Why Moby Dick is a Classic – from someone more qualified and on a roller coaster

Back when I was reading Moby Dick, I attempted to answer why I thought this novel is considered a classic. I did this mostly in response to the question’s popularity; whilst reading the book, most interactions I had with onlookers went something like this:

Person: Oh, I see you’re reading Moby Dick.
Me: Sure am (*inside voice* and I’m totally understanding it too, not overwhelmed at all)
Person: That’s cool…cool, cool, cool…So. let me ask you something, why do you think it’s a classic?
Me: Well…
Me: You see…
Me: It’s a classic because…
Me:  Image result for bullshit bullshit bullshit sarah marshall

And now, Fine Readers, I am pleased to present you with a much more defensible response to the question, brought to you by Stephen Colbert and Andrew Delbanco, a Melville author and scholar, on a roller coaster:

Go forth and impress people at parties with your new found knowledge!

gif source: https://media.tenor.co/images/d5229344a3a5da8306ecbd42d26bf414/raw
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Moby Dick: Completely and Utterly Overwhelming.

Tonight, I finished Moby Dick. It feels great to have finally gotten through this American classic, but at the same time, I don’t really feel like I read it at all.

I think I spent more time in awe of this book than I did actually reading it. It is so dense that I could read it 20 times over and still miss some of the references, notes, metaphors, and other little gems Melville wove in to this story. This leaves me without the usual triumphant, accomplished feeling I get from finishing a book, especially one as massive as this. I’m not going to lie, people; I feel a bit robbed.

how I felt whilst reading Moby Dick

how I felt whilst reading Moby Dick

While I was reading Moby Dick, I spent most of the time just trying to keep up with the context of the narrative. There is literally so much happening at the same time that it is really difficult to keep up! And then on top of that you want me to look up all of the random references Melville makes? Ain’t nobody got time for that.

At first I was doe-eyed and naive, and I was looking them all up. All of the 32-letter words, all of the obscure references, everything. If I didn’t know what it was, I looked it up. Then a month later I was only half-way through the book because it was taking me an hour to read 20 pages, and so I started looking up less things. As I said – ain’t nobody got time for that. That’s when I really started to make some progress. Confused and foggy progress, but progress nonetheless.

I think at some point in my life I’d like to pick this book up again and try to wrap my head around it. Really dig in to it, and pick up everything that Melville is putting down.

SIDE BAR: To answer the great question posed by Chastity (10 Things I Hate About You), as it turns out, you can be whelmed in the Pacific ocean by a whale:

“Meantime, from the beginning all this had been descried from the ship’s mast heads; and squaring her yards, she had borne down upon the scene; and was now so nigh, that Ahab in the water hailed her!- “Sail on the”- but that moment a breaking sea dashed on him from Moby Dick, and whelmed him for the time.” (Moby Dick, Chapter 133)

whelmed2

WRONG, Bianca! Go back to planet ‘Look at me, look at me’

An old-school Dutch whaler could drink you under the table

image

“…I say, we have precisely two barrels of beer per man, for a twelve weeks’ allowance, exclusive of his fair proportion of that 550 ankers of gin.” (Moby Dick, pg. 497)

They took almost 11,000 barrels of beer with them for a 3 month trip. They drank all that and they still managed to catch whales. That’s insanity.

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!