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Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Moby Dick

by Herman Melville (Author)

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
20,05531079 (3.84)6 / 1037
  1. 131
    The Sea Wolf by Jack London (wvlibrarydude)
  2. 110
    In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick (jseger9000)
    jseger9000: In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex tells the true story that inspired Melville to write Moby Dick.
  3. 80
    Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad (_eskarina)
  4. 50
    Leviathan or, The Whale by Philip Hoare (chrisharpe, John_Vaughan)
  5. 50
    The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Edgar Allan Poe (caflores)
  6. 41
    Why Read Moby-Dick? by Nathaniel Philbrick (John_Vaughan)
  7. 20
    The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (caflores)
  8. 31
    Railsea by China Miéville (Longshanks)
    Longshanks: An imaginative, affectionate pastiche of the novel's themes, imagery, and characters.
  9. 31
    Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana (knownever)
    knownever: A more enjoyable, shorter, and less allegorical story of sailing life, although there aren't any whales. The author of this one kind of looks down on whalers. All together a more jaunty sea tale.
  10. 32
    The Myth of Sisyphus and other essays by Albert Camus (WilfGehlen)
    WilfGehlen: Camus was greatly influenced by Melville and in The Myth of Sisyphus mentions Moby-Dick as a truly absurd work. Reading Moby-Dick with Camus' absurd in mind gives a deeper, and very different insight than provided by the usual emphasis on Ahab's quest for revenge.… (more)
  11. 21
    Genoa: A Telling of Wonders by Paul Metcalf (rickyrickyricky)
    rickyrickyricky: Melville's heir struggles to close his relationship to his preceding literary genius. Click the link above, read what you can, and get yourself hooked on one of the most critically-adored yet criminally-underread novels written in a century defined by self-analysis and experimentation.… (more)
  12. 43
    Ahab's Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund (ecleirs24, AriadneAranea)
    ecleirs24: Cause this novel is based upon a passage from Mobi Dick......
  13. 22
    The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade by Herman Melville (GaryPatella)
    GaryPatella: Compared to Moby Dick, The Confidence Man is a much lighter read. But after ploughing through Moby Dick, this may be a welcome change. It is not as profound, but you also don't have to struggle through any of it. This is worth reading.
  14. 11
    The Last Fish Tale by Mark Kurlansky (John_Vaughan)
  15. 11
    Oil! by Upton Sinclair (edwinbcn)
  16. 22
    Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner (ateolf)
  17. 33
    Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham (JGKC)
  18. 11
    The Nautical Chart by Arturo Pérez-Reverte (Ronoc)
  19. 23
    Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian (caflores)
    caflores: Para amantes del lenguaje náutico y de las descripciones detalladas.
  20. 14
    Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon (ateolf)

(see all 23 recommendations)


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English (278)  German (9)  Dutch (7)  Spanish (5)  French (2)  Italian (2)  Norwegian (2)  Catalan (2)  Danish (1)  Portuguese (Portugal) (1)  Hungarian (1)  All languages (310)
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“It’s been years since I last read any of Melville’s work. And the truth is that even now, at the age of sixty-two, I have yet to read Moby-Dick. That’s what I wrote last January in my review of "Bartleby the Scrivener." I’m still sixty-two … I’ve just finished Moby-Dick … and I’ve only after all of these years realized that the title Moby-Dick is hyphenated. “But how now, Ishmael (p. 464)?

Enough said already in that earlier review about the tragedy of Melville’s having died in near obscurity. Enough said, too, about the brilliance of his prose. As a matter of fact, I think I’ve said more than enough—and would do better to turn the microphone (in a matter of speaking) over to Mr. Melville himself and let you be the judge of his craft. Know only that he’s buried at Woodlawn Cemetery, in the Bronx, and that his gravesite and tombstone are as obscure as the end of his life. If I choose to quote Melville at length, it’s now only to excite you to the author of Moby-Dick—and thereby to do my little part to try to rescue his good name from some of that obscurity.

Here, then, is Melville waxing philosophical… “There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own. However, nothing dispirits, and nothing seems worth while disputing. He bolts down all events, all creeds, and beliefs, and persuasions, all hard things visible and invisible, never mind how knobby; as an ostrich of potent digestion gobbles down bullets and gun flints. And as for small difficulties and worrying, prospects of sudden disaster, peril of life and limb; all these, and death itself, seem to him only sly, good-natured hits, and jolly punches in the side bestowed by the unseen and unaccountable old joker. That odd sort of wayward mood I am speaking of, comes over a man only in some time of extreme tribulation; it comes in the very midst of his earnestness, so that what just before might have seemed to him a thing most momentous, now seems but a part of the general joke…” (pp. 243-244).

Melville qua whaleman, however, pays due homage to other philosophical heavyweights here (p. 345): “So, when on one side you hoist in Locke’s head, you go over that way; but now, on the other side, hoist in Kant’s and you come back again; but in very poor plight. Thus, some minds for ever keep trimming boat. Oh, ye foolish! throw all these thunder-heads overboard, and then you will float light and right.” And then again here (p. 353): “This Right Whale I take to have been a Stoic; the Sperm Whale, a Platonian, who might have taken up Spinoza in his latter years.”

