Melville and the Leviathan. Random thoughts on his masterpiece.

“Canst thou draw out Leviathan with a hook?” Job 41:1

Melville’s great creation,Captain Ahab, would have a defiant answer to God: Yes.

Biblical scholars debate whether this mighty Leviathan is really a crocodile or a formidable serpent, but that taunting question is ultimately about man’s need to remain humble in God’s universe.

Melville’s Moby Dick remained humble for over 70 years after its publication in 1851.  Lewis Mumford’s 1929 biography begins with an honest appraisal of Melville’s legacy.

“When Herman Melville died in 1891, the literary journal of the day, The Critic, did not even know who he was. The editors rose bravely to the occasion and copied a paragraph about him from a compendium of American literature; and in the weeks that followed they reprinted various commentaries on Melville and his work that were carried in the correspondence columns of the New York newspapers.”

“Mr. Melville has carried his readers into a realm much too remote, and an air too rarefied; a flirtation with a South Sea maiden, warm, brown, palpable, was one thing: but the shark that glides white through a sulphurous sea was quite another.  In Moby Dick, so criticism went, Melville had become obscure; and this literary failure condemned him to personal obscurity.”

Mumford then uses his own literary hook to lift the Melville reputation to new heights bestowing upon him the distinction of being the greatest imaginative writer that America has produced.

In the 20th Century, Melville’s stock rose and along with Twain, and Hawthorne, he has emerged as one of the leading lights of our literature and the bane of many a high school and college reader.

Laurie Robertson Lorant’s excellent biography of Melville has many valuable insights but one that particularly resonated with me.

On June 4, 1839, Melville signed on as a cabin boy aboard the St. Lawrence, a relatively small, three-masted square-rigged merchant ship.  The humbling of the 19-year-old Melville began with his name listed on the crew roster as “Norman Melville.”

“As a new boy and a “lubber,” he was assigned such unpleasant tasks as clearing out the pig pens and chicken coops and swabbing the head, and such dangerous ones as scampering up the rigging to reef the sails in a storm.”

Lorant adds, “As a greenhorn, he was the lowest of the low in a tough, hierarchical world that valued him less as an individual than as a cog in a bewildering machine.” She references Melville’s own words:

“On board ship a sailor was expected to follow orders, not understand them, but jumping to execute commands was difficult when commands were issued in an almost entirely foreign language. What I did know, for instance, about striking up a top-gallant mast, and sending it down on deck in gale of wind?  Could I have turned in a dead-eye, or in the approved nautical style have clapped a seizing on the main-stay?  What did I know of passing a gammoning, reeving a Burton, stapping a shoe-black, clearing a foul hawse and innumerable other intricacies. “

“Loving the sounds of words, Melville learned quickly, and his vocabulary was the richer for the colorful expressions he heard around him.  Unusual words like spanker boom, scuttle butt, jolly boat, reef point, skysail, holystone, belaying pin, scupper-hole, monkey-jacket …tasted good on his tongue and sounded good to his ear even before he understood them.”

Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) would build a different nautical vocabulary as he learned how to pilot a steamboat on the Mississippi River.

Lorant’s observation takes Melville out of the “rarefied air” and puts him on Earth — a teenager thrust into a foreign world and fighting to survive both physically and emotionally.

If I taught the sheer tonnage of Moby Dick to students, I would probably begin by describing this 19-year-old entering a foreign world — humbled by his station and his innocence in this indescribably difficult profession.

When you add the sad biography of his father’s death and financial disgrace seven years earlier and his family’s economic plight — Melville goes beyond a name on a book cover and becomes remarkably human.

The psychological similarities of Melville and Twain begin with the early deaths of their fathers and the unfortunate economic aftermath. And they each had a love/hate relationship with an older brother.

In a serendipitous parallel (intended or not) to the biblical Job verse 41, chapter 41 of Moby Dick deepens the relationship between the Ahab and the “leviathan” Moby Dick.

“All that maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes of the brain; all the subtle demonizations of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibility 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 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.”

What a well-crafted, evocative paragraph.

The joy and genius of the novel, is in its foreignness.  Even to Melville’s contemporaries, the intricacies of the whaling industry was foreign and exotic.  That genius is enhanced as readers continue the voyage and that foreign world reveals universal themes — personal themes of fate, revenge, the limits of knowledge and the often exploitive nature of commerce.

I have a deep and lasting admiration for all those teachers, like Laurie Robertson Lorant, who guide readers through this masterpiece — putting it in context and shedding light on the foreignness and ultimately its romantic exploration of the seminal questions of our own humanity.

The hook is in me.