Like a giant bird of prey, the whaleship moved lazily up the western coast of South America, zigging and zagging across a living sea of oil. For that was the Pacific Ocean in 1821, a vast field of warm-blooded oil deposits known as sperm whales.
Harvesting sperm whales–the largest toothed whales in existence–was no easy matter. Six men would set out from the ship in a small boat, row up to their quarry, harpoon it, then attempt to stab it to death with a lance. The sixty-ton creature could destroy the whaleboat with a flick of its tail, throwing the men into the cold ocean water, often miles from the ship.
Then came the prodigious task of transforming a dead whale into oil: ripping off its blubber, chopping it up, and boiling it into the high-grade oil that lit the streets and lubricated the machines of the Industrial Age. That all of this was conducted on the limitless Pacific Ocean meant that the whalemen of the early nineteenth century were not merely seagoing hunters and factory workers but also explorers, pushing out farther and farther into a scarcely charted wilderness larger than all the earth’s landmasses combined.
–Nathaniel Philbrick, from the preface of In the Heart of the Sea
“Before we continue, I need to make something perfectly clear. The white whale is not a symbol. He is as real as you or I. He has a crooked jaw, a humped back, and wiggle-waggle when he’s moving really fast. He is a thing of blubber, blood, muscle, and bone–a creation of the natural world that transcends any fiction. So forget about trying to figure out what the White Whale signifies…So don’t fall into the Ahab trap of seeing Moby Dick as a stand-in for some paltry human complaint. In the end he is just a huge, battle-scarred albino sperm whale, and that is more than enough.”
–Nathaniel Philbrick, from Why Read Moby-Dick?
“…Forced into familiarity, then, with such prodigies as these; and knowing that after repeated, intrepid assaults, the White Whale had escaped alive; it cannot be much matter of surprise that some whalemen should go still further in their superstitions; declaring Moby Dick not only ubiquitous, but immortal (for immortality is but ubiquity in time); that though groves of spears should be planted in his flanks, he would still swim away unharmed; or if indeed he should ever be made to spout thick blood, such a sight would be but a ghastly deception; for again in unensanguined billows hundreds of leagues away, his unsullied jet would once more be seen.
But even stripped of these supernatural surmisings, there was enough in the earthly make and incontestable character of the monster to strike the imagination with unwonted power. For, it was not so much his uncommon bulk that so much distinguished him from other sperm whales, but, as was elsewhere thrown out–a peculiar snow-white wrinkled forehead, and a high, pyramidical white hump. These were his prominent features; the tokens whereby, even in the limitless, uncharted seas, he revealed his identity, at a long distance, to those who knew him.
The rest of his body was so streaked, and spotted, and marbled with the same shrouded hue, that, in the end, he had gained his distinctive appellation of the White Whale; a name, indeed, literally justified by his vivid aspect, when seen gliding at high noon through a dark blue sea, leaving a milky-way wake of creamy foam, all spangled with golden gleamings.
Nor was it his unwonted magnitude, nor his remarkable hue, nor yet his deformed lower jaw that so much invested the whale with natural terror, as that unexampled, intelligent malignity which, according to specific accounts, he had over and over again evinced in his assaults. More than all, his treacherous retreats struck more of dismay than perhaps aught else. For, when swimming before his exulting pursuers, with every apparent symptom of alarm, he had several times been known to turn round suddenly, and, bearing down upon them, either stave their boats to splinters, or drive them back in consternation to their ship.
Already several fatalities had attended his chase. But though similar disasters, however little bruited ashore, were by no means unusual in the fishery; yet, in most instances, such seemed the White Whale’s infernal aforethought of ferocity, that every dismembering or death that he caused, was not wholly regarded as having been inflicted by an unintelligent agent.
Judge, then, to what pitches of inflamed, distracted fury the minds of his more desperate hunters were impelled, when amid the chips of chewed boats, and the sinking limbs of torn comrades, they swam out of the white curds of the whale’s direful wrath into the serene, exasperating sunlight, that smiled on, as if at a birth or a bridal.
