The Perfectly Imperfect Moby-Dick

mdm9I had the privilege of attending the 19th annual Moby-Dick Marathon this past weekend, a 25 hour read-through of one of the most challenging, interesting, and adventurous novels in literature. Put on by the New Bedford Whaling Museum, the marathon went through over 150 readers, some of them scholars or people of importance associated with the museum, but many of them “Melville Aficionados,” laymen who love the book and wanted to read a passage or two. The marathon began at noon at the stern of the largest ship model in the world, with writer Philip Hoare beginning the “Call me Ishmael” (which his peacoat collar upturned). We then preceded through the more VIP readers – including the mayor of New Bedford reading the chapter on New Bedford – until we got to the chapters that take place in the Seaman’s Bethel, at which time we all went across the street to…the Seaman’s Bethel. There we sang the hymn that’s printed in the book, and a local minister “preached” Father Mapple’s Jonah sermon. We returned to the museum’s main room for the remainder of the reading, except when we went upstairs to sit around the giant sperm whale skeleton for “Cetology” and when we went into the theater to watch a local theater troupe perform “Midnight, Forecastle.” The head of the New Bedford Whaling Museum finished us up with “Epilogue” a little after 1:00pm on Sunday, 25 hours (or more, if you got there for “Extracts” at the beginning) after we started.

I stayed the whole time (of course!) and in listening to the entirety of Moby-Dick again, I’ve realized that this is a messy, messy book: characters appear and disappear, the narrative style of the book changes throughout, there’s chapters on whale biology and history and whales in art and whales in everything set among the main action of the book, set among philosophic meanderings from a narrator who starts off as Ishmael but who significantly changes into an omnipotent third party, there’s prose and song and drama, there’s Biblical allusion, Shakespearean characters, and symbolism all over the place (but which only really appears towards the later half of the book). It feels like Herman Melville vomited this book up like the whale vomited Jonah up, a complete but utterly sea-tossed first draft. Basically he needed to go back and do a huge revision and overhauling of the narrative, to align characterization, smooth out the narrative voice, and trim the fat.

And I am SO GLAD he didn’t do that.

There’s a two book theory to Moby-Dick – or, probably more accurately, a book and then new ideas and then a different-feeling book theory to Moby-Dick (see this rad essay for more). What more than likely happened is that Melville was working on a whaling adventure novel not unlike much of his earlier stuff, and then either suddenly had the idea for Ahab’s plight with the White Whale, or decided to incorporate another Ahab novel’s ideas into this novel. Either way, you see a change in much of everything once the Pequod sets sail.

No editor would have published this today. They would have made Melville rewrite the narrative voice until it was airtight, they would have made him clean up the inconsistencies, they would have made him go back and plant White Whale and Ahab foreshadowing, they would have told him no short plays, they would have told him to figure out Bulkington or get rid of him, they would have told him to lose the Quaker language, and they would have told him to either cut or exploit “The Counterpane” and “The Nightgown.” And too much blood. And lose the whales in art, whales in scrimshaw, whales in illustration, etc.

But other than some light revising by the author, the novel was left pretty much untouched. And that’s what makes it perfect. It’s a novel that has trails, that has ideas, that is experimental. It’s a novel trying to figure out how to be written, trying to figure out what it is. It’s a novel that incorporates a number of different elements and tries to engage them all. It’s a novel that is too philosophic to be a novel, contains too much science to be a novel, yet contains the utmost elements of what a novel should be: epic characters, conflict, struggle, sacrifice, and symbolism. It’s an adventure story. It’s a meditation on humanity. It’s a meditation on God. It’s a commentary on society. It’s many things, unconfined to one thing. It’s trying to get at the kernel of the meaning of Moby-Dick by throwing in everything it can about whaling and whales and the sea. Because there’s so many elements it creates those spaces where allegory, symbol, and metaphor come alive. There’s no way anyone could plumb the depth of this novel (pun intended).

So I’m glad I spent my weekend with a perfectly imperfect novel.

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One thought on “The Perfectly Imperfect Moby-Dick

  1. “It’s many things, unconfined to one thing.” Well put. I was there, too. As a New Bedford native, I think that I hav attended, or at least dropped in, to every one of the 19 Moby-Dick reading marathons at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. Another thing about the book comes through for me: It’s quite a funny book. Melville is constantly trying to charm the reader along, perhaps figuring that puns and satirical observations will assist in holding interest in this interminably long affair, and/or signal that the narrator is stalling for a really big payoff. Also, Melville’s ego really comes through for me. He must have been absolutely unbearable in that Pittsfield farmhouse while he vomited out this book. You’ve got to make a pilgrimage to Arrowhead, his farm, to get a sense of the close quarters his family endured while he shut himself in the upstairs room to finish this monster. Finally, I think the little picnic with his idol, Nathaniel Hawthorne, to whom he dedicates the book, is a symptom of the book’s unwieldiness. Again, his ego… he wanted so much to impress Hawthorne with this book. But back here in New Bedford, 160+ years later, we’re just glad he chose the city for his own voyage, aboard the whale ship, Acushnet, in 1841. Interestingly, the New Bedford writer who gets my vote as the most influential in American history is Frederick Douglass. He escaped slavery in Maryland to live in New Bedford from 1838 to 1841. He found his voice here, and was named here. Read his very brief 1845 autobiography; he is fairly complimentary of this old Quaker town & port city. A great little book by Dr. Robert Wallace, a Melville scholar who attends the Marathon each year, deals with whether the two writers met in New Bedford in 1841. In any case, there’s more to New Bedford than meets the eye. Great blog; keep them coming!

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