I don’t recall if I ever attempted to read Moby Dick in the past. I have faint memories of seeing Gregory Peck on the movie screen as the one legged Captain Ahab driven to madness in his striving to get revenge from the great white whale. At that time, over sixty years ago, we had Classic Comics. They would now be called graphic novels. (To see the cover of Classic Comic of Moby Dick click on the title. ) So why at my advanced age did I decide to read Moby Dick? To begin with, I read Nathaniel Philbrick’s National Book Award winning book, In the Heart of the Sea: the Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, about the real incident in 1820 on which Melville based his novel. Second, I read his book entitled, Why Read Moby Dick.
The story of The Essex takes place in a time, 1820, when, as soon a ship was out of sight of the shore, its crew was out of reach of help should a crisis occur. Although navigation had improved since the European explorers cast off their harbors, ship to shore communication had not, and would not until the invention of the radio at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
According to National Geographic’s website, a Sperm Whale is 49 to 59 feet long and weights 35 to 45 tons. The whale that sunk the Essex hit the ship’s bow, splintering it, causing the vessel to start sinking. The survivors left the wreck in three whale boats (the smaller vessels actually used to hunt the whales) and eventually attempted to make it to west coast of South America, which was over 2,000 miles to the east. There are no spoilers here – to find out how survivors, if any, were rescued, you will have to read the book!
Whales had a very valuable product: oil! Before the discovery of petroleum, whale oil was used in lamps and other products. But getting whale oil was a dangerous occupation and very labor intensive. Crews on whale ships would stay at sea for up to three years while searching the oceans of the earth for whales. For example, The Essex left Nantucket on August 21, 1819 sailing east, with the prevailing winds, to the Azore Islands, then southeast to Cape Azore Islands off the coast of Africa. The next step of the vessel’s journey was southwesterly along the east coast of South America, then around Cape Horn into the Pacific Ocean. After preceding north, picking up provisions along the way, up the west coast of South America, The Essex headed west, south of the Galapagos Islands, until November 20, 1820, when she was rammed by a whale and sunk.
Nathaniel Philbrick’s father was a English professor who introduced his two sons to Moby Dick at a young age. Philbrick states he has read Moby Dick at least a dozen times. He has found:
“Contained in the pages of Moby Dick is nothing less the genetic code of America: all the promises, problems, conflicts, and ideals that contribute and to the outbreak of a revolution in 1775 as well as a civil war in 1861 and continue to drive this country’s ever-contentious march into the future.” (p. 6)
Unfortunately, Moby Dick did not sell well during Melville’s lifetime. From the time the book was published, 1851, until the author’s death, 1891, the now classic sold only 3,715 copies. That’s under a hundred copies a year. It was not until after World War I that critics, especially contemporary 20th century writers, took notice of Melville’s novel.
Although I’ve had a copy in my library for over sixty years, I have not taken time to read Moby Dick, but I am reading it now. Why should I read it at all? Why should you read it? What role did Nathaniel Hawthorne play in the writing of Moby Dick? Read Nathaniel Philbrick’s relatively short book to answer those questions.