As is known by just about everyone across Earth and all its wide seas, the ship Pequod in Herman Melville’s masterpiece “Moby-Dick,” was smashed and sunk by the albino leviathan.
Some might think “Moby-Dick” smashed and sank Melville’s career as well.
After all, fewer than 4,000 printings of the novel were sold in the writer’s lifetime. His U.S. sales then — at $1.50 a copy — are pegged at $556. Before the novel’s 1851 release and disastrous reviews, he had been popular. By his death he was almost forgotten by the literary world.
Then University of Kansas professor Elizabeth Schultz boarded this story with an intellectual dirk between her teeth, ready to parse any who would diss her Herman.
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Melville’s “career” ruined? She fillets the word. Never mind that nobody would publish him in his later life, she asserts. That’s just about money; what Melville continued to earn was literary immortality.
He never stopped writing and later produced some wonderful things — ever read “Billy Budd” or seen it performed as play or opera? — recognized in the next century for their brilliance, she says.
So who are you going to believe?
A hack who wrote one Melville paper in 1965 — “The White Whale, Seen as the White Buffalo: Symbolism for the Destruction of the American Frontier” — at Mizzou?
Or a retired professor who has taught American literature for 34 years at KU and who gave the keynote address in June at the 10th international Melville Society conference in Tokyo?
She, by the way, has cruised under full sails in an old wooden ship into the whaling grounds. And she has been known to have teared up in her lectures — she doesn’t deny it — about her passion for Herman.
Exactly. You go with the hack.
So, let’s turn to those Cliffs Notes you used in freshman American Lit. 102.
Harpooned by censors
As a 22-year-old, Melville’s second voyage was aboard the whaler Acushnet, which carried him to the South Seas and adventure.
Before he walked up the gangplank in 1841, he would have known the stories about rogue sperm whales. One South Pacific whaleboat smasher was Mocha Dick, an albino bristling with rusting harpoons, finally killed in 1838.
The other was the 80-foot beast that in 1820 rammed the whaler Essex once, then came back to finish the job.
It’s this story that is captured in Ron Howard’s film, “In the Heart of the Sea,” due in theaters Friday.
Based on Nathaniel Philbrick’s excellent prose — the book won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 2000 — the story is more of the desperate crew’s fate after the sinking of the Essex.
Philbrick later wrote “Why Read Moby-Dick” and declared the book holds “the genetic code of America.”
I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb.
To the reviewers of the day, however, the DNA had produced a grotesque mutant.
“Trash belonging to the worst school of Bedlam literature,” slashed the London Athenaeum. Bedlam, of course, referred to Bethlem Royal Hospital for the mentally ill.
“Sheer moonstruck lunacy,” stabbed the London Morning Chronicle, with words sharper than Queequeg and Daggoo’s harpoons.
The London Literary Gazette accused Melville of trying to fill out “a skeleton story,” a description that probably rarely occurred to millions of undergraduates assigned to read the 600-page-plus literary anchor.
Impatient readers, the Gazette continued, might “wish both him and his whales at the bottom of an unfathomable sea.”
It wasn’t all bad. The London Leader got it: “The book is not a romance, nor a treatise on Cetology. It is something of both: a strange, wild work with the tangled overgrowth and luxuriant vegetation of American forests, not the trim orderliness of an English park. Criticism may pick many holes in this work; but no criticism will thwart its fascination.”
It probably hadn’t helped that the British edition, retitled “The Whale,” omitted dozens of crucial parts to “avoid offending delicate political and moral sensibilities.”
In an age where almost anything goes, we forget the power of past censors. All of chapter 25 was cut because it looked at the use of sperm oil at coronations. It was seen as belittling what we call the “royals” (today an entire British industry is devoted to the task).
Nothing sacrilegious, either, thank you. Another 1,200 words tossed. Did it hurt? Well, in the version you read today, one of the great lines describes Ahab “with a crucifixion in his face.” That was rewritten to be “an apparently eternal anguish.”
“He was outrageously unsanctimonious. He took the Lord’s name in vain,” Schultz said.
And the sexual stuff? These were Victorians, remember?
The bits about the sex life of whales was expunged, although somehow they missed the big one, the organ of the male sperm. “Melville had the audacity to call it the ‘archbishop prick,’ and they didn’t catch it. Whatever your sexual predilection might be, you can find it in ‘Moby-Dick’,” says Schultz.
And, ahem, D.H. Lawrence did once call “Moby-Dick” “the great American phallus.”
“I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb,” Melville wrote to a friend.
But here’s the worst part: The bloody Brits omitted the epilogue.
Think about it. That’s the part where Ishmael, who’s been telling this tale, is bobbing in the sea, the only crew member who hasn’t been outright killed or sucked down with the Pequod’s sinking. Queequeg’s coffin bobs up and keeps him afloat until the “orphan” is picked up by another whaler.