His three boats stove around him, and oars and men both whirling in the eddies; one captain, seizing the line-knife from his broken prow, had dashed at the whale, as an Arkansas duellist at his foe, blindly seeking with a six inch blade to reach the fathom-deep life of the whale. That captain was Ahab. And then it was, that suddenly sweeping his sickle-shaped lower jaw beneath him, Moby Dick had reaped away Ahab’s leg, as a mower a blade of grass in the field. No turbaned Turk, no hired Venetian or Malay, could have smote him with more seeming malice. Small reason was there to doubt, then, that ever since that almost fatal encounter, Ahab had cherished a wild vindictiveness against the whale, all the more fell for that in his frantic morbidness he at last came to identify with him, not only his bodily woes, but all his intellectual and spiritual exasperations. The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung. That intangible malignity which has been from the beginning; to whose dominion even the modern Christians ascribe one-half of the worlds; which the ancient Ophites of the east reverenced in their statue devil;–Ahab did not fall down and worship it like them; but deliriously transferring its idea to the abhorred white whale, he pitted himself, all mutilated, against it. All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate he felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.”
–Herman Melville, from Moby-Dick, Chapter 41, Moby Dick
“‘I will have no man in my boat,’ said Starbuck, ‘who is not afraid of a whale.’ By this, he seemed to mean, not only that the most reliable and useful courage was that which arises from the fair estimation of the encountered peril, but than an utterly fearless man is a far more dangerous comrade than a coward.”
–Herman Melville, from Moby-Dick, Chapter 26, Knights and Squires
“What the white whale was to Ahab, has been hinted; what, at times, he was to me, as yet remains unsaid.
Aside from those more obvious considerations touching Moby Dick, which could not but occasionally awaken in any man’s soul some alarm, there was another thought, or rather vague, completely overpowered all the rest; and yet so mystical and well nigh ineffable was it, that I almost despair of putting it in a comprehensible form. It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me. But how can I hope to explain myself here; and yet, in some dim, random way, explain myself I must, else these chapters might be naught…
Witness the white bear of the poles, and the white shark of the tropics; what but their smooth, flaky whiteness makes them the transcendent horrors they are?…
…Is it by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whitness is not so much a color as the absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows–a colorless, all color of atheism from which we shrink? And when we consider that other theory of the natural philosophers, that all earthly hues–every stately or lovely emblazoning–the sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods; yea, and the gilded velvets of butterflies, and the butterfly cheeks of young girls; all these are but subtle deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without; so that all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within; and when we proceed further, and consider that the mystical cosmetic which produces every one of her hues, the great principle of light, for ever remains white or colorless in itself, and if operating without medium upon matter, would touch all objects, even tulips and roses, with its own blank tinge–pondering all this, the palsied universe lies before us a leper; and like wilful travelers in Lapland, who refuse to wear colored and coloring glasses upon their eyes, so the wretched infidel gazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him. And of all these the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?”
–Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, from Chapter 42, The Whiteness of the Whale [Ishmael/Melville speaking]
“I do not know where I can find a better place than just here, to make mention of one or two other things, which to me seem important, as in printed form establishing in all respects the reasonableness of the whole story of the White Whale, more especially the catastrophe. For this is one of those disheartening instances where truth requires full as much bolstering as error. So ignorant are most landsmen of some of the plainest and most palpable wonders of the world, that without some hints touching the plain facts, historical and otherwise, of the fishery, they might scout at Moby Dick as a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory.
First: Though most men have some vague flitting ideas of the general perils of the grand fishery, yet they have nothing like a fixed, vivid conception of those perils, and the frequency with which they recur. One reason perhaps is, that not one in fifty of the actual disasters and deaths by casualties in the fishery, ever finds a public record at home, however transient and immediately forgotten the record. Do you suppose that that poor fellow there, who this moment perhaps caught by the whale-line off the coast of New Guinea, is being carried down to the bottom of the sea by the sounding leviathan–do you suppose that that poor fellow’s name will appear in the newspaper obituary you will read tomorrow at your breakfast? No: because the mails are very irregular between here and New Guinea. In fact, did you ever hear what might be called regular news direct or indirect from New Guinea? Yet I tell you that upon one particular voyage which I made to the Pacific, among many others, we spoke to thirty different ships, every one of which had had a death by a whale, some of them more than one, and three that had each lost a boat’s crew. For God’s sake, be economical with your lamps and candles! not a gallon you burn, but at least one drop of man’s blood was spilled for it.