And here he is just four pages later waxing poetical… “It was while gliding through these latter waters that one serene and moon-lit night, when all the waves rolled by like scrolls of silver; and, by their soft, suffusing seethings, made what seemed a silvery silence, not a solitude: on such a silent night a silvery jet was seen far in advance of the white bubbles at the bow…”.

I may not always be in agreement with his punctuation, but I’d be a damned fool not to recognize the brilliance of his prose. And given that these two excerpts are only four pages apart, we might assume that Serendipity, Socrates and Sappho had all colluded — together with an excellent claret or post-prandial cognac — to ignite a particularly bright scintilla in Melville’s mind the evening in which he penned this parcel of prose. So bright, in fact, that I’m quite willing to forgive him the gaffe (on p. 289) of referring to Albert (sic) Dürer as “that fine old Dutch savage.” I doubt that Albrecht would’ve liked ‘Albert.’ And no German worthy of his Teutonic plumage would’ve allowed himself to be called ‘Dutch.’ Given what we know today about whale song, we might also forgive this bit of ignorance on p. 368: “…for it is not customary for such venerable leviathans to be at all social.” But then, submarines and underwater microphones didn’t exist in Melville’s day.

But before we leave Melville the poet — even if too long to quote in their entirety — first on p. 506: “At such times … and form one seamless whole”; then again on pp. 554 – 555: “It was a clear steel-blue day … on the marge of that burnt-out crater of his brain.” And these are just a few examples from a book that is rife (and ripe!) with them.

But what of Melville the iconoclast — and at times, I dare say, the misanthrope? Writing on p. 374 of a whale under attack by Ishmael, Starbuck, Stubb and others: “For all his old age, and his one arm, and his blind eyes, he must die the death and be murdered, in order to light the gay bridals and other merry-makings of men, and also to illuminate the solemn churches that preach unconditional inoffensiveness by all to all.” Or this, on p. 388: “Seldom have I known any profound being that had anything to say to this world, unless forced to stammer out something by way of getting a living. Oh! happy that the world is such an excellent listener!” Or this, on p. 401: “Best, therefore, withhold any amazement at the strangely gallied whales before us, for there is no folly of the beasts of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men.” And finally this, on p. 430: “Hereby Stubb perhaps indirectly hinted that though man loved his fellow, yet man is a money-making animal, which propensity too often interferes with his benevolence.”

I would be doing Melville an ill service indeed if I failed, by way of conclusion, to mention his dry wit (very much in evidence, by the way, in "Bartleby the Scrivener"). On p. 362 we find: “A nose to the whale would have been impertinent. As on your physiognomical voyage you sail round his vast head in your jolly-boat, your noble conceptions of him are never insulted by the reflection that he has a nose to be pulled. A pestilent conceit, which so often will insist upon obtruding even when beholding the mightiest royal beadle on his throne.” And finally this—on p. 426: “By some, ambergris is thought to be the cause, and by others the effect, of the dyspepsia in the whale. How to cure such a dyspepsia it were hard to say, unless by administering three or four boat loads of Brandreth’s pills, and then running out of harm’s way, as laborers do in blasting rocks.”

Leave it to Melville to construct a subtle syllogism from ambergris to whale-fart. Brandreth’s pills — we may assume — were the laxative of Melville’s day.

If it’s not already obvious, I can’t say enough about this book. I, personally, struggled with the dialogue, the punctuation, and with some of the more archaic constructions (not to mention the vocabulary — so, let a good dictionary be your vade mecum for at least as long as you’re attending to Melville!). But of all the novels I’ve ever read, I would have to place Melville’s Moby-Dick just after Cervantes’ Don Quixote and just ahead of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, Dostoevski’s Crime and Punishment, and Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.

Brooklyn, NY

[bc:Trompe-l'oeil|10844205|Trompe-l'oeil|Russell Bittner|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1327873786s/10844205.jpg|15758639][bc:Trompe-l'oeil|10844205|Trompe-l'oeil|Russell Bittner|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1327873786s/10844205.jpg|15758639]
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1 vote RussellBittner | Dec 12, 2014 |
What a crazy old bugger that Captain Ahab was!

It has taken me so long to finish this book that I'm glad I can slam it shut, put it on the shelf and write this review. But where to begin?

I don't want to slam the whole thing. Really, I don't. Because I was quite looking forward to reading it, and the first few chapters where we meet Ishmael and Queequeg got me quite interested in the story. The they got on the ship and it all kind of slowly went downhill from there.

