Wednesday, July 23, 2008


Interesting tidbit from a literary perspective--

In Chapter 51 "The Spirit-Spout" there is an interesting footnote on "the tell-tale that swung from a beam in the ceiling."

The cabin-compass is called the tell-tale, because without going to the compass at the helm, the Captain, while below, can inform himself of the course of the ship.

What intrigues me is that I now understand more behind the name of Edgar Allen Poe's short story "The Tell-Tale Heart." I never looked it up before, never thought to. I thought it was a fancy compound adjective that Poe was using, like the tale that the heart would tell, also like a tattle-tale.

In fact, my Webster's dictionary gives "TALEBEARER, INFORMER" as the first definition of telltale, without the hyphen that comes inbetween the words in the short story.

However, this makes even more sense than just being a plain "informer." If the tell-tale is to show the true direction without even leaving the cabin, in a sense an inner compass, Poe's character shows the true direction of a person's conscience. (Even though he killed the guy anyway in the story--too bad his tell-tale didn't kick in until after he killed the guy.)

Wednesday, July 16, 2008


I'm roughly halfway. I am doing it! I'm on Chapter 53 and my book is looking a little worse for wear! It is split apart and must be kept together with a rubber band:

Oddly though, then comes Chapter 45 "The Affidavit" where Melville admits his lack of narrative!

So far as what there may be of a narrative in this book; and, indeed, as
indirectly touching one or two very interesting and curious particulars in the
habits of sperm whales, the foregoing chapter, in its earlier part, is as
important a one as will be found in this volume; but the leading matter of it
requires to be still further and more familiarly enlarged upon, in order to be
adequately understood, and moreover to take away any incredulity which a
profound ignorance of the entire subject may induce in some minds, as to the
natural verity of the main points of this affair.

Excuse me? So all of this stuff, like that blasted chapter on Cetology, was "to take away any incredulity."

Through and other resources, I have discovered that whaling as an industry was mostly dying as Melville wrote the book. Is this two books? One part novel and one part an encyclopedia of sorts for a dying industry? It is possible then, based on this Chapter 45, that Melville saw a possibility of modern man not understanding this foreign industry, like we wouldn't be able to understand a profession centuries later. Possible. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008


The internet is wonderful for one thing above all: finding others out there in the void whom you would never meet otherwise that are going through the same things as you.

The coolest person emailed me because she found my MYMOBYDICK blog and said, " (I, too, pretended to read it in high school)." Meg Guroff gathered all of these annotations for herself and decided to share them with the world to make it easier to read this massive tome. The website is then called POWERMOBYDICK.

The annotations, if you can see them in this picture, if not, go to the website, easily add to the readability of the book. They are not footnotes or endnotes so you don't have to turn pages to take you away from the reading. This is exactly like your high school English textbook with the side margins. Remember those?

All of the references are quickly delineated. Strange words are defined and this book has a ton of strange words.

It truly does make it more readable. I must find out how to do my own over some of the texts I teach in high school.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Problem with the Narrative in Moby Dick

It has been slow going after that finally good chapter on Ahab's obsession. I quoted from that chapter extensively a few posts ago. I was, for a moment, actually into the book.

But then Melville takes yet another turn away from the events of the book!

It has been slow going getting past them. I am several chapters behind because I just haven't wanted to pick up the damn book.

After that great Ahab chapter there have been several that don't advance the narrative at all.

In fact, they read like literary criticism. They are Melville himself expounding upon the symbolism behind the whiteness of the whale. Interesting to a literature major like me, sort of.

It's hard, I tell ya. even says:

These chapters contain very little action, focusing instead on the meaning of
the events already described. In the first place, Ishmael takes considerable
pains to ensure that the reader will not interpret his story as a tall tale
fabricated to impress the gullible. He demonstrates in great detail that a
specific whale can be recognized, become the subject of rumor and legend, and
even be hunted. His request that his narrative be taken literally and not as
some “hideous and intolerable allegory” emphasizes that Ahab’s desire to kill
Moby Dick exists not on some symbolic level but rather in the realm of corporeal

If that is actually the reason, do you lose the reader? Or do you gain classic status? Remember, Moby Dick was not a bestseller back in the 1850s. says,

By the 1850s, whaling was a dying industry. Whales had been hunted into near
extinction, and substitutes for whale oil had been found. Despite its range of
cultural references and affiliation with popular genres, Moby-Dick was a
failure. Its reception led Melville to defy his critics by writing in an
increasingly experimental style and eventually forsaking novels in favor of
poetry. He died in 1891.

Moby-Dick remained largely ignored until the 1920s,
when it was rediscovered and promoted by literary historians interested in
constructing an American literary tradition. To these critics, Moby-Dick was
both a seminal work elaborating on classic American themes, such as religion,
fate, and economic expansion, and a radically experimental anachronism that
anticipated Modernism in its outsized scope and pastiche of forms. It stands
alongside James Joyce’s Ulysses and Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy as a novel
that appears bizarre to the point of being unreadable but proves to be
infinitely open to interpretation and discovery.