Secondly: People ashore have indeed some indefinite idea that a whale is an enormous creature of enormous power; but I have ever found that when narrating to them some specific example of this two-fold enormousness, they have significantly complimented me upon my facetiousness; when, I declare upon my soul, I had no more idea of being facetious than Moses, when he wrote the history of the plagues of Egypt.”
–Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, from Chapter 45, The Affidavit
“Like noiseless nautilus shells, their light prows sped through the sea; but only slowly they neared the foe. As they neared him, the ocean grew more smooth; seemed drawing a carpet over its waves; seemed a noon-meadow, so serenely it spread. At length the breathless hunter came so nigh his seemingly unsuspecting prey, that his entire dazzling hump was distinctly visible, sliding along the sea as if an isolated thing, and continually set in a revolving ring of finest fleecy, greenish foam. He saw the vast, involved wrinkles of the slightly projecting head beyond Before it, far out on the soft Turkish-rugged waters, went the glistening white shadow from his broad, milky forehead, a musical rippling playfully accompanying the shade; and behind, the blue waters interchangeably flowed over into the moving valley of his steady wake; and on the other hand bright bubbles arose and danced by his side. But these were broken again by the light toes of hundreds of gay fowl softly feathering the sea, alternate with their fitful flight; and like to some flag-staff rising from the painted hull of an argosy, the tall but shattered pole of a recent lance projected from the white whale’s back; and at intervals one of the cloud of soft-toed fowls hovering, and to and fro skimming like a canopy over the fish silently perched and rocked on this pole, the long tail feathers streaming like pennons.
A gentle joyousness–a mighty mildness of repose in swiftness, invested the gliding whale. Not the white bull of Jupiter swimming away with ravished Europa clinging to his graceful horns; his lovely, leering eyes sideways intent upon the maid; with smooth bewitching fleetness, rippling straight for the nuptial bower in Crete; not Jove, not that great majesty Supreme! did surpass the glorified White Whale as he so divinely swam.
On each soft side–coincident with the parted swell, that but once laving him, then flowed so wide away–on each bright side, the whale shed off enticings. No wonder there had been some among the hunters who namelessly transported and allured by all this serenity, had ventured to assail it; but had fatally found that quietude but the vesture of tornadoes. Yet calm, enticing calm, oh, whale! thou glidest on, to all who for the first time eye thee, no matter how many in that same way thou may’st have bejuggled and destroyed before.
And thus, through the serene tranquilities of the tropical sea, among waves whose hand-clappings were suspended by exceeding rapture, Moby Dick moved on, still withholding from sight the full terrors of his submerged trunk, entirely hiding the wrenched hideousness of his jaw. But soon the fore part of him slowly rose from the water; for an instant his whole marbleized body formed a high arch, like Virginia’s Natural Bridge, and warningly waving his bannered flukes in the air, the grand god revealed himself, sounded, and went out of sight. Hoveringly halting, and dipping on the wing, the white sea-fowls longingly lingered over the agitated pool that he left.”
–Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, from Chapter 133, The Chase–First Day
“It was November, and the two friends [Hawthorne and Melville] went for a walk on the beach in the windy sunshine. They found a sheltered spot amid the dunes and sat down for a smoke. ‘Melville, as he always does, began to reason of Providence and futurity,’ Hawthorne recorded in his journal, ‘and of everything that lies beyond human ken, and informed me that he had pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated; but still he does not seem to rest in that anticipation; and, I think, will never rest until he gets hold of a definite belief. It is strange how he persists–and has persisted ever since I knew him, and probably long before–in wandering to and fro over these deserts, as dismal and monotonous as the sand hills amid which we were sitting. He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other. If he were a religious man, he would be one of the most truly religious and reverential; he has a very high and noble nature, and better worth immortality than most of us.’
