Moby Dick by Herman Melville is certainly in the top tier of American literature – they call them “classics” for a reason. Perhaps the timelessness of Moby Dick is why we had such a great turnout this month for our Brown Baggers book group!
As this novel is so central to the American canon, we started our discussion by contrasting our expectations to our post-reading reactions. Those of us who had read the book previously reported having a different understanding of the book after reading it again with fresh eyes and life experience behind them.
Our character discussion mainly revolved around Ahab, Ishmael, Queequeg, and Starbuck. We compared Ahab’s single-minded focus and ability to convince much of his crew to adopt his obsession as their own to the sway of a magnetic cult leader. The isolation of the vessel showed how insular their community was. We also noted how progressive the physical makeup of the crew seemed for the time. The Pequod’s crew consisted of men from different countries, races, and religions, but all worked mostly in harmony towards their shared profit. These foreshadows of equality and other events appeared to echo fears and tensions in the pre-Civil War U.S.
We also were intrigued by all the practical details of whaling and making your life at sea. Any stops would have been few and far between and the ship had to be outfitted for the needs of 30 or so crew members. After the hunt, the men’s work wasn’t done. To collect and store the oil from these huge beasts, the whole ship had to become a processing area. We thought that perhaps one reason for the book’s lasting influence was that it was a fascinating mix of the concrete details of whaling as well as more philosophical explorations written with a Romantic sensibility.
Moby Dick would be a vastly different book without these contradictions and contrasts. In our discussion, we also mentioned Nathaniel Philbrick’s recent book, Why Read Moby Dick? One chapter notes that Melville’s initial version of the book was a more straightforward account of whaling, without “a whiff of Ahab in it.” It was only upon meeting the more senior Nathaniel Hawthorne and closely studying Shakespeare that Melville realized he could expose some grittier truths about life by using dark characters and scenes. Between Philbrick’s book and the library’s showing of the 1956 movie adaptation last week (starring Gregory Peck!) we all had the opportunity to study the story of Moby Dick from all possible angles.