Why is Moby Dick a classic?

Moby Dick Serigraph by LeRoy Neiman

Moby Dick Serigraph by LeRoy Neiman

I’m about halfway through Moby Dick now and man does Herman Melville love whaling or what. The amount of detail included in this book is ridiculous. It is absolutely awe-inspiring. I’m convinced that Melville had no intention of writing an actual novel, and what he in-fact set out to do was get down on paper everything he knew about whaling. I like to imagine he did this for future generations, so that he could pass on his knowledge of the trade. Important things for the whaler of the future to know, like why manilla rope is better than hemp rope.

The more I read the more I am convinced of this – it is obvious to me that Melville was far less concerned with telling a story and much more interested in relaying everything he knew about whaling. It’s as if after spending time on a whaling ship himself, which he did in his twenties, Melville became determined to share with the world everything he had learned. In Moby Dick Melville isn’t so much telling a narrative as much as he is trying to immerse you in whaling culture.

It’s a bit of an auto-biography, too. Ishmael would be the fictionalized version of Melville. Just like Ishmael, Melville worked on a trade ship before ‘graduating’ to a whaling ship. We write what we know.

Since I began reading Moby Dick I have found myself asking people around me (pretty much anyone who will listen to me) if they’ve read this book. I am asking because I want to connect with someone who can sympathize with my experience reading this book. What I am now realizing is that nobody [I know] has read it, so nobody [I know] understands. The closest I got to commiseration was with my little brother, who listened to the audiobook on the train. That counts but in a different way (honestly I’m listening to the audiobook too, I’m switching between audiobook, kindle and print edition depending on my mood).

Other than everyone responding in the negative (other than my little brother who had a solid ‘No, BUT’) there has been one other commonality amongst those I’ve asked: many of them followed up with the question “what makes that book a classic?” That has been a hard question for me to answer. Mainly because I am not in charge of determining which books are and are not considered classics, but also because I have absolutely no idea.

Tonight, after dinner with my family, when my brother asked me that question, I finally gave an answer that I think is okay. Here is what I said (paraphrased, of course, as I don’t record myself, although I should because I say awesome things always):

“I don’t know, actually. But I can tell you what I think makes it stand out. At the time that Moby Dick was written, a whaling ship was one of the few places in the world where different races of people worked together and had respect for one another. On a whaling ship, you had Asian people, Americans, Africans, islanders, Brits – a veritable ethnic smorgasbord –  and they all worked together and, for the most part, had a genuine respect for each other, interacting as crew-mates, friends, and sometimes as family. You wouldn’t find this kind of a community in many other places at that time, if anywhere. Think about it – this book was written in 1851, that’s about 40 years before Kipling wrote the White Man’s Burden.”

I think that is pretty cool. Now, of course there is still obvious racism and colonial ideologies throughout Moby Dick, I’m not denying that at all. But if you compare Melville’s representation of non-whites in Moby Dick to that of his contemporaries in their books, I would think that you would find him well advanced (please note I haven’t checked myself – this is an assumption I’m making, but I think I’m safe).

That’s all for now!

One thought on “Why is Moby Dick a classic?

  1. Pingback: Why Moby Dick is a Classic – from someone more qualified and on a roller coaster | catherine reads

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