Yeah, that part.
The London books came out in October 1851. The New York edition, without the censors’ carvings and with the epilogue, hit the shelves the next month to generally better reviews in the homeboy’s press.
“In whatever light (‘Moby-Dick’) may be viewed, no one can deny it to be the production of a man of genius,” said the Washington National Intelligencer. “His delineation of character is actually Shakespearean …”
“There are few writers, living or dead, who describe the sea and its adjuncts with such true art, such graphic power with such powerfully resulting interest,” wrote New York’s Spirit of the Times, America’s first sporting journal. The critic considered Melville’s earlier books “Typee,” “Omoo” and others “as equal to anything in the language.”
Hardly, sniffed the New York United States Magazine and Democratic Review, complaining about ‘Moby-Dick’s’ “bad rhetoric, involved syntax, stilted sentiment and incoherent English. … The truth is, Mr. Melville has survived his reputation.”
That reputation had been for rollicking, exotic sea tales with cannibals and naked native girls, written by a “dashing-looking young man, a buccaneer, really,” says Schultz, obviously smitten.
So she makes excuses for him. “ ‘Moby-Dick’ was competing with books that were illustrated, but ‘Moby-Dick’ was not illustrated until after he died in 1891. Today, it is the most illustrated novel in America. The only book that gives it a run for its money is the ‘Wizard of Oz.’”
One of those old prints of Ahab was on the wall of William Faulkner’s Oxford, Miss., home — of course, Schultz has been there, seen it. Faulkner once said “Moby-Dick” was the book he wished he’s written. Of Ahab’s fate, he said: “There’s a death for a man, now.”
Schultz is not as fond of Ahab, sees him as the anti-democratic villain of the piece. “It was the tyranny of government (the power of the obsessed captain) that led to the sinking of that ship more than the whale.
“For many years, people read it as the whale was evil incarnate. I think these animals are fighting for their lives.
“I came to KU in 1967, when many of my students were terrified of being drafted into a war they did not believe in, and ‘Moby-Dick,’ a novel in which the characters were aboard a sinking ship of state, was deeply meaningful to them. As I have grown, this novel has always been there for me, leading, guiding, illuminating, raising questions.”
It’s true that, even as a Kansan, Schultz has more experience on whalers that the rest of us. Last year, she sailed on the Charles W. Morgan, the only wooden whaling ship in the world.
“It was built in 1841, the same year as the Acushnet that Melville sailed on,” she said.
After 37 voyages in the pursuit of whale oil, the Morgan was retired in 1921. The ship has been a major feature at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut, where the latest restoration lasted about five years. She was relaunched in 2013, and in 2014, they took her out again for old times’ sake.
Schultz even took the wheel at one point, feeling the ship willful and alive amid the waves. Whales surrounded the boat in the Stellwagen National Marine Sanctuary. She wept at the sight.
She wrote poetry placing Ishmael on the Morgan in this century. Not surprisingly, he admires the whales rather than trying to kill them.
Life after Moby Dick
After “Moby-Dick,” whenever Melville tried again, the literary sharks came for blood; after his novel, “Pierre, or the Ambiguities,” the headline of one journal called him insane.
Melville’s final novel came in 1857, the “Confidence-Man: His Masquerade.” It was not set aboard a seagoing ship but a Mississippi steamboat. Among the passengers, who speak their pieces akin to “Canterbury Tales,” is a cranky Missourian named Pitch, whose words are bitten off as if by a snapping turtle.
While seen today as a remarkable book, it sank as well.
He began turning out poetry, which Schultz calls stunning, right in there with 19th-century greats Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman.
“Like Whitman, he wrote a collection of poems, ‘Battle Pieces,’ about the Civil War,” she said.
Melville was not appreciated in his time. He wasn’t read. But he never really became silent. In 1876, America’s centennial, he wrote and self-published a 500-page epic, ‘Clarel.’ An 18,000-line poem; 350 copies, most unsold, tossed into fireplaces.
The hopeless writer battled with depression, probably worse; he got by with a job as a New York customs clerk, was said to be the only honest official in the place.
It was not until the early 1900s when “Moby-Dick” was rediscovered by the literary world, and “Billy Budd, Sailor” was discovered literally — rolled up and yellowed in a bread box in an attic. Published in 1924, it was instantly acclaimed a classic.
“He went home every night and he wrote, and he wrote, and he wrote,” Schultz says. “I think it was an astonishing career. It showed vivacity, courage and endurance.”
All right, we strike our colors. The formidable Schultz has carried the day with her argument.
And as Melville prophesied in 1850: “It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation. He who has never failed somewhere, that man cannot be great.”
You can reach Darryl Levings, who has retired from The Star, at email@example.com.