So is this entire exercise in reading something purely for the sake of reading something tough? Was Melville writing in a grand American literary tradition? If so, explain to me why these novels are not prevalent on best seller lists. This is a book that then defines the difference between English literature professionals and the layman reader. Certainly there are more articles to write about Moby Dick than a current bestseller by John Grisham, but which do you really want to read? I think that even English professionals will admit to reading Grisham to read something good.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Jane Yolen's Moby Dick

This is the note in which I saw of the Newsweek reference to Jane Yolen and Moby Dick, taken from the Ansible 252 newsletter, July 2008:

JANE YOLEN almost avoids gloating: 'I had a piece in _Newsweek_ this pastweek
about my favorite books, and have heard so far from seven elementaryschool
friends, half a dozen high school buddies, college mates, far-flung cousins, and
one very strange man who insisted that reading _MobyDick_ had ruined his life
forever so I should be careful not to recco itto anyone again. / Also just sold
my 305th book.' (2 June)

Jane Yolen loves Moby Dick enough to revisit it every ten years, so it says in the Newsweek article.

I then emailed Jane Yolen, having to ask "Why in heaven's name?" Here's that transaction:

Ms. Yolen,
I am a high school English teacher. I came across that Newsweek snippet of
your five most important books, and another quote by a guy saying that Moby Dick
ruined his life. I have never managed to make it through Moby Dick but I am
trying now, this summer break. However, I simply must ask: what is in Moby Dick
that you think it is the #1 most important book of all time? I cannot fathom it.
I am 200 pages into it and even with my Masters Degree in English cannot
understand the fascination behind it. Although, it is my Moby Dick and I
will read it this summer.
Thank you for the wonderful writing I have been able to share with my
students throughout the years.
Matt Butcher

Her response:

Moby Dick: It has passionate adventure, strong characters, an amazing
setting well delineated, heroes and anti-heroes, and a brutal testing of its
cast. Plus there's all that whaling stuff which I find utterly fascinating. And
a mystery at the heart of the book--who is Ishmael and why is he alone


Jane Yolen

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Chapter 36 "The Quarter-Deck"


Finally the meat of the matter gets set on the table. This is the equivalent of going to dinner at the house of someone you really don't like and having to sit through their vacation slides before dinner.

Ahab finally makes his mission known. We learn that he is after the White Whale for taking his leg. He means to get him, damn the consequences. This is where I really need to pay attention to the message behind the story.

"Aye, aye! and I'll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the
Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition's flames before I give him up. And this is
what ye have shipped for, men! to chase that white whale on both sides of land,
and over all sides of earth, till he spouts black blood and rolls fin out. What
say ye, men, will ye splice hands on it, now? I think ye do look brave."

This is the great passage paraphrased by Khan in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, one of my favorite movies. The book Moby Dick is clearly seen in the ship Botany Bay on Ceti Alpha V. Clearly, this is the substance of Ahab's one-tracked madness. He will not only chase the whale unto the eternal damnation of hell itself but take his whole crew with him, asking them to "splice hands" with him. This is the crux of the matter that will be called upon again in the analysis of this book. Its applications to the worldly realm is significant. A singular obsession of any person can be deemed their own "White Whale."

"but I came here to hunt whales, not my commander's vengeance."

Starbuck is the only one on board who mutters any kind of disapproval, acting as sort of the conscience of the crew. Could you imagine signing on for a voyage to get as many whales as you can, the more you get, the greater your share of wealth, and then the crazy captain wants to hunt a single whale out in the middle of the Pacific?

"my vengeance will fetch a great premium here!"

Ahab noticeably strikes his "chest," and the crew says it sounds "hollow." Has Ahab no soul? Did the whale take more than his leg? Will he not recover his soul unless this happens?

"Vengeance on a dumb brute!" cried Starbuck, "that simply smote thee from
blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems

Starbuck again states how he disapproves. This time though it specifically states being "blasphemous" with all the religious connotations that brings.

He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength,
with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I
hate...I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I'd
strike the sun if it insulted me.

I really do love this line, also paraphrased in Star Trek II. This is another focus point, placing the White Whale on a pedestal. Ahab, as humanity, cannot be seen as being lesser strength than anything. Ahab sees the White Whale as desiring even more ill in the world, the "malice," however, Ahab cannot understand it; it's "inscrutable." Could this be anything in life--or is it religious too?

Death to Moby Dick! God hunt us all, if we do not hunt Moby
Dick to his death!

Like a congregation of worshippers, the men drink to this phrase, like Communion, and shouted out together.

The hardest part to reading this chapter, as I came in after reading it out on our porch, is that I had to wait 189 pages for it. In a modern novel, this scene would come first and then all the other stuff would flashback to how Ishmael got into this predicament. And they would have also cut out all that Cetology whale science crap.