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Thursday, October 18, 2018

October 18, 2018: Whaling Histories: Moby-Dick

[On October 18, 1851, the first edition of Herman Melville’s epic novel Moby-Dick was published in London (under its initial title, The Whale). So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Melville’s novel and other histories and stories related to the book’s ostensible subject, the world of whaling. Leading up to a special weekend post on a wonderful colleague at the New Bedford Whaling Museum!]
On why we can’t skip those frustrating whale info sections in Melville’s ginormous novel.
It’s a good thing I’m writing this post, as I believe having a daily AmericanStudies blog for nearly eight (8!) years and not writing about Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851) is grounds for immediate revocation of one’s AmericanStudier status. I’ve written about Melville quite a bit in this space, including a post on the entirely (and not entirely wrongly) forgotten short story “I and My Chimney” (1855) for crying out loud, but had never found my way to writing about Melville’s masterpiece (I came the closest in this post on the novel’s inspirations during a fortuitous Western Massachusetts thunderstorm). And if I’m being totally honest, I have to admit that it’s not just that Moby has never quite lined up with any of my weekly series (that’s true, but I only started doing weekly series about a year and a half into those eight years); it’s also that I kinda get where this meme that made the rounds earlier this year is coming from. Melville really doesn’t seem to have been able to resist including any whale facts—all whale facts—all the whale facts there are—more whale facts than any human should ever know—in his doorstopper of a novel.
So yeah, Moby-Dick is chock-full of whale facts, and I totally get the temptation to skim or even skip those sections of the novel (as an esteemed colleague of mine and one of the most talented writers I know has admitted to doing) in order to get to and through the rest. But we shouldn’t do so, for both literary and historical reasons. On a literary level, it’s precisely the combinations of styles and forms, of genres, of text and context, of center and periphery, that makes Melville’s novel such an experimental and ground-breaking work, in the legacy of a book like Washington Irving’s A History of New York (1809) and as a step along way toward late 19th century classics like Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) and modern classics like John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. (1938) and postwar ones like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) and postmodern ones like Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo (1972) and post-postmodern ones like Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves (2000). Which is to say, you can create a compelling account of the development of the American novel—and American literature as a whole—that locates such multi-genre experimental works at its center, but you can’t do so if you don’t engage with every part of them, even (perhaps especially) the frustrating ones that defy not only our definitions of fiction but our understanding of why they’re in the text at all.
But even if you’re not an AmericanLiteratureStudier, there are likewise important historical reasons not to skip Melville’s whale-tastic sections. For one thing, if my first few posts of this series have in any way convinced you that whaling was a central part of the development of New England (and thus in broader ways America) across the first few post-contact centuries, then I’d say there’s a great deal of value in reading one of the works (in any genre) that most fully capture that industry and world. And for another, Melville’s book actually offers a striking engagement with the thorny questions I posed in yesterday’s post—that is, while of course his titular white whale is a bit of an anomaly or singularity, he’s also a potent (and quite forceful and successful) rejoinder to any assumption that humans have an assumed right to hunt and kill whales. But we can’t possibly understand Moby’s relationship to the broader community of whales and culture of whaling if we don’t read the sections of Melville’s novel that describe those worlds at, yes, such great length. Which is to say, funny memes and understandable frustrations notwithstanding, maybe Melville knew exactly what he was doing when he included all those whale facts in his ginormous, messy, vital whaling and American masterpiece.
Last whaling post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other whaling contexts or connections you’d highlight?

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