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So you’ve read ‘Moby-Dick’? Which one?

Dr Christopher Ohge delves into the multiple levels and meanings of a classic piece of American literature.

‘About the “whaling voyage”—I am half way in the work, & am very glad that your suggestion so jumps with mine. It will be a strange sort of a book, tho’, I fear; blubber is blubber you know; tho’ you may get oil out of it, the poetry runs as hard as sap from a frozen maple tree;—& to cook the thing up, one must needs throw in a little fancy, which from the nature of the thing, must be ungainly as the gambols of the whales themselves. Yet I mean to give the truth of the thing, spite of this.’

–– 1 May 1850 letter from Melville to Richard Henry Dana, Jr.

The New Bedford Whaling Museum in New Bedford, Massachusetts, recently celebrated the25th anniversary of its marathon reading of Moby-Dick. The British Library followed up with its own virtual celebration of the novel’s impact, which featured me and some brilliant colleagues in Melville Studies.

One of the questions the participants were asked beforehand was, ‘Why do you think Moby-Dick remains so popular today?’ My first – rather pedantic – instinct was to say that the book may be more famous than popular. I had recently seen in an unscientific survey of ‘classics’ that you were supposed to have read, that only about 15 percent of respondents had actually read the book. Yet the continued popularity of the marathon readings, and the steady production of a wide range of critical approaches to Melville, testify to the continued importance of a novel that owes its mystique to being dense, challenging and capacious enough to mirror American society across a range of times. Moby-Dick is a microcosm, and, like many good books, it comes with powerful connections to our felt lives of reading.

My own aesthetic experiences with Moby-Dick were not only parlayed into professional activities they also constitute a biographical archive. I have hazy memories of reading the plot-driven sections in high school. I first read it carefully in my second year of university, using the Norton Anthology of American Literature. I have carried that anthology with me as I moved from Boston to the San Francisco Bay Area to London. At the time I was a philosophy student and taking early modern philosophy and existentialism courses. I then read Moby-Dick in a survey of American literature and thought, ‘Now this is good philosophy! We’ve got Descartian vortices [see the end of Chapter 35], Humean scepticism [Ishmael], Rousseauean noble savages [Queequeg], and a Nietzschean superman [Ahab]!’ I was young, and hooked, and I still read Melville as a philosophical writer, but with more nuanced reservations about der Übermensch.

On the basis of my enthusiasm, American literature professor Steven Olsen-Smith invited me to intern for his digital project Melville’s Marginalia Online. I still contribute to that project. Little did I know at the time that that internship would set the stage for my career.

I have two favourite editions which are intended for two different aesthetic experiences. The first is for deep reading: the 1967 Norton Critical Edition, which was edited by Harrison Hayford and Hershel Parker. It was the first attempt to create a critical edition that reconciled the first American and British editions. It was the first edition I read cover to cover; it is so old and weathered that I had to use industrial tape to keep the pages and binding together, and almost every page is covered with my notes in red and black ink and pencil going back to my undergraduate days.

A great autodidact, Melville was an active and eccentric annotator of his books, so I tend to mimic his style of marginalia. (I strongly encourage anyone who is interested in Melville to consult Melville’s Marginalia Online for evidence of his reading of texts ranging from the New Testament to Homer to Shakespeare, Milton, and Emerson.) The Norton Critical edition has helpful contextual notes, in addition to critical essays in the back of the book, including one that I consider to be one of the finest essays on Moby-Dick: Walter Bezanson’s ‘Moby-Dick: Work of Art’ (1953).

My other favourite edition is the Melville Electronic Library (digital edition (hereafter MEL), which I use for enriching my reading experience of the book. This edition, which I co-edit with John Bryant and Wyn Kelley with the support of Performant Software Solutions, has pop-up notes in the text that give further context and highlight the differences between the first American and British editions. Melville hired a private printer to set the type and print proof sheets for the first American edition, published by Harper & Brothers, which represents what Melville wanted to publish at that time. But he also sent those proof sheets to the British publisher and made additional revisions to the text.

It is therefore crucial to know that when Moby-Dick was published in 1851, there were two different books for two different audiences, an American audience that read Moby-Dick; or, the Whale, and a British one that read The Whale, a book that had further edits by Melville but was also censored and accidentally left out the Epilogue in which Ishmael explains that he was the only member of the Pequod to survive the wreck.

Moby Dick

Left: The final page of the story in the British edition of The Whale, showing how it left out the crucial Epilogue. Right: The next page, which shows the Extracts section as an Appendix.

Melville had complete control over his book until he handed it over to his British publisher, Richard Bentley. Bentley then changed various aspects of the text, including its coarse language, homoerotic scenes, and blasphemous passages. Therefore, the British edition has mixed authority.

Moby Dick

Left: Title page for the first American edition of Moby-Dick. Right: title page for the first British edition.

The MEL edition makes it much easier for readers to examine the differences between these first editions. Take, for example, Ishmael’s famous rhetorical question, ‘Who ain’t a slave?’ The British edition standardised his language to ‘Who is not a slave?’

Moby Dick

Left: the first American edition of Moby-Dick. Right: the first British edition of The Whale which shows evidence of British censorship.

