Did Herman Melville write the Great American Novel in Moby Dick? Well, I think he wrote a great American novel, but the capitalized, proper Great American Novel? No. There are things uniquely American in it, American values, ideas, doubts and dreams – but I think the wealth of information is detrimental to its American-ness. The biblical references, the step-by-step descriptions of some processes, the shifts in writing styles (the disappearance of Ishmael and the appearance of screenplay-eqsue language like ‘aside’ and ‘so and so approaches’) all contribute to making Moby Dick hard to read, and I don’t think The Great American Novel is hard to read. If a room of college-educated students skip or skim entire sections of a book, what could the general public possible think of it? (And if the book’s not written for the general public, that doesn’t seem very American). When I think of my personal candidate, To Kill a Mockingbird, it has some things in common with Moby Dick – American values for instance (the good and the bad), but it’s also simple enough to hand to a secondary/middle-school educated individual and they could read it with no problems.
In Chapter 132: The Symphony, Captain Ahab gives a speech of sorts to Starbuck about his life and regrets. I can’t say what comes out of this discussion is the point of the book or the core moral dilemma, but since it comes so close to the end it’s what I’ll be thinking about for a while. So here goes: Ahab’s observations about the pointlessness of his life feel like a takedown of sorts on the “American Dream” if such a concept existed in Melville’s day like it does today. Why did Ahab sail for forty years, put his life in such danger, and make his life so miserable – if he could have lived much more conveniently on land? It wasn’t for wealth, (he’s not rich) and it wasn’t for pleasure (the job’s made him old and crazy). Ahab’s resignation to fate – that he’s destined to kill or be killed by Moby Dick – align with his, in general, already bad luck. Born with the name “Ahab” people would always see him as a tyrant, so maybe he became one. Born in such circumstances that made him work at sea to survive, born to be a whaler and die a whaler. “Why the strife of the chase?” Is it an American value to be disillusioned with the American dream? To realize one day when you’re old that, all your efforts were for naught, and you’re right where you started? I think it can be, and it’s a theme that could make for a Great American Novel, a book that resonates with people who never escape beyond the social class they were born into – a common person’s book (and that’s what makes it especially weird to see this theme in an uncommon book for the uncommon person).
Looking back at the brief Herman Melville biography in front of my edition of Moby Dick, I can imagine Melville’s life in terms of Ishmael and Ahab. There are “strife of the chase” moments that could have inspired Ahab – moments after the financial failure of Melville’s family where he’s trying to crawl up a capitalist ladder. And there are adventure moments that inspired Ishmael – moments where you hop on a boat, abandon ship in Tahiti, get arrested, escape, etc. The chase, or following the traditional American dream of “keep working at this one thing and you’ll eventually ‘get there’” will kill you as it killed Ahab. The adventure, or trying something because you’re unhappy with the status quo (Ishmael started off as a bored man in NYC) is perhaps what saves you. Ishmael nearly dies but he is the survivor at the end of the day, and it’s because of adventure that Melville was able to write Typee or Moby Dick in the first place – adventure allows Melville to live.
Moby Dick is a book I’d like to return to one day without time constraints, just to read slowly again and again – because there’s certainly good material here. I personally, couldn’t call Moby Dick the Great American Novel without feeling pretentious about it. There are too many caveats, too many things that even people who love it will criticize it for, and something about that doesn’t fall in-line with my idea of “American Greatness.”