Nathaniel Philbrick is The New York Times bestselling author of National Book Award winner In the Heart of the Sea, Pulitzer Prize finalist Mayflower, Sea of Glory, The Last Stand and the recently released Bunker Hill. Gulf Stream assistant editor, Paul Christiansen, had the opportunity to talk with him on the phone about one of his recent books, Why Read Moby Dick? The conversation they had about the classic novel’s importance and legacy is transcribed below.
PC: Why Read Moby Dick? seems to me very much like a love letter that you’ve addressed to the classic novel, but also an attempt to impart your passion for it onto a public that might not otherwise give it a chance. Are you worried that people outside of academia are no longer reading it?
NP: Yeah, any classic of American literature, I think, is threatened by its own reputation; that people sort of, [think] yeah, I know that story. And perhaps they even tried to read it or were assigned it when they were much younger, but then it just sort of molders away in the back-shelf, so to speak, and it doesn’t become something that they return to. And I think Moby Dick, of all the classics, suffers the most from that kind of neglect, where a lot of us were assigned it, had trouble with it as teen-agers and think we know the story – Ahab goes after this white whale – but there’s obviously a lot more to it then that.
You’re right. Why Read Moby Dick? is for me, very much a kind of personal love letter, but it’s also kind of a message in a bottle, where I’m saying, look you may think you know Moby Dick, and may have been bored or intimidated by it in the past, but it’s time to return to it, because there is just so much there. Particularly if you have some life experience, there’s so much to find there. So it’s kind of a plea, and yes, I do worry that these great classics suffer from their own reputation in a way.
PC: That’s very interesting. I like how you bring up the time people first approach Moby Dick. I love in your book how you describe your first encounter with it, and how you were enamored with it in part because of your interest in sailing, but as you mention most of your peers were bored by it. Do you think there is an ideal time or setting to first read Moby Dick?
NP: Yeah. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. And I’ve had a lot of teachers ask me, ‘so should we not read it? Should we not try to read it early’? And I think that’s wrong too. I think that it would be great if people get exposed to it in High School. And if it’s something that’s working for them, great, but if not it’s something that a teacher can really introduce in a way that doesn’t overwhelm a reader.
I think for me, the ideal time to return to Moby Dick is in your early thirties. You’ve gotten beyond your college years. You’ve been out there in the workplace, in real life. For me at least, it was a time when … I felt like I had finally emerged from childhood and was finally at long last becoming an adult. I think it’s then, that you’ve seen things. You’ve been around the block enough that you perhaps are less impatient and want to think about things, and I think that is the perfect time for Moby Dick.
Melville was thirty-one when he wrote it. He was someone who took up the classics relatively late in life. He went off whaling and it was after he had really started his career that he read Shakespeare with any kind of thoroughness. When you connect with a classic at that relatively late stage in life, it can hit you with immediacy and an emotional wallop that can really be a precious part of your experience for the rest of your life.
PC: I especially like how you mention Melville discovering literature, and in your book you mention how Shakespeare and the florid prose of the Bible inspire Melville. So, I am curious, what do you think modern writers of any genre could learn about their craft by studying Moby Dick or Melville in general?
NP: I think all writers are doing their own thing and following their own particular vision. But, I think what is interesting about Melville as someone to look to perhaps, for inspiration or as a model, is that something like Moby Dick is so all-inclusive. It has almost every kind of writing in it. Contained in it are short stories, along with parody writing when it comes to mock scientific treatises, along with real humor when it comes to the early chapters with Ishmael and Queequeg. It’s like a buddy flick almost, and then the final three chapters, where it’s wonderful action writing, and in-between are some of the greatest prose poetry every written. I think it’s a true repository of all sorts of genres and narratives and poetic modes. Anyone can find something in it that is useful. And it’s also just a storehouse of knowledge – whether its philosophical – how do you deal with life? to what’s the best temperature to have in your bedroom ?That bit of advice Ishmael has, that a sleeping chamber is best if it’s chilly. Those kinds of things, it’s all there. So, I think it really is a great kind of book for a writer to see all these various ways of going at your material and yet somehow making it all work in the totality of a novel.
PC: To switch gears a little, Moby Dick wasn’t a great success in its time — it was a critical and commercial failure. So I’d be curious to hear why you think that is, and maybe more importantly what has lead to its revival and ascendance to the rank of classic?