Melville, Hawthorne recognized, was a man condemned to landlessness. There was no harbor for Melville, no refuge from the storm. For one brief year, with Hawthorne’s friendship serving as his insular Tahiti, Melville dove down deeper than Pip and came up with Moby-Dick. But instead of fame (at least in his own life-time), Moby-Dick brought only obscurity. Instead of going down in a blaze of glory like Ahab, Melville went about his quiet, unassuming way like Captain Pollard [Captain of the whaleship Essex, which had been stove in and sunk by a bull sperm whale in the middle of the Pacific, November 1819, and formed the basis of inspiration for Moby-Dick].”
–Nathaniel Philbrick, from Why Read Moby-Dick?
“…As Queequeg and I are now fairly embarked in this business of whaling; and as this business of whaling has somehow come to be regarded among landsmen as a rather unpoetical and disreputable pursuit; therefore, I am all anxiety to convince ye, ye landsmen, of the injustice hereby done to us hunters of whales…if, at my death, my executors, or more properly my creditors, find any precious MSS. in my desk, then here I prospectively ascribe all the honor and the glory to whaling; for a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.”
–Herman Melville, from Moby-Dick, Chapter 24, The Advocate
“In the summer of 1851, as he struggled to finish his whaling novel, Melville dared to imagine himself and Hawthorne together in a writer’s paradise. They would find ‘some shady little corner by ourselves,’ and with a basket of champagne they would, ‘cross our celestial legs in the celestial grass that is forever tropical, and strike our glasses and our heads together, till both musically ring in concert.’ …As the agnostic writing outside his own uncertain beliefs, Melville is describing the fantasy he desperately needed but could never quite convince himself existed. It is a paradise born of several longings: of the twelve-year-old boy for his dead father; of the author for fame; and of the almost-middle-aged man for a friend. It is the longing that is in all of us, and it is there, in every page of Moby-Dick.”
–Nathaniel Philbrick, from Why Read Moby-Dick?
In 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, Melville, his wife Lizzie, and their four children moved from the Berkshires back to New York City, where Melville worked as a customs inspector for close to two decades…
After Melville’s death, his family found a possible clue as to how he managed to survive the forty-year backwash left by the creation of Moby-Dick and, indeed, how he came to write that novel in the first place. Atop a table piled high with papers was a portable writing desk. Taped inside the desk, which had no bottom, was a piece of paper with a motto printed on it: Keep true to the dreams of thy youth…
In the end, Melville had found a way back to the view espoused by Ishmael in Moby-Dick: ‘Doubts of all things earthly, and intuitions of somethings heavenly; this combination makes neither believer nor infidel, but makes a man who regards them both with equal eye.’ This redemptive mixture of skepticism and hope this genial stoicism in the face of a short, ridiculous, and irrational life, is why I read Moby-Dick.
–Nathaniel Philbrick, from Why Read Moby-Dick?
“Years ago I looked into Typee and Omoo, but as I didn’t find there what I am looking for when I open a book I did go no further. Lately I had in my hand Moby Dick. It struck me as a rather strained rhapsody with whaling for a subject and not a single sincere line in the 3 vols of it.”
–Joseph Conrad to Humphrey Milford, January 15th, 1907
“I bought the Origin of Species yesterday for 6d and never read such badly written catlap. I only remember one thing; blue-eyed cats are always deaf (correlation of Variations). I finished Vanity Fair and Cunt Pointercunt [Aldous Huxley’s Count Pointer Count]. A very pains talking work. The only thing I won’t have forgotten by this day week is Spandrell flogging the foxgloves. I bought Moby Dick to-day for 6d. That’s more like the real stuff. White whales & natural piety.”
–Samuel Beckett to Thomas MacGreevey, August 4th, 1932
“T. E. Lawrence ranked Moby Dick alongside The Possessed or War and Peace. Without hesitation, one can add Billy Budd, Mardi, Benito Cereno, and a few others. These anguished books in which man is overwhelmed, but in which life is exalted on each page, are inexhaustible source of strength and pity. We find in them revolt and acceptance, unconquerable and endless love, the passion for beauty, language of the highest order–in short, genius.”
–Albert Camus, 1952 (translated from the French by Ellen Conroy Kennedy)