‘Hast seen the White Whale?’

A bicentenary birthday toast

“Though I wrote the Gospels in this century, I should die in the gutter,” lamented Herman Melville in 1851, the year Moby-Dick was published.

He had good reason to be gloomy. Reviewers either ignored or panned the book. One asked of its author, “Who is this madman?”

For his own part, Melville far from backed himself. “[A]ll my books are botches,” he wrote. “Dollars damn me; and the malicious Devil is forever grinning upon me, holding the door ajar.”

It wasn’t until after the centenary of Melville’s birth that people starting seeing Moby-Dick differently. “His book commands a stillness in the soul, an awe,” wrote D. H. Lawrence in 1927. “A labyrinth, and that labyrinth is the universe,” wrote Lewis Mumford. William Faulkner said simply that he wished he had written it.

And now here we are at the 200th anniversary of Melville’s birth, and the brow of the white whale looms in front of our eyes still, and Melville demands of us, “Read it if you can.”

People still ponder the meaning of Moby Dick, the “whiteheaded whale with a wrinkled brow and a crooked jaw.” “Of course he is a symbol,” wrote Lawrence. “Of what? I doubt if even Melville knew exactly. That’s the best of it.”

That, and the feeling that on every page you are swimming through the library of Melville’s mind.

It is said of Emerson that he used to shade his eyes while reading Shakespeare owing to the glare of the bard’s genius. I had that feeling when I first read Moby-Dick—not in English class, but much later, as a writer, marvelling at Melville’s precision and power.

“Genius” was the word Albert Camus used of Melville, too. “These books in which man is overwhelmed, but which life is exalted on each page, are inexhaustible sources 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.”

Here is one passage among myriad to show his brilliance.

A ship approaches the Pequod. It is “bleached like the skeleton of a stranded walrus,” Melville writes, “her rigging like the thick branches of trees furred over with hoar-frost.” In the crow’s nest of each mast stands a lookout. As the two ships tack past each other the tips of the masts are tilted so that the men in the mast-heads can see each other clearly.

A wild sight it was to see her long-bearded look-outs at those three mast-heads. They seemed clad in the skins of beasts, so torn and bepatched the raiment that had survived nearly four years of cruising. Standing in iron hoops nailed to the mast, they swayed and swung over a fathomless sea; and though, when the ship slowly glided close under our stern, we six men in the air came so nigh to each other that we might almost have leaped from the mast-heads of one ship to those of the other; yet, those forlorn-looking fishermen, mildly eyeing us as they passed, said not one word to our own look-outs, while the quarter-deck hail was being heard from below.

‘Ship ahoy! Have ye seen the White Whale?’

I look out the window of the room where I write at home, and on the brick wall of my garage opposite is a slab of rusting iron cut in the shape of a sperm whale. I lift my eyes from the screen and see the vertical battering-ram of its brow. Can I read that brow? Can I feel its force? I sense its challenge, and take heart in Melville’s line: “I try all things; I achieve what I can.”

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