At first you are put off by the style. It reads like journalism. It seems spurious. You feel Melville is trying to put something over you. It won't do.
- D.H. Lawrence
I wonder why Moby-Dick isn’t the cornerstone of more conversations about the essay in American literature. To some extent we’re always talking about nonfiction when we discuss Moby-Dick, but it is always that kind of nonfiction that we have to trudge through, the boring stuff we skipped in high school to get to the wildest parts about the crazy captain and the homoerotic processing of blubber and that one part where that one guy wears the foreskin of a whale like vestments (Chapter 95: The Cassock, if you’re into that kind of thing).
Sure, you’ll find the occasional blogger raving about Chapter 32: Cetology (often described as a zoological treatise--the first of the book’s chapters to flummox high school freshman), but that’s still in the vein of “Look what I learned about whales!” or “Aren’t digressions sooo experimental in fiction!” But even that chapter reeks of essay; it has none of the authoritative tone of a scientific textbook, but has all the intellectual struggle of the essay. Consider its last sentences:
For small erections may be finished by their first architects; grand ones, true ones ever leave the copestone to posterity. God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught – nay, but the draught of a draught.
Even the recent and otherwise wonderful book Bending Genre, edited by Margot Jefferson and Nicole Walker, dismisses Moby-Dick in the introduction as an example of formal originality in the novel without ever considering that the book might do exactly the kind of “creative nonfiction” boundary pushing that Bending Genre works to highlight.
Maybe it’s too strong to say that any part of scholarship on American literature dismisses Moby-Dick (after all, an ungodly amount of tenure has been piled upon that white whale’s hump). And I’m certainly not suggesting any sort of territorial war over the genre of the book – it belongs to all of us. But I think those of us interested in writing essays – and interested in studying the tradition of American essays – might learn a thing or two from devoting a bit more of our time to this leviathan.
Take, for instance, the rough waters at the outset of Herman Melville’s literary career. See how they primed him to embrace the essay like a shard of shipwreck on the open sea.
Typee, Melville’s first book was published with the original title: Narrative of a Four Months’ Residence among the Natives of a Valley of the Marquesas Islands; or, A Peep at Polynesian Life. By all accounts the book was billed as a straight forward travel narrative about Melville’s 1842 adventure in which he lived among cannibals on the island Nukuhiva after abandoning a whaling ship in the Pacific Ocean. But even though the book became wildly successful (the most popular of his lifetime, suggesting he was always perceived as a writer of “nonfiction” (though that term didn’t yet exist) ), Typee was plagued with questions of veracity, concerns about the kind of fact smudging or inventing that these days leads to that dreaded confrontation: The Oprah Inquisition.
This is a review of the Typee from 1846 in The Morning Courier & New York Enquirer:
We have not the slightest confidence in any of the details…This would be a matter to be excused, if the book were not put forth as a simple record of actual experience. It professes to give nothing but what the author actually saw and heard. It must therefore be judged, not as a romance or a poem, but a book of travel, as a statement of facts; and in this light it has, in our judgment, no merit whatsoever…
Sure enough, by the 1940s many scholars proved that, in Typee, Melville borrowed extensively from the writings of his contemporary explorers and missionaries. They also showed that much of the rest of the book occurs outside the realm of verifiability (though it should be noted that Toby, a real-life character from Typee, came out of the woodwork to back Melville up on some of the saucier parts of the yarn (cannibals!)).
However, as Ruth Blair points out in her 1996 introduction to Typee, by the time the 1940s fact-checkers rolled around, the novel had come of age as real art and Melville had been enshrined in the cannon of novelists and so, his fictionalizing caused very little distress.
But immediately after it’s publication, Melville refused to let the big bad Oprahs of his day shame him into apologizing for how he wrote Typee. Carolyn Porter sums up the controversy this way:
…the evidence adduced for Melville’s conscious duplicity in the matter is far from compelling, and points just as persuasively, if not more so, to a different claim: Melville kept insisting that he had told the truth because he really believed he had. For one thing, his letters at the time reveal a man alternately befuddled and outraged by people who insist on not believing him. The more his word is questioned, the more he ardently seeks to defend it.