NP: Hindsight is a wonderful thing. We are up here more than a hundred years later, and we can see it all, but for Melville’s readers, this was a perplexing novel. It does not follow the traditional pattern; it wanders all over the place. It begins in one vein as almost a comic novel, and then moves in an entirely different direction when Ahab walks onto the quarterdeck of the Pequod. So, it’s strange in that way.
Also, working against it was its timing. This was a book about the sea that came out in 1851. The discovery of gold in California had just occurred and America was preoccupied suddenly with the West. So the sea, which had really been the predominant frontier wilderness in the American imagination through the first half of the nineteenth century, where you had seen all these maritime novels … [is replaced with] a whole interest in the West. So to have this strange novel about whaling coming out in 1851, just didn’t spark a lot of people’s interest.
I think the other thing, he was channeling stuff, and I talk about this in Why Read Moby Dick? what was going on, as far as the country, slavery and all the issues that were going to culminate in a decade in the civil war. They were buried there in Moby Dick, but in such a way that it’s not obvious. I think it just was a confusing book for a lot of people, and irritating. They just didn’t get it. So it got kind of dismissed, you know, like what is he doing? I think that is a reaction that many people still bring to it.
The other side of your question, why did it finally catch on? I really think it took the collective tragedy of World War One to bring the reading public into an appreciation of where Melville was when he wrote Moby Dick. I said earlier, he was channeling all the approaching horror of the cataclysm of the civil war. It’s a book about that. It’s about things out of your control–there is a maniac at the wheel taking you on a voyage that will assure your destruction. I think after World War One, people were in that frame of mind, more open to that. And also, you have a whole new group of fiction writers, like Hemingway and Faulkner, who were messing around with the novel in new ways and providing it with psychological depth. That is in there, in Moby Dick in a way that would not have connected with an audience in 1851. What Melville had succeeding in doing, is such an incredible job of relaying what it was like to be alive at his particular moment, which was a society that was full of promise but also hurtling towards catastrophe. He was able to get that in there, and when you are in the middle of something, you don’t really see it that way. And I think the audience was in that camp. But later on, one begins to recognize that kind of thing. Once again, hindsight. I think all of that contributed to changes in how that novel is received over the years.
PC: So as you describe him,Melville is very much a man of the political and social landscape of his time. If he were writing today, what do you think he would be writing about?
NP: That’s a good question – if Melville where alive today? I think part of what made Melville, Melville, was that he didn’t have a traditional college education of his day. His father died when he was young, throwing his family in poverty, so that he had to work his way. He was someone who really had seen the other side of life. So, I think he very well might be a journalist in this day and age. But who knows? That’s a tough one … The thing about Melville, his ability to pick the real world and set it in the rhetorical stratosphere, given the level of his prose, but all firmly rooted in human experience. He would have been a great journalist, and perhaps that is one path he would have taken. I really have a hard time answering that question; it’s a good one to ponder.
PC: Yeah, it’s fun to think about. Before I let you go, I have one last question for you … There’s a poet, Thomas Lux, and in one of his poem he argues any citizen who “has yet to read Moby Dick [should have his] “eyes scooped out and replaced by hot coals.” Do you agree that there should be a punishment for not reading it? And if so what should it be?
NP: [Laughing] I think that is a little harsh. I have to say, I have complete sympathy for people who haven’t read it for a variety of reasons. Obviously if you’ve read Why Read Moby Dick?, you know I prefer the more coercive, gradual [approach], I take you by the hand and show you why, rather than I scoop out your eyes and replace them with hot coals. I don’t know if people would respond to that [laughing].
I just feel sorry for people who haven’t given the novel a chance, because they are just denying themselves a chance to see what their own world is now, from someone who was a brilliant maverick, kind of a misfit, 150 years or so ago. It provides you with a perspective on the present, today. The best way to see where you are today is to get out of today, and to somehow come through it from a different perspective. I think that is what this novel can do for you. So yeah, instead getting angry, I just feel sorry for them. I have had a lot of readers that since Why Read Moby Dick? came out, who have read my book, and they say ‘now, I’m going to do it, I’m going read Moby Dick’. And I say I really envy you, because to approach the novel with fresh eyes and with an open heart, could very well give you a couple of weeks if not months of just the most unique and fulfilling experience you’ll ever had.
Nathaniel Philbrick will be reading at the Miami Book Fair on Saturday November 23rd at 4pm (Chapman Room 3210) in support of his most recent book, Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution.