Poor Herman Melville. If only he would have known the fame and critical acclaim that awaited him after his death—if only he would have been able to enjoy some of the fruits of the astounding success that Moby-Dick was later to achieve—perhaps his storm-tossed life would have been a bit more calm.
Born in New York City in 1819 to a woman whose grandfather was a Revolutionary War hero and to a man who, having been a fairly well-off businessman, would soon go bankrupt, Melville struggled all his life with financial issues. He pursued literary fame and fortune in much the same way that his now-famous antihero pursued the great white whale: strenuously, desperately, but ultimately futilely. It was only years after his life ended that Melville at last earned the recognition that he had so desperately craved and so rightfully merited—the recognition that he was one of the greatest writers ever birthed by the New World.
Melville, our American Conrad, churned out a variety of novels, novellas, and short stories based upon his adventures on the high seas, where he sailed on merchant-marine and whaling voyages, which he had joined as a consequence of his destitution. These works, which include Typee and Billy Budd, achieved moderate success during his lifetime but not enough to grant him the kind of economic liberty that other great writers of his stature have received—the kind of freedom that would have allowed him to work fulltime as a writer. When Melville’s magnum opus, Moby-Dick—the novel upon which his reputation as one of the writers who created American literature and defined the American sublime rests—was first published, it was widely perceived as a pointlessly puzzling, overly difficult work, and it was largely ignored thereafter. It was only a generation after his death, with the dawn of the modernist movement in literature and the arts—a movement that considered difficulty in art a mark of distinction, not a reason for derision—that Moby-Dick was rediscovered, fully appreciated, and finally elevated to its place atop the pinnacle of the American literary canon.
A boatload of books have been written about Melville and his masterpiece, including Nick Selby’s Herman Melville: Moby-Dick and Nathaniel Philbrick’s Why Read Moby-Dick? With more than 100 scholarly and popular tomes on Melville now available, what new—and what more—is there to say about him and Moby-Dick?
Enter Geoffrey Sanborn, a professor of English at Amherst College, and his slim, eminently insightful recent volume The Value of Herman Melville. Sanborn reads Moby-Dick through the lenses of philosophy, literary criticism, and psychoanalytic theory, and brings the author and his work alive in ways that few have done before. With the generosity of a patient teacher and the enthusiasm of a wise and knowledgeable tour guide eager to show travelers the hidden wonders of a quaint old city he knows well, Sanborn allows us, and invites us, to read Melville’s great novel in ways that illuminate its meaning for us in our lives today, giving us the tools to approach Moby-Dick not only as a monumental, occasionally intimidating work of art but as a text which is invaluable in the life-wisdom it contains and in its ability, if we read it carefully, to help us better cope with the existential dilemmas of our existence.
Though it does provide a brief overview of Melville’s life, this is not a full-scale biography. What Sanborn offers instead is arguably more valuable: a clear, compact, carefully calibrated assessment of Herman Melville and his enduring literary value. Sanborn invites us to try to forget about Melville’s weighty reputation as one of the giants of American literature and to instead read him without preconceptions. This helpful approach allows the “strangeness” of his works—their sheer power, their defamiliarizing magnificence—to capture and captivate us.
Sanborn provides close and comparative readings of Melville’s novels, from his earliest works to his mature ones, charting Melville’s path from a talented (if rough-around-the-edges) writer to one who blossomed brilliantly in Moby-Dick, giving expression to what was deepest in himself. This is the “highly improvisational” Melville, the Melville who appeared to write Moby-Dick almost “spontaneously,” as Stanley Crouch has observed—the Melville who “plunged in,” as Sanborn writes, “and forged ahead without entirely knowing where he would end up.”
Sanborn argues that Melville’s value for us lies in his continual capacity to turn this world into “another world,” as Melville puts it in The Confidence-Man. Melville’s writing, says Sanborn, is a “resource for living.” Sanborn advises us not to be overly concerned with Moby-Dick’s (or any artwork’s) meaning, because such concerns can detract from the immersive experience of being absorbed in the work. Granting, though, that questions about an artwork’s meaning are unavoidable, Sanborn proffers several explanations, including a philosophical and psychological reading of the great white whale that is one the most profound interpretations of Moby-Dick that I have ever encountered:
The problem with The World, as Melville thinks we all secretly know, is that it seems formed in love—sugary, mild, dreamy, cool, calm—but harbors within itself, for each of us, sources of fright. . . .In the figure of Ahab, Melville externalizes the part of himself that is saddened and infuriated by the enticing/betraying structure of The World, in the hopes that at least some of his readers will feel spoken for, will feel their own sadness and fury flowing out. . . . Everyone experiences, at some time or other, the full traumatic force of The World’s enticement and betrayal. The central aim of the Ahab/Moby Dick story is to make us more aware of the parts of ourselves that have registered that shock, and, as a result, more aware of what we secretly have in common with each other.
The white whale—like the world—holds out so much promise, but all too often it lets us down, often in the most devastating, cold, and cruel of ways. The whale, as Ishmael memorably puts it, is “the image of the ungraspable phantom of life . . and this is the key to it all.” And knowing this is the key to understanding Moby-Dick’s value: It helps us to realize that the world, despite its seeming indifference to our concerns, keeps going, keeps on spinning—inviting us, in the midst of the whirlwind of our own struggles, to do the same. Melville’s value for us all, Sanborn argues, lies in his works’ “totality of effort”: the creative vitality they engender within us to (like Ishmael and like Melville himself) keep pushing forward, to keep seeking to create, to keep seeking those energizing, revitalizing experiences that the world never ceases to offer, and of which we can always partake—as long as we are receptive to them.
The quest to write the Great American Novel has long been the American literary equivalent of the mythical quest for the Holy Grail. Writers ranging from Mark Twain to John Updike to many in between (Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, Roth, Morrison) have all staked their claim to this prize. Among the perennial roster of contenders, there is a strong case to be made for Moby-Dick. No other novel captures the monomaniacal ambition that is part of the American character and the all-too-frequent futility and frustration with which our ambitions ultimately meet—than Melville’s masterpiece. The hunt for the uncatchable white whale is as American as the pursuit of fame, wealth, and happiness—goals many of us will never achieve, but which something about our indomitable American idealism never allows us to desist from pursuing. But if that never-ending pursuit is particularly American, so is the multiethnic, multiracial, and multinational nature of the cosmopolitan crew of the Pequod. And so is the camaraderie and close male friendship shared by Queequeg and Ishmael. And so too is the perennial hopefulness symbolized by Ishmael’s having survived the wreckage of the Pequod and being rescued by the providential arrival of the Rachel.
Melville’s great anti-hero Ahab may fail in his pursuit of his holy grail, but Melville himself may have succeeded—albeit 25 years after his death—in the pursuit of his: the writing of, if not the Great American Novel, at the very least the King Lear of American literature: our existentially bleak, yet preternaturally hopeful, grand masterwork. As Sanborn, regarding the meaning of Moby-Dick, so powerfully puts it, even though “the ongoingness of the world can seem terrifying in its stolidity, its unresponsiveness to human concerns,” Ishmael survives. “The whale swims away. The world—which is, as it turns out, capable of bearing our psychic investments in it—spins on.”
A version of this piece first appeared at The Imaginative Conservative.