I’m slowly making my way through Melville’s Moby-Dick and enjoying it very much. I like the way Melville made each chapter relatively short and, while a plot does exist, many of the chapters could be read by themselves and stand alone.
In Nathaniel Philbrick’s book Why Read Moby-Dick? , he emphasizes the American aspect of the novel. As I’m reading about the exotic Polynesian Islands along with characters like Queequeg, the pagan cannibal, I can easily forget that Melville has written an American novel. While Ishmael is narrating his sea travels, Melville frequently has him refer to definitively American geography and landscape such as Cleveland, Buffalo (the city), the mountains of Virginia, the Great Lakes, the Great Plains and buffalo (the animal). One of my favorite chapters so far (chapter 54) is “The Town-Ho’s Story (As told at the Golden Inn)”- just to clarify, the “Town-Ho” is the name of a ship. This ship deals with a previous sighting of the White Whale, Moby-Dick; however, one of the more interesting details to me involved the Canallers aboard the ship – those men who went from working on the Erie canal to being whalers in the South Seas. Melville, through his storyteller, describes the Canal and the land around it with a realistic but poetic pride; but the passage that I thought the most telling spoke of the transformation of American occupations along with the change in religious ideas:
…to many thousands of our rural boys and young men born along its (the Erie Canal’s) line, the probationary life of the Grand Canal furnishes the sole transition between quietly reaping in a Christian corn-field, and recklessly ploughing the waters of the most barbaric seas.
The above painting is on the cover of my copy. It’s entitled “Peche du Chachalot” by Ambroise Louis Garneray. Over the course of several chapters Ishmael determines that very few artists are able to do justice to a whale. He decides that this is probably a result of the difficulty of seeing a whale in it’s entirety. While the French made up a very small portion of whalers compared to the American and British, Ishmael indicates that French artists were able to best capture whaling action. He suspected them of being tutored by Americans or British.
Meanwhile, Ishmael has become only vaguely acquainted with Captain Ahab and his vengeful purpose for The Pequod.