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Archive for June 2013

Moby-Dick: Hunting for Newer Readers

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As a pilar of American literature, as the true “great American novel,” Moby-Dick is really only a century old. (One hundred years isn’t so long or is it?) The book was dismissed at publication and it wasn’t until 1917 or so that critics began to promote it.

Will it retain its place as a literary standard for another century? Assuming the English language survives, yes. If for nothing else, it will survive another century as a rumor of itself–much like it already is. (Moby-Dick belongs in that special class of novels that people “know” even if they have not and will not read them. Its cohorts in this honor include Don Quixote and Frankenstein.) As for its actual readers a century from now, I’ll not be their witness. Nonetheless, I have done my part, here at the waning end of its century of fame. I have finished a first reading of Moby-Dick, if for nothing else, to have met a story at first hand–one I’d heard so much about. I can testify that it is as masterful as anyone might suppose, but I must also admit that I will not read it again.

Life has its temperaments and Moby-Dick goes well with brooding, dogged individualism. (And, regrettably, testosterone.) It’s no fault of Melville’s that this is the case. We all have our seasons and seasons have their place. (And I, suppose, one shouldn’t fault him for not putting a woman on the boat? Or should we?) But this book is all March–wind and rain beating into the face of the lonely reader. The sentences are beautiful; the manipulations of allusion and allegory are (as they should be) complex; the racism is (but only sometimes complicated) racism; and the marvelous and the sublime are everywhere to be found.

As a lifelong reader, one eventually grows tired of the sublime, but the marvelous has more staying power. For the marvelous in Moby-Dick, see the Melville’s dissections of whale and boat and the interrelated mechanisms of life at sea. In contrast, the sublime in this story may be found in the faces of Fedallah and Ahab–their otherworldly visages–and in the more standard tropes: storms, vast seas, mountainous whales. In this season of my life, I prefer the marvelous and if I were to reread anything it would be those long passages about whales and whaling.

But I will not reread them–or so I think. Life is short, yes. But why? Why am I ready to push aside a deservingly famous story? Maybe this is the answer: take the key characters from the three books that I mentioned above: Ahab, Don Quixote and Dr. Frankenstein. Mad men all, but two were filled with loathing and one was driven by a fool’s love. Two were selfish and one was generous to a fault. Spare me the-pride-that-goes-before-the-fall; at midway, I’ll have the fools.

Written by Jere

June 23, 2013 at 9:15 pm

Posted in Reading

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