Being on a whale ship, in between when you are actually chasing whales, must get pretty boring for the whalers. That's how this part of the book seemed to me. A lot of philosophizing about ... stuff? ... and then scientifically inaccurate (they probably seemed right at the time) descriptions of the whale as a 'big fish with lungs'. It floated in and out of the actual story (which I was more interested in) about the madman Ahab and his crazy quest to find and destroy Moby Dick (who does not appear until the 466th page, in my edition!) and the philosophy and musings and explanations from Ishmael. As the story went on I felt we lost Ishmael's point of view and it became more of a third person narrative. That was too bad - I liked Ishmael and his story. But I get that his story is a mere part of the whole adventure.

I enjoyed some of this book, but mostly I was just glad to finish it! ( )
  crashmyparty | Dec 9, 2014 |
A great book that is so much more than just a hunting of a whale. Or an obsession towards an objective truth. This book is truly one I would take with me on an Island and read and re-read again. The power of the whale is worth the great white hunt?" Its also worth all the background material on Whales. For the background gives the amazing quality that whales held on Nantucket and New England at one time. One can not get to the heart of Ahab's folly without the heart exposed of a great white whale. "I watched last night, on Nova, Scientists attempting to find the Wolverine, an elusive animal, that dodges, darts and hides from man. I recalled Ahab's search for Moby-Dick. The scientists held the same type of fanaticism to find their wolverines." This book will be read again and again, and is part of my essential library. I also enjoyed the "Big Book Project" from the lads across the Pond in Plymouth U.K.. ( )
  Gregorio_Roth | Dec 5, 2014 |
A great book that is so much more than just a hunting of a whale. Or an obsession towards an objective truth. This book is truly one I would take with me on an Island and read and re-read again. The power of the whale is worth the great white hunt?" Its also worth all the background material on Whales. For the background gives the amazing quality that whales held on Nantucket and New England at one time. One can not get to the heart of Ahab's folly without the heart exposed of a great white whale. "I watched last night, on Nova, Scientists attempting to find the Wolverine, an elusive animal, that dodges, darts and hides from man. I recalled Ahab's search for Moby-Dick. The scientists held the same type of fanaticism to find their wolverines." This book will be read again and again, and is part of my essential library. I also enjoyed the "Big Book Project" from the lads across the Pond in Plymouth U.K.. ( )
  Gregorio_Roth | Dec 5, 2014 |
Herman Melville

or, The Whale

Penguin Classics, Paperback, 1987.

12mo. 1011 pp. Edited with an Introduction [pp. 20-42] and Commentary [pp. 689-967] by Harold Beaver, 1972. Appendix: The Earliest Sources [pp. 971-1011]. Illustrated with 14 plates between pp. 512 and 513.

First published as The Whale by Richard Bentley (3 vols.), 18 October 1851.
First American Edition by Harper & Brothers, 14 November 1851.
Published in the Penguin English Library, 1972.
Reprinted, 1975 (twice), 1977 (twice), 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985.
Reprinted in Penguin Classics, 1986 (twice), 1987.


List of Plates and Acknowledgements
Herman Melville: a Biographical Note
On the Composition of Moby-Dick
A Note on the Text


Appendix: The Earliest Sources
Map of the Cruise of the Pequod


This is not a review of the novel but of this particular edition. I have used the more convenient Barnes and Noble hardback to experience Melville’s magnum opus, but Moby-Dick is the kind of book with which you need all the help you can get. I have profited by Harold Beaver’s editorial contributions and it seems only fair, as a token of gratitude, to dedicate one modest review to them. Besides, his Introduction and especially his Commentary are highly original, unique works on their own.

The novel itself, title page, table of contents, “Extracts”, Epilogue and all, takes 620 pages in this edition. The rest nearly 400 are occupied by the editorial apparatus. Mr Beaver is credited as the author only of the Introduction and the Commentary, but he must have written the Biographical Note, the essay on the composition of the novel, and the Note on the Text as well. His involvement in the Appendix, the map and the illustrations remains unclear.

The Biographical Note is a brief overview, five pages or so, of Melville’s adventurous youth, swift rise to literary fame, even swifter fall from there, and the lonesome last decades during which he wrote nothing but poetry. Family and friendly matters are mentioned only in passing. The writing is information-packed and matter-of-fact, but not entirely emotionless. “On the Composition of Moby-Dick” is a close-up of Melville’s life around the time of writing of the novel, including his reading, his living at “Arrowhead” and his friendship with Nat Hawthorne, but, somewhat disappointingly, does not elaborate further of his first-hand whaling experience and how it was transformed into fiction. Yet how fascinating to learn that “nature herself arranged the advance publicity”: on 5 November, 1851, right between the (first) British and American editions, a rumour reached the Big Apple that Ann Alexander of New Bedford had been rammed and sunk in mid-Pacific by a whale. Uncanny coincidence!

These essays have been largely superseded by Wikipedia, but they still work well as a concise introduction and even contain some tremendously fascinating bits. Consider this letter by Melville “to parry a female neighbour”, written with Shavian contempt for the apostrophe, and the editor’s (presumably) stimulating description of the major mood shift that happened during the writing.

