may find ourselves blowing out the candles of the “American experiment.” 


Howard A. Rodman is the author of The Great Eastern.