Something of a fanatic about Moby-Dick, I’ve read a number of books peripheral to Melville’s work. Some I read years ago, and some I’ve picked up more recently for the first time or to reread. Brief impressions of a few of them appear below.
A Whaler’s Dictionary
Dan Beachy-Quick’s A Whaler’s Dictionary was the first secondary source I purchased once I began to consider leading a group read of Moby-Dick. The book contains a set of what I think are best called meditations on various ideas and items that appear in Moby-Dick. Beachy-Quick says in the introductory matter that the book arose out of a decade of reading Melville’s book, and indeed it does read like the musings of a person obsessed with the text. It’s even cross-referenced. Beachy-Quick suggests in the introduction that the best way to read his book is to thumb through it until you find something interesting and then to hop around from there; the cross-references help with this. In an apology at the beginning, he fesses up that it’s not responsible or well-researched, and this may be true, but the little essays are often lyrical and always thoughtful and full of neat connections. In a way, his project seems similar to the project that these group reads have become, but much more ambitious and far far better-wrought. It’s a necessary text for the Moby-Dick completist and a great addition to the collection for even a dabbler (if a serious dabbler) like me.
A good friend gave me Philip Hoare’s The Whale for my birthday this year. I had been wringing my hands a little over whether or not to try a group read of Moby-Dick, and he happened to see a review of Hoare’s book in a national magazine. It’s a great read, full of information about whales and whaling. I learned, for example, that whaling not only extended into the 20th century but peaked in the 20th century: “In 1951 alone — one hundred years after Melville’s book appeared — more whales were killed worldwide than New Bedford’s whale-ships took in a century and a half of whaling.” Consider for a moment how big a sperm whale is (think roughly school-bus sized), and then consider that in 1965, some 72,000 were killed. Even if you’re not of a “save the whales” temperament, the sheer mass of such a killing season is mind-boggling. Hoare writes about a number of beached whales and tells the stories of the preservation of several whales in museums. He provides background information on Melville and always has Moby-Dick as a subtext. In addition to disbursing a trove of facts about whales and the history of whaling, Hoare invites us to take a more personal peek at his infatuation with whales — which after all many of us who love Moby-Dick share with him — beginning with his nearly-submersive (as in on a submarine) birth and culminating in a dive during which he was able to swim with a sperm whale. What a chance! Hoare shares with his reader the tragedy and the majesty of the sperm whale. It’s a fantastic read for anyone interested in either whales or Moby-Dick. I’ll let Hoare have the last word: “[T]he sperm whale also bears the legacy of our sins; an animal whose life came to be written only because it was taken; a whale so wreathed in superlatives and impossibilities that if no one had ever seen it, we would hardly believe that it existed — and even then, we might not be too sure. Only such a creature could lend Melville’s book its power.”
I was eager to read this book when it came out years ago. I wanted it to be good. I started reading it with an open mind. But it became clear fairly early on that Sena Naslund had an agenda that lay pretty far afield of dramatizing anything with any real relevance to Melville’s great work. She wanted to write a strong female character in Ahab’s young wife. I applaud writing strong female characters. But to distort reality and insist upon anachronisms in order to do so is to patronize, and the book began very early to do just these things. I can think of no other book that I’ve ever put down partway through with no intention of ever going back to it again. In preparation for this group read, I thought I might give Naslund’s book another chance (readers mature, after all, and maybe I simply hadn’t given it a fair shake) and checked it out of the library. I got a page or two in before I decided I simply couldn’t go on. I’d rather stab myself in the eye than try again; my resulting eyepatch would more closely resemble something authentic and nautical and Melvillean than Naslund’s long long book.
Allan Drummond’s take on Moby-Dick is a little hard to swallow. Although it has the external appearance of a children’s book, it’s awfully bloody, and when my children were younger, I found myself wanting to avoid the bloody pages. Of course, it’s probably hard to adapt the book and cut out all the bloody violence without watering it down too much. It’s the sort of book that’s interesting for an adult to read to himself but that is annoying to read to a child, since it has speech bubbles in addition to primary text. Maybe it’s a strange preference, but I tend to prefer one or the other. I may be unique in this, and if so, then Drummond’s book can hardly be faulted. About the art I can say nothing terribly useful. The drawings seem a bit off-hand, neither realistic nor especially cartoonish. It’s a matter of style and not of aptitude (that is, it’s an intentional off-handedness), and it happens to be a style that doesn’t float my particular boat, but I imagine many find it appealing. Drummond does a fine job of condensing Melville’s book into a minuscule amount of text, and he certainly portrays a brooding Ahab. On the whole, I like having the book because it is a way of sharing a version of Melville’s story with my children, but I’d love to see another interpretation.
In the Heart of the Sea
It’s been many years since I read Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea, but parts of it remain with me vividly still. He tells the fascinating story of the whaleship Essex, which set out with its young captain and first mate and was sunk by the battering-ram head of what by all accounts was a vindictive whale. Philbrick details the horrors of being afloat in a small boat for months with limited food and water. The men resort at last to the last taboo of cannibalism, supping at first upon those who died naturally and finally drawing lots and killing a shipmate for food — and this after having chosen their ill-fated course rather than a nearer course to the Pacific for fear of the cannibals they feared they’d find there. It’s a riveting tale told with immediacy, and it’s a must-read for anybody with even a glimmer of an interest in texts peripheral to Moby-Dick. Philbrick appears also to have adapted the text for a younger audience in the form of a book entitled The Revenge of the Whale. If it’s half as deftly-done as In the Heart of the Sea, it’s sure to be a treat for youngsters.
Melville: His World and Work
Andrew Delbanco appeared in the recent PBS documentary, Into the Deep. Having read precious little about the life and work of Melville, I decided to try Delbanco’s rendering of Melville’s life. It arrived just yesterday, and I’m only 35 pages in, but it has so far been outstanding. It not only holds a wealth of information, but is also eloquently written. The introductory material rang so many bells for me that I spent more time underlining and making notes and pestering my wife by repeating enthusiastically what I had just read (e.g. Hardy’s career as a fiction writer turned poet mimics Melville’s) than I spent reading. If the rest of the book lives up to the promise of what I’ve read so far, it will have been a valuable purchase indeed.