“Dont you buy it – dont you read it, when it does come out, because it is by no means the sort of book for you. It is not a piece of fine feminine Spitalfields silk – but it is of the horrible texture of a fabric that should be woven of ships’ cables and hausers. A Polar wind blows through it, & birds of prey hover over it. Warn all gentle fastidious people from so much as peeping into the book – on risk of a lumbago & sciatics.”

What was conceived in New York as romantic comedy, it seems, had been revised in New England to tragic proportions. What was begun as the quixotic pact of a cannibal don with his christian squire (chs. 1-22) had been displaced by the Faustian fate of their monomaniac captain. What was planned as an authentic-sounding cruise in quest of a legendary White Whale (February – August 1850) had been turned into the inverted gospel by one Ishmael of a hell-bent voyage through all space and time (August 1850 – August 1851).

The real Introduction is a great deal longer and more substantial essay. Unfortunately, the only really important thing it tells us is that Harold Beaver is no Herman Melville. He starts off well by quoting Joseph Conrad who calls Moby-Dick “a rather strained rhapsody with whaling for a subject and not a single sincere line in the 3 vols. of it” (one is tempted to exclaim “Look who’s talking!”)[1] and by describing how Melville’s fanatical immersion in Shakespeare and Carlyle might have shaped his personality. But then our gracious editor resorts to appalling name dropping (from Wagner and Whitman to Nabokov and Borges, plus Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Mircea Eliade, D. H. Lawrence and Nietzsche for good measure) and abstruse metaphysical speculations that I admit I can’t make head nor tail of (“Platonic Absolute and Zoroastrian magus” and so on and so forth). It all sounds monstrously pretentious. Neither, judging by the little I can understand, is it reliable. It’s fascinating to note that at the time of writing of Moby-Dick on the other side of the Pond Wagner was writing the poems of Der Ring des Nibelungen, but to call Wagner’s Dutchman “that proto-Ahab” is plain silly.

The whole Introduction is riddled with quotes from the novel; on every page you find at least half a dozen phrases. This is Harold Beaver’s Moby-Duck. It’s a real chore.

“A Note on the Text” is a pretty impressive piece of publishing history and textual scholarship. The first edition of Moby-Dick, as is well-known, was the British one in three volumes; the American one-volume counterpart followed a few weeks later. What is not generally known is that “thus London gained a slight head start on New York and opened a Pandora’s boxful of textual mischief.” The situation is tangled and tedious. The British edition was ruthlessly bowdlerized, but the modern editor can’t just ignore it because Melville apparently made some corrections to it (including the celebrated footnote in Chapter 87) that were not included in the American edition. I cannot resist giving here the editor’s tirade against his prudish colleague on the other side of the Atlantic.

The English editor had freely sliced and hacked away. Wherever his prudish nose sniffed something subversive, whenever his ear caught some dubious sexual, or political, or religious overtone, his blue pencil slashed. The final bowdlerized version was a monument of decorum, a landmark of Victorian taste to match the Great Exhibition, but as a guide to Melville it seemed worthless.

Mr Beaver used the First American edition as his copy-text, “with a minimum of emendation (typographical and factual), while incorporating only a limited list of the most compelling readings from the first English edition.” He provides collation tables for all English variants that were adopted as probably Melville’s (or considered and rejected as probably coming from Bentley’s “judicious literary friend”). He frankly admits that no attempt was made to “construct, or conflate, a full critical text” (his emphasis) which aims “at an ideal transcending both first editions.” He does mention that such an edition was “under preparation” as part of the Melville Edition Project in the Northwestern University; this must be the now highly acclaimed Northwestern-Newberry Edition, first published in 1988. Interestingly, he criticises Hayford and Parker, the editors of the Norton Critical Edition (1967), for accepting too many of those disastrously British emendations. “This is a Yankee book, not a British,” Mr Beaver scorns. Ironically, however, Hayford and Parker were the chief editors of the 1988 edition as well. I wonder if they did a better job than twenty years earlier.

The Bibliography is disappointing. It contains volumes by skilled harpooners on Melville’s life, Melville’s thought, Melville’s religion, Melville’s symbols, Melville’s mythology, Melville’s use of the Bible, Melville’s quarrel with God, Melville’s comic spirit, Melville’s anything. The only thing it does not contain is a decent list of scholarly and annotated editions of Melville’s own works. Two complete editions are briefly mentioned in the beginning and that’s that. Not a single word about the source(s) of the numerous quotations from Melville’s letters that permeate the Introduction, the Commentary and the other essays. This slightly outrageous omission is the only serious fault of Mr Beaver’s scholarship I can think of.

