Two centuries ago, on 1 August 1819, Herman Melville was born in New York City. As that bicentenary is celebrated, Melville is firmly enshrined in the pantheons of great writers and great American writers. But it was not always so.
From the age of 47 to 66, Melville was deputy inspector in the New York Custom House. He died on 28 September 1891, about eight weeks after his 72nd birthday. Almost 40 years earlier, on 18 October 1851, his novel The Whale was published in London. Publication of Moby-Dick; or, The Whale followed in New York on 14 November of that year. The reception was disheartening.
Only six years later, after a visit to the Holy Land, Melville all but abandoned prose; the last prose work published in his lifetime, The Confidence-Man, in retrospect seems a cruelly reflective title. Yet Melville had embraced the possibility of a disastrous end to the voyage he embarked upon with the novels Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847), both of which were immediate successes. In the spring of 1850 he recorded that “So far as I am individually concerned, and independent of my pocket, it is my earnest desire to write those sorts of books which are said to ‘fail’.”
In his magnum opus, a concordance to the world and leviathan of salty experience, learning, allusion, profound puns, voluminous references and encyclopaedic whale lore, Melville failed magnificently. The great Melville scholar and roving philosopher Harold Beaver said of Melville that “His complete inner life was to be the ‘text’; the complete storehouse of the world’s books, its interpretive ‘commentary’. Moby-Dick presents his individually forged passport to a universal culture.”
Beaver continued: “For as the Pequod circles the world, so this universal and global book must range through universal and global references in space and time, through all religious creeds and philosophical ideas (ancient and modern).”
In other words, Moby-Dick is not the sort of book that the current president of the United States would appreciate. Furthermore, the crew of the whaling ship the Pequod are drawn from many races, nations, cultures and religions; the ace men on board, the harpooners, are not white.
The parallels between American imperialism and Ahab, the captain of the Pequod, are teased out in a Harold Wolpe Memorial Lecture I gave on 29 May 2003, titled Passageways: Revisiting Self, The Society of the Spectacle and Moby-Dick in the Wake of September 11 (published in Articulations: A Harold Wolpe Memorial Collection, Africa World Press, 2006). In 2019, US President Donald Trump is a seamless and more ominous update of Ahab. Unilateral, anti-dialectical, a terroriser of nature, a narcissist grievously wounded on his own quarterdeck: Ahab is akin to the leader of a global superpower, and his “bigotry of purpose” makes him the archetype of imperial ambitions.
At the end of Chapter 37, Sunset, Ahab rails:
“Swerve me? ye cannot swerve me, else ye swerve yourselves! man has ye there. Swerve me? The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run … Naught’s an obstacle, naught’s an angle to the iron way!”
Ahab’s “fixed purpose” is to avenge the loss of his leg and so he charts a way through the oceans in pursuit of the whale that crippled him. Here is how Melville tells that moment, from Chapter 41, Moby Dick (unhyphenated, as is the whale’s name).
“And then it was, that suddenly sweeping his sickle-shaped lower jaw beneath him, Moby Dick had ripped away Ahab’s leg, as a mower a blade of grass in the field … Small reason was there to doubt, then, that ever since that almost fatal encounter, Ahab had cherished a wild vindictiveness against the whale, all the more fell for that in his frantic morbidness he at last came to identify with him, not only all his bodily woes, but all his intellectual and spiritual exasperations.”
It was a real-life whale, Mocha-Dick, named after the island of Mocha off the coast of Chile at 38 degrees south, 71 degrees west, that was reported to have pursued a whaleboat back to its whaling ship and flailed at it while it was being hoisted back on board. The demonstrated power of their supposed prey made whalers of Ahab’s time cautious.
And yet, as the American poet Charles Olson observed of Moby-Dick, “To Melville it is not the will to be free but the will to overwhelm nature that lies at the bottom of us [Americans] as individuals and a people. Ahab is no democrat. Moby Dick, antagonist, is only king of natural force, resource.”
Melville died in obscurity. He left not only a global masterpiece but a number of enduringly elusive questions about Ahab and the White Whale. Is the whale fatally stricken or simply shot through with harpoons? While Ahab won’t, will Moby Dick survive to fight another day?
Pro-environment, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, a praise song to a nonracial world of working-class solidarity and multiculturalism, against homophobia and very much opposed to an anthropocentric world view, Moby-Dick was ahead of its time and will remain ahead of the times for years to come.
And all that begins with three of the most thrilling and inviting opening words in the literature of the world: “Call me Ishmael.”