The Block Island Times

Writer's Block: Whale ho!

By J. V. Houlihan, Jr. | Oct 24, 2011

Last Friday evening at the Providence Athenaeum, author Nathaniel Philbrick spoke about his new book, “Why Read Moby-Dick?,” to an enthusiastic full house. Nat has written several books: “In the Heart of the Sea,” “Mayflower,” Sea of Glory,” to name a few. I’ve read all of them and have heard him speak on a few occasions. I’m not sure what I enjoy the most: reading the books or hearing him speak about them. He has a great sense of humor, and a love for and an engaging knowledge of literature. Nat refers to himself as an historian, but his literary knowledge is expansive and part of his appeal.

I don’t think there is a baby-boomer among us who did not slog through “Moby-Dick.” We had to; it was the great American novel! As a mildly conscientious 17-year-old, I was introduced to Melville by Brother Brendan Irwin at St. Raphael Academy in 1968. Our teacher made the novel interesting by dramatically reading it aloud. It kept us in the game enough to follow most of the narrative, but our grasp didn't extend beyond a literal interpretation. If you'd quizzed me a year ago, I'd have told you it was about an obsessed guy named Ahab, who hunted himself into oblivion. I might also have offered some lightly bastardized version of this: "Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago."

That sentence has haunted me to this day. So I guess I did take something away from Melville.

Nat Philbrick makes it very clear that he wants us to read Melville's masterpiece. “Call me Ishmael,” the novel's opening line did the trick for Nat; “I was hooked when I heard those words,” he said.

In his book, Philbrick leaves no stone unturned regarding Melville’s friendship with Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was at first reluctant to friend the younger and exuberant Melville, but who grew close with him as Melville was constructing Ahab. Melville confided in Hawthorne his insecurities about the future and his success as a writer. “Dollars damm me…” Melville told him. “Though I wrote the gospels in this country, I should die in the gutter.”

Melville was also taken by Hawthorne’s inner darkness, a “Puritanical gloom” that Melville didn't have, Nat writes. His book makes it clear that these were both very complex men.

Melville drew on his experiences as a whaler ― his first job was aboard the Acushnet out of Fairhaven, an experience that informs “Moby-Dick.” Philbrick reminds us, also, that Melville would lift whatever literary information he needed from other writers to help him achieve his goals. Melville never visited Nantucket before he wrote “Moby-Dick,” so he was free to create an imagined place.  (He would visit Nantucket years after his book was published.)

The following is a classic Nat Philbrick question: “He tells us to call him Ishmael, but who is the narrator of “Moby-Dick?” Nat asks, before going on to say that Ishmael has known depression, “a damp, drizzly November in my soul.”

Nat likens the novel's narrator to Holden Caulfield in “The Catcher in the Rye” — a “wonderfully engaging and vulnerable wiseass, who invites us to join him on a quest.”

The beauty of all of Nat Philbrick’s writing is the great merging of historical fact and his unique voice as a writer. Nat’s humor pops up throughout this little book, and drives the reader forward at a quick step. I’ll guarantee you this, if this guy was teaching at a university, students would be lining up to take his courses. Nat has a genuine affection for his subjects and it comes through clearly in his writing.

Here's another sample. For all of us who thought of the white whale as a literary symbol, Nat Philbrick says: “The White Wale is not a symbol. He is as real as you or I. He has a crooked jaw, a humped back, and a wiggle waggle when he is moving fast. He is a thing of blubber, blood, muscle and bone ― a creation of the natural world that transcends any fiction. So forget about trying to figure out what the White Whale signifies.”

I read this book in two sessions, and found myself annotating pages as I went along. It was in my teaching days, and I was noting what I wanted my students to note well. Then it dawned on me that I was prepping myself, rather than my students, to crack open “Moby Dick” again. What Nat Philbrick has written is the back story for the great American novel. His book is the great companion piece for “Moby-Dick.”

So folks, here’s a suggestion from a former English teacher: It’s going to be a long winter on Block Island, and perhaps a hike up to see Cindy at Island Bound is in order. Furthermore, for the parents of high school students, do your child a favor and gift them with this book — it will make their senior year more pleasant. Finally, to all of the baby-boomers out there, here is your chance for a second shot at reading and grasping the depth of Melville’s masterpiece.





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