The Commentary is exhaustive and exhausting. I am not going to even begin to pretend that I have read, or understood, all of it. Running to nearly 280 pages and employing rhetoric as grandiloquent as Melville’s, it is almost as dense as Moby-Dick itself. It does take some time to get used to Mr Beaver’s grand and not terribly well-organised style. It is just as artistic as it is scholarly – if not more so. Consider the first entry about the first chapter: it opens with a quote from the 42nd and an awesome musical metaphor:

LOOMINGS. ‘Let us try. But in a matter like this, subtlety appeals to subtlety, and without imagination no man can follow another into these halls.’ (THE WHITENESS OF THE WHALE)

This is the overture – the prelude to sound all the main themes, and keys, and shifts of key, on which the rest of
Moby-Dick will play its prolonged and fugal variations.

The conclusion from all this is that, if he could read it, Johann Sebastian Bach would have loved this novel. I doubt, however, that even the greatest master of the musical Baroque could have explained why the prelude “with all the main themes” must wait just about one third of the whole work before it gets introduced. As we learn in the end, however, the prelude actually consists of the first 131 chapters. Melville has only himself to blame: he should have chosen a different title for Chapter 132. Mr Beaver opens his commentary on this chapter in characteristically sweeping style:

THE SYMPHONY All keys and shifts of key, all contrapuntal strains and harmonies of this 131-part prelude, are to be fused at last. Polyphony is turned to ‘symphony’ – in its prime sense of an instrumental interlude in oratorio, or operatic prelude to the final three part fugue (or three days’ flight):
‘Sing out for every spout…’ ‘Why sing ye not out for him…?’
For what is
Moby-Dick, after all, but an ‘incantation’? A mystery play of all that ‘has been promiscuously said, thought, fancied and sung of Leviathan’? An oratorio in the fullest sense: semi-dramatic in character, based on biblical themes, for solo voices and ‘wild chorus’? Mendelssohn’s St Paul (1836) and Elijah (1839) are its almost exact contemporaries; and it too was composed by ‘rehearsing – singing, if I may’ for vast stretches – without the aid of either scenery or action:

SOLO ‘The ribs and terrors of the whale’
The Girls in Booble Alley.
SOLO ‘Sweet fields beyond the swelling flood…’
SOLO ‘We’ll drink tonight with hearts as light…’
CHORUS: ‘Farewell and adieu to you, Spanish ladies!’
SOLO AND CHORUS: ‘Our captain stood upon the deck’
Old King Crow.
etc. etc.

Messiah, of course, was the implicit model. For this, too, is a Pastoral Symphony with a ‘mild, mild wind, and a mild looking sky’ in ‘that all-pervading azure’: a symphony of blue and white, of transparent innocence and snow-white wings; of male and female longings between sea and sky; and green, green thoughts of land, and a hill, and ‘a far-away meadow’.

What is Moby-Dick, indeed? I suppose “an oratorio in the fullest sense” is as good an answer as any. Mendelssohn sounds much too tame to me, but Handel’s Messiah, when performed superbly, is certainly capable of evoking the grandeur of Moby-Dick. (As a matter of fact, the novel has inspired at least two oratorio-like musical works, though none of them, unfortunately, dates from the late nineteenth or early twentieth century.) All those unsourced quotes in the passage above, including the improvised oratorio, come from the novel. It’s a safe guess that the editor quoted them by memory. He knows Moby-Dick by heart. So should you before reading his Commentary with capital “C”. All I can say is “Thank you, Gutenberg!”

Mr Beaver is not afraid of dealing with controversial matters. Writing in the early 1970s, it was safe to discuss without considerable outrage the subject of Melville’s possible homosexuality. Mr Beaver seems to take that for granted. Now, as a passionate fan of Somerset Maugham[2], I have to consider this possibility, but I’m afraid Mr Beaver’s several references to it didn’t prove greatly illuminating. He discovers a “homosexual idyll” here and a “homosexual pastoral” there, but I remain ignorant as to the significance of these findings. He goes as far as quoting a footnote from Auden’s The Enchafèt Flood that it is “not an accident that many homosexuals should show a special preference for sailors”. Do you know why? Because “the sailor on shore is symbolically the innocent god from the sea who is not bound by the law of the land and can therefore do anything without guilt.” But the most awkward, not to say embarrassing, homosexual “decoding” occurs in Chapter 78, “Cisterns and Buckets”:

Towards the end, Tashtego has to ram his long pole harder and harder, and deeper and deeper For now the whale is ‘the deep cistern’; Tashego[sic], the battering ram. But in such abundance of ‘fragrant sperm’, ‘apparent effeminacy’ prevails.

Towards the end
double entendres sound everywhere in this ‘ticklish business’ of the sperm spilling and leaking and dribbling, the ‘queer accident’ and queerer midwifery by the naked Queequeg delivering the Gay-Header head first with such ‘agile obstetrics’.

In this curious homosexual farrago where male rams male, and brave delivers long-haired brave from a bridal chamber of sperm oil, the erotic roles are as confused among men as the sexual symbolism among whales.
Cistern and Buckets, is it, or bucks and sissies?