Porter ultimately concludes Melville achieves a kind of truth in Typee that is not one based on “scrupulous attention to date or orthography” but one predicated on upending the traditional travel narrative format of preserving the distance between civilization and savagery (basically he frightened fancy pants Americans by showing them they weren’t so different from savages). Ruth Blair tellingly aligns this theme with that of Montaigne in his classic essay Of Cannibals.
Perhaps, even at the tender age of 27, Melville already had his nose all up in some essays.
The Typee controversy is important because it sets in motion Melville’s career long wiggling around inside different forms and genres in an attempt to find a way to communicate his truths. Unfortunately all that wiggling ends with him, at the end of his career, writing some god-awful poetry (sorry, but try to stay awake while reading Clarel). Porter explains Melville’s move toward the epic poem, “Eventually, fictional discourse by itself would prove as unreliable a source of authority as nonfictional discourse had, operating as it did in accord with codes of consistency and verisimilitude that became, to Melville, manifestly false”.
But let’s not run Porter’s reasoning all the way to the god-awful epic poetry, let’s pause at 1851, let’s pause at Moby-Dick. Here, in 1851, we have a Melville who has written only one novel (the critical and commercial failure Mardi) and three relatively successful travel narratives (what many today hedgingly call “autobiographical novels”). Melville is wiggling, struggling to find a form that suits him and his truths.
Ned Stuckey-French in The American Essay in the American Century discusses a short story of Melville’s as part of an argument about American storytellers moving away from the intimacy of the hearth. But in this discussion Ned, however inadvertently, nails exactly the rock and the hard place that I think propels the seemingly unruly (read: essayistic) form of Moby-Dick. He says of Melville’s story, “His narrator turns to the past (as represented by the essays of Montaigne), and his wife turns to the magazines of the time; Melville seems to have felt caught between the two”.
In this short story “I and my Chimney”, Melville’s narrator basically sits in front of his fireplace for seven years reading Montaigne and eating cheese and hating his wife’s “Ladies’ Magazines” for their fashion and sensationalism.
If you approach Moby-Dick with that scene in mind, this struggle between the pure experience of Montaigne and the sensationalism of magazines, it makes a lot more sense when you find out, as Betsy Hilbert writes, that Moby-Dick “…assaults our concept of genre; it confuses our easy categories. Melville's whale book is a massive conglomerate of fable and textbook, epic, allegory, zoo-logic treatise, philosophic exploration, essay, romance, and guidebook.”
At the very least, there is a bit of essay mixed in with all the rest. At most, the entirety of the project is an essay, as Hilbert later concludes, “…the book is an exercise in exploring the ways truths can be told.”
DH Lawrence certainly thought the fiction of Moby-Dick took a back seat to some other mode that dominates the text:
And Melville really is a bit sententious: aware of himself, self-conscious, putting something over even himself. But then it's not easy to get into the swing of a piece of deep mysticism when you just set out with a story.
For DH the story is only the starting point for a sententious and self-conscious speaker. This is the kind of speaker we find in essays. Sure, the speaker of Moby-Dick isn’t called Herman, but neither was the speaker of Typee, a book Melville battled so hard to defend as truth.
I know we’ve not yet really even cracked open Moby-Dick to look closely at its techniques, to study them as essay, to observe the loose and lusty sallies of Melville’s mind. But I’m hoping that’s what you’ll do. I’m hoping you’ll see that, at the very least, the waters were boiling at the right temperature for the cooking of essay when Melville was at work on Moby-Dick in 1850. I’m hoping you’ll start small, read Chapter 105: Does the Whale’s Magnitude Diminish?—Will He Perish? Or, better yet, assign it in your essay classes, your nonfiction classes, your rhetoric classes. And then Chapter 86: The Tail. Even the book’s preface, Extracts (Supplied by a Sub-Sub-Librarian).
These and so many other chapters can be pulled entire from the book and studied as essays. Then, one day, try to tackle the whole leviathan. The history of the American essay is, of course, Emerson and Thoreau, but more thrillingly it is Moby-Dick.
Call Me Ishmael, or How to Make Double-Talk Speak by Carolyn Porter is (among other places) in the unfortunately titled The American Novel: New Essays on Moby-Dick ed. by Richard Brodhead
The Truth of the Thing: Nonfiction in Moby Dick by Betsy Hilbert
Joshua Wheeler has an unnecessarily large tattoo of Captain Ahab.