Dear Dirty America


Moby Dick’s 161st: It’s Not Just About A-Whalin’

October 18
22:50 2012

Moby Dick’s 161’s anniversary is today (not the whale’s, but the book’s). If you haven’t read this novel, I highly recommend it. It’s not just about a-whalin’, it’s about God, and the lack of God’s presence; it’s about the universe, philosophy, the American Dream; it’s about whether or not the United States is a collective, a community, or a country of individuals with no responsibility to each other. It’s about revenge, fate, and destiny. It’s also about writing.

Here’s the first paragraph of the novel:

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago–never mind how long precisely–having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off–then, I account it high time to go to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

Go ahead, reread that paragraph out loud. Hear how musical it is. Do you find yourself lingering around coffin warehouses? Does your soul feel damp and drizzly? Do you find you’re often stuck behind funeral processions? Then sit with Moby Dick awhile. Savor its language. Ponder its insights.

Melville wrote most of this heavy, hearty novel during a few summer months. He used a quill and scratched it out by hand. He didn’t have Microsoft Word to suggest which changes be made to grammar and spelling.

It’s no wonder Hershel Parker called Melville “the first American literary sex symbol.”


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1 Comment

  1. Donald ODonovan
    Donald ODonovan October 20, 18:21

    Call me Ishmael! I first read this opening paragraph of Melville’s twenty-five years ago and it scared the hell out of me because I didn’t think I could ever write anything to equal it.

    I still don’t think so.

    Melville, Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau and Saint Emily—the flowering of New England. These are the writers America should have listened to, and I think it’s possible, just possible, that their voices are beginning to be heard again.

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