Mr Beaver, typically in his style, peppers his explanations with quotes from the novel, not necessarily from the same chapter as the one that is being explained. The passages are fascinating and the interpretation is amusing, but I find neither relevant to the “interpretative key to Moby-Dick” Mr Beaver is supposed to offer. Again in the prefatory paragraphs of his Commentary, somewhat counterproductively, he remarks that “despite its bibliographical tap-roots and far-reaching aura of allusions, Moby-Dick is symbolically self-contained and forms its own best and sufficient commentary.”

Many of Mr Beaver’s parallels are quite cryptic. He is not terribly fond of explaining, himself or the others. When he encounters one of Melville’s countless Biblical allusions, he gives you a relevant quote from the Big Black Book and you’re on your own. Sometimes he doesn’t do even that; he merely says “Genesis XVIII, 2”, and that’s that. But when he is in the mood, Mr Beaver can regale you with all sorts of charming stories. In the beginning of the eponymous Chapter 41, there is an extensive account of the “exploits” of “Mocha Dick”, a legendary white whale sighted off the Chilean coast in 1810. This astonishing beast was quite a celebrity for decades and lurid newspaper articles about him, however fanciful, must have been known to Melville. Mocha Dick makes Moby-Dick look tame in comparison:

The exploits of this whale were legendary: he was said to have been harpooned nineteen times, caused the death of more than thirty men, breached three whaling ships and fourteen boats, and sunk an Australian trader and a French merchantman. An early sketch by Jeremiah N. Reynolds, published in the Knickerbocker Magazine (May 1819), was certainly known to Melville. He transposed its title, ‘Mocha Dick: or, the White Whale of the Pacific’, transformed the Penguin to the Pequod, and transferred ‘a lurking deviltry’ to an ‘intangible malignity’. That account, however, ended with the capture of Mocha Dick, tried-out to one hundred barrels of oil.

But, according to ‘The Career of Mocha Dick’ (
Detroit Free Press, 3 April 1892), Mocha Dick lived on. Operating near his home base, Mocha Dick destroyed two boats belonging to the English whaler Desmond (5 July 1840); struck again, 300 miles south, to shatter a boat of the Russian barque Sarepta (30 August 1840), lingering so long that the crew were forced to desert a whale they had just killed; turned up in the Atlantic, near the Falkland Islands, to wreck two boats and kill two men of the Bristol ship John Day (May 1841); and in October 1842 made a climactic appearance off the Japanese coast, first ramming a light lumber ship, then engaging in simultaneous battle with the crews of the Crieff (Scots), the Dudley (English) and the Yankee (American), sinking two whale boats and carrying away the jib boom and bowsprit of the Crieff.

One thing is certain. Had Mocha Dick lived a century later, he would have played a decisive role in the two world wars!

I have not read other annotated editions of Moby-Dick and I don’t know how much, if at all and apart from obvious allusions, their commentaries overlap with this one. But some of Mr Beaver’s references are certainly strange and unexpected. For example, when the author mentions “that ignorance and superstitiousness hereditary to all sailors” (ch. 41), the editor quotes from Hume’s The Natural History of Religion (Section III); when Melville speaks of “that democratic dignity which… radiates without end from God” (ch. 26), Mr Beaver quotes Sir Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici, Part I, sec. 32; when the “cabin lamp… was burning fitfully” (ch. 123), we are referred to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Act III, Scene 4, and the Scottish general’s “Then comes my fit again”; and when Ahab exclaims “my topmost greatness lies in my topmost grief” (ch. 135), we are invited to have a look at Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, bk 2, ch. 9.

Technically speaking, Mr Beaver’s decision to indicate his notes only by page numbers is both convenient and inconvenient. You can read the novel without being distracted by niceties like “overcrowding the page with notes” or “a blur of numerals”, but while reading thus blissfully you can never be sure that what troubles you will be explained in the Commentary. This problem arises, of course, only if this is your reading edition; if you just use it as a critical guide, as I do, you can afford not to care about this. The only other quibble I have is Mr Beaver’s occasional neglect to mention the exact place in the books he refers to. This is a much smaller problem today than it must have been in 1972. Virtually every work mentioned by the editor is available complete and free of charge online. You can find anything in it in a few seconds and congratulate yourself on living in the Age of Internet.

All that said, once one get used to Mr Beaver’s idiosyncratic style, his Commentary is a bottomless, and priceless, pit to dip into. He is extremely thorough. From numbering and careful sourcing all 80 of the “Extracts” and the etymology of each and every name mentioned to internal cross-links and possible inspirations, Mr Beaver misses nothing. Occasionally he may be obscure or ridiculous, but more often he is stirring and suggestive. In addition to a lot of Shakespeare, Milton, Browne, Carlyle and the Bible, the Commentary contains occasional references to Emerson, Hume, Ovid, Washington Irving and a good deal of non-fiction on history, travel and – of course! – whaling. I have no idea if Melville read all this stuff, but I suspect he might have. One has to be careful with Mr Beaver’s intensely personal interpretations, but that’s no reason to dismiss them.