In Chapter 11 (‘Nightgown’), after Ishmael compares Queequeg to a wife (‘in our hearts’ honeymoon, lay I and Queequeg—a cosy, loving pair’), the British publisher deleted the detail of their sensual moment in bed: ‘We had lain thus in bed, chatting and napping at short intervals, and Queequeg now and then affectionately throwing his brown tattooed legs over mine, and then drawing them back; so entirely sociable and free and easy were we; when, at last, by reason of our confabulations, what little nappishness remained in us altogether departed, and we felt like getting up again, though day-break was yet some way down the future.’

Moby Dick

Left: the first American edition of Moby-Dick. Right: the first British edition of The Whale which shows evidence of British censorship.

Readers of Melville now know his irreverence quite well, but the British edition removed several blasphemous passages, including this one from the end of Chapter 2 (‘The Carpet-Bag’) with the bleak phrase starting ‘The universe is finished…’

Moby Dick

Left and Right: the first American edition of Moby-Dick, showing passages at the end of Chapter 2 ‘The Carpet-Bag’ that were deleted from the British edition (marked in red), presumably for being blasphemous.

Moby Dick

Left and Right: the first British edition of The Whale which shows evidence of British censorship.

As the Melville Electronic Library digital edition notes in the text, Ishmael’s commentary on mid-19th century wealth inequality compares the affordances (and our emotional responses) between a tight window that keeps the warmth inside and a sashless or ill-framed window that lets the frost come through. He then likens this difference to the Biblical characters Lazarus and Dives, the one chattering out in the cold and the other enjoying ‘a fine frosty night’ from inside his warm room.

Ishmael is calling upon Luke 16:19–23, where the homeless and sore-ridden Lazarus lies at the gates of a scornful rich man (elsewhere called Dives) begging for crumbs. When both die, Lazarus goes to heaven, and Dives burns in hell, begging Lazarus to send him water. But Melville’s British editor expurgated references to this and other Biblical parables throughout the novel.

You see a similar excision in Chapter 93 (‘The Castaway’), after Melville’s remarkable Black character Pip goes overboard, and despite being rescued his mind is ‘drowned the infinite of his soul’ by the sea and considered mad: ‘So man’s insanity is heaven’s sense; and wandering from all mortal reason, man comes at last to that celestial thought, which, to reason, is absurd and frantic; and weal or woe, feels then uncompromised, indifferent as his God’ (American edition). The British edition removed the indifference of God, which robs this passage of its weightiness.

In the following instance is an interesting problem where it is unclear whether Melville or his British editor made a change. In Chapter 132 (‘The Symphony’), in which Ahab delivers a soliloquy on the nature of his revenge, he asks himself in the first American edition (on the left): ‘Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? But if the great sun move not of himself; but is as an errand-boy in heaven; nor one single star can revolve, but by some invisible power; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I.’

Moby Dick

As you can see on the right, the British edition reads ‘Is it Ahab, Ahab? …’ By adding ‘it’, the British edition matches the syntax of ‘Is it Ahab, Ahab?’ with its subsequent sentence, ‘Is it I, God…?’ And ‘Is it Ahab, Ahab?’ completely changes the meaning of the original ‘Is Ahab, Ahab?’

In the latter, he is doubting his own identity, and his agency, whereas in the former he seems to be questioning to himself a mysterious aspect of himself which may be false.

The standard Northwestern-Newberry edition (1988) printed the reading from the first American edition (‘Is Ahab, Ahab?’), which is its authoritative base text, and it is impossible to know whether Melville added ‘it’ in the British version (and this is a reasonable decision). MEL also gives that reading in its ‘base version’. However, in the spirit of its print prototype, John Bryant and Haskell Springer’s Longman Critical Edition of Moby-Dick, the MEL edition gives immediate access to the textual problems of the American and British versions in its notes.

This is what I love about the potentials of the MEL edition: we can have a direct engagement with Moby-Dick on multiple experiential levels. We are able to encounter what D F McKenzie called the bibliographic facts of each edition, the forms of which invite different meanings, as I hope the images above illustrate. We can also encounter the digital, searchable ‘Reading Text’ with various textual and contextual notes in pop-ups and linked data that enrich our understanding of this complicated novel.

Melville created something unique in American literature – it contains Whitmanian multitudes, multiple genres and worldviews, constraining them all within the crowded space of a ship at sea filled with a global coterie of working-class whale hunters. Harrison Hayford was the first to point out the ‘prisoner motif’ in the novel, suggesting that the drama in the narrative parallels how we make compelling narratives when we are trapped both physically and spiritually – what results is great art, but also something troubling about the nature of the mind. Nevertheless, reading Moby-Dick makes us re-read its multiple texts – and listen, as the reading marathon demonstrates – to penetrate a great mind, and in so doing, gauging our own growth as readers and thinkers.

Dr Christopher Ohge is a lecturer in digital approaches to literature at the School of Advanced Study’s Institute of English Studies. He is also associate director of the Herman Melville Electronic Library and a core faculty member of the Institute for the Editing of Historical Documents, which is administered through the University of Virginia’s Center for Digital Editing and the Association for Documentary Editing.

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