The illustrations are called plates only as a matter of courtesy. They are printed on fine paper and in fine resolution, but they are too small and too black-and-white to make a lasting impression. Nevertheless, it’s nice to see some historical photographs and paintings of whale ships and whaling scenes, occasionally supplemented with a mummified Maori head or the New Bedford docks. The photos were obviously selected carefully to be as close as possible to Melville’s descriptions. The captions are short but informative enough, always augmented by quotes from the novel. In spite of their rather indifferent quality, the “plates” are a welcome bonus.

(One of the illustrations, by the way, is the same painting used on the cover, an aquatint after Garneray entitled Pêche du Cachalot, appropriately housed in the Whaling Museum, New Bedford, Massachusetts. “Garneray” must be a reference to Ambroise Louis Garneray (1783–1857), a “French corsair, painter and writer,” doubtless the same fellow whom Melville calls “Garnery” in the wonderfully titled Chapter 56, “Of the Less Erroneous Pictures of Whales, and the True Pictures of Whaling Scenes.” Detail of the same, rather impressive, painting was also used on the cover of the 1980 Signet Classics edition.)

The Appendix contains “The Wreck of the Whaleship Essex” (1821) by Owen Chase[3], a short journal entry by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1834)[4], Le Cachalot Blanc by Jules Lecomte in both the original French and an English translation[5], and “Mocha Dick: or the White Whale of the Pacific” by J. N. Reynolds[6]. All of them compelling stories, or bunch of stories in some cases, but they only tell you what you already know – what everybody knows. It is not the story – it never is – that matters. It is the treatment, the pattern, the elaboration, the personality, call it what you will, that really matters. Exciting whaling stories were evidently legion during the first half of the nineteenth century. Only Herman Melville could have written Moby-Dick, and only that Melville during the years 1850-51.

The map in the end is indifferent, at best. Small, dark, with water hardly distinguishable from land, it is of little use except to give you a broad idea of Pequod’s route. There is only one reference to the text and this is to “Typhoon off Japan / Chs. 118-126”. In short, I suggest you use your best atlas or, better still, the Web; plenty of fine maps there, for example this one or this one.

On p. 1013 (not mentioned in the table of contents) there is a schematic drawing of a three-masted ship, presumably a whaler, but this is even darker and less useful than the map. The legend contains 38 items, masts, sails and rigs, but few of them can be discerned without trouble. For a much better sailing and rigging plans of similar vessels, see the beautifully illustrated review of the Arion Press edition by J. Davis, particularly this photo.

Ever since the early 1990s, Mr Beaver seems to have fallen into disfavour with Penguin. The current Penguin Classics edition, first published in 1992, has notes and glossary by Tom Quirk, and an introduction by Andrew Delbanco; a foreword by one Nathaniel Philbrick was added in 2001. It reprints the authoritative text from volume six of The Writings of Herman Melville, edited by Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker and B. Thomas Tanselle, and first published by Northeastern University Press in 1988. So far as I have been able to look at it, I think it is a good edition. It contains useful bonuses like “Glossary of Nautical Terms” and (for the Enriched eBook edition only) a nice essay on “Melville’s Whaling Years”. But in no way does it supersede the impressive, if bizarre, achievement of Harold Beaver.

Last and (maybe not) least, an obvious physical note. Whatever merit Mr Beaver’s highly unorthodox editorial contribution may or may not have, this is the wrong edition to read at leisure. A thousand pages in paperback, and duodecimo at that, are very hard to handle. The margins are modest, especially the inner ones, and the reading is hard on the spine, too. Moby-Dick is definitely a book that must be savoured at leisure. It takes a good deal of time and effort, but it’s worth it. Choose carefully your reading edition.

PS For those who take ratings seriously (I hope there aren’t any), the five stars are for the novel alone. Harold Beaver, with all due respect, gets only three.


[1] In Conrad’s defence, the mention of three volumes suggests that he might have read the expurgated First British edition. As explained later in detail by Mr Beaver, this travesty had little to do with Melville’s work.

[2] In “Herman Melville and Moby Dick” from Ten Novels and Their Authors (1954), Maugham famously, but not very convincingly, speculated that Melville might have been a repressed homosexual.

[3] From – those wonderful nineteenth-century titles! – Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwrecked of the Whale-Ship Essex, of Nantucket; Which Was Attacked and Finally Destroyed by a Large Spermaceti-Whale in the Pacific Ocean (New York, 1821), pp. 23-41.

[4] From The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. IV, edited by Alfred R. Ferguson (Cambridge, Massachusetts; Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1964), p. 256. It remains unclear whether this entry was published prior to the writing of Moby-Dick, or Melville knew about it in some other way.

[5] From “Etudes maritimes, de quelques animaux apocryphes et fabuleux de Ia mer”, Musée des families, 4, pp. 97-104 (January, 1837). The English translation is uncredited.

[6] From The Knickerbocker, New York Monthly Magazine, XIII (May, 1839), pp. 377-92. ( )
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Melville, HermanAuthorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Adler, Mortimer J.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Beaver, Harold LowtherEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
D'Agostino, NemiTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Delbanco, AndrewIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Fadiman, CliftonIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Jendis, MatthiasTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kent, RockwellIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Moser, BarryIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Muller, FrankNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Mummendey, RichardTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Pavese, CesareTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Quirk, TomCommentarysecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rathjen, FriedhelmTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Robinson, BoardmanIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Schaeffer, MeadIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Turner, J.M.W.Cover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Walcutt, Charles ChildEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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There Leviathan, Hugest of living creatures, in the deep / Stretch'd like a promontory sleeps or swims, / And seems a moving land; and at his gills / Draws in, and at his breath spouts out a sea. PARADISE LOST
In token

of my admiration for his genius,

This Book is Inscribed


Nathaniel Hawthorne.
First words
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.
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 get to sea as soon as I can. ...from Chapter 1 : Loomings
"If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me."
All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event--in the living act, the undoubted deed--there, some unknown but still reasoning thing put forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there's naught beyond. But 'tis enough.
To the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee.
Last words
(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
Disambiguation notice
Please do not combine adaptations or abridged editions of Moby Dick with unabridged versions. Versions aimed at children are normally abridged editions and should not be combined here. Also, books ABOUT Moby Dick (such as study guides) should not be combined with the unabridged nor the abridged novel. Please keep such books as an independent work.
The Penguin Classics 150th Anniversary Ed (ISBN 0142000086) is not abridged, although that word has appeared in some user's data.
Norton Critical editions, Longman Critical editions and other scholarly editions should not be combined with the unabridged novel. The scholarly-type editions contain much additional material so they should be considered as separate works.
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1851 : Moby-Dick published

On this day in 1851, Moby-Dick, a novel by Herman Melville about the
voyage of the whaling ship Pequod, is published by Harper & Brothers
in New York. Moby-Dick is now considered a great classic of American
literature and contains one of the most famous opening lines in
fiction: "Call me Ishmael." Initially, though, the book about Captain
Ahab and his quest for a giant white whale was a flop.

Herman Melville was born in New York City in 1819 and as a young man
spent time in the merchant marines, the U.S. Navy and on a whaling
ship in the South Seas. In 1846, he published his first novel, Typee,
a romantic adventure based on his experiences in Polynesia. The book
was a success and a sequel, Omoo, was published in 1847. Three more
novels followed, with mixed critical and commercial results.
Melville's sixth book, Moby-Dick, was first published in October 1951
in London, in three volumes titled The Whale, and then in the U.S. a
month later. Melville had promised his publisher an adventure story
similar to his popular earlier works, but instead, Moby-Dick was a
tragic epic, influenced in part by Melville's friend and Pittsfield,
Massachusetts, neighbor, Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose novels include The
Scarlet Letter.

After Moby-Dick's disappointing reception, Melville continued to
produce novels, short stories (Bartleby) and poetry, but writing
wasn't paying the bills so in 1865 he returned to New York to work as
a customs inspector, a job he held for 20 years.

Melville died in 1891, largely forgotten by the literary world. By the
1920s, scholars had rediscovered his work, particularly Moby-Dick,
which would eventually become a staple of high school reading lists
across the United States. Billy Budd, Melville's final novel, was
published in 1924, 33 years after his death.

*Note: Information provided by History.com
Haiku summary
Call me Ishmael.
Score: Whale 1, Ahab 0.
I alone returned.

Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0142437247, Paperback)

Over a century and a half after its publication, Moby-Dick still stands as an indisputable literary classic. It is the story of an eerily compelling madman pursuing an unholy war against a creature as vast and dangerous and unknowable as the sea itself. But more than just a novel of adventure, more than an encyclopedia of whaling lore and legend, Moby-Dick is a haunting, mesmerizing, and important social commentary populated with several of the most unforgettable and enduring characters in literature. Written with wonderfully redemptive humor, Moby-Dick is a profound and timeless inquiry into character, faith, and the nature of perception.

@greatwhitetale Call me Ishmael. You could call me something else if you want, but since that’s my name, it would make sense to call me Ishmael.

Captain obsessed with finding a whale called Moby Dick. Sounds like the meanest VD ever, if you ask me. Sorry. Old joke. Couldn’t resist.

From Twitterature: The World's Greatest Books in Twenty Tweets or Less

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:38:50 -0400)

(see all 9 descriptions)

Moby-Dick] is an 1851 novel by Herman Melville. The story tells the adventures of the wandering sailor Ishmael and his voyage on the whaleship Pequod, commanded by Captain Ahab. Ishmael soon learns that Ahab seeks one specific whale, Moby Dick, a white whale of tremendous size and ferocity. Comparatively few whaleships know of Moby Dick, and fewer yet have encountered him. In a previous encounter, the whale destroyed Ahab's boat and bit off his leg. Ahab intends to take revenge. -- Wikipedia.… (more)

» see all 58 descriptions

Legacy Library: Herman Melville

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