Moby Dick by Herman Melville
Of the 3 principal authors of American Lit in the 19th century (Hawthorne, Melville, Poe), Melville was the writer for everyman; Poe, the father of the mystery/horror, Hawthorne, the chronicler of puritanical America.
Some of the best writing in the entire book takes place in chapter 9, Father Mapple’s sermon. The book is worth the read, even if you only make it to chapter 9. You will feel like you have been churched.
‘Shipmates, this book, containing only four chapters- four yarns- is one of the smallest strands in the mighty cable of the Scriptures. Yet what depths of the soul Jonah’s deep sealine sound! what a pregnant lesson to us is this prophet! What a noble thing is that canticle in the fish’s belly! How billow-like and boisterously grand! We feel the floods surging over us, we sound with him to the kelpy bottom of the waters; sea-weed and all the slime of the sea is about us! But what is this lesson that the book of Jonah teaches? Shipmates, it is a two-stranded lesson; a lesson to us all as sinful men, and a lesson to me as a pilot of the living God.‘
The book turns through typical subject matter at times, characteristic of epic literature; the biology of whales, usage of oil, history of ships, sailing, whaling, among other points, while weaving in the storyline of Captain Ahab’s mental illness and his taking of the ship’s crew with him into his madness.
‘They think me mad–Starbuck does; but I’m demoniac, I am madness maddened!’
And how the whiteness of the whale can contribute to that madness:
And when we consider that other theory of the natural philosophers, that all other earthly hues- every stately or lovely emblazoning- the sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods; yea, and the gilded velvets of butterflies, and the butterfly cheeks of young girls; all these are but subtile deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without; so that all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within; and when we proceed further, and consider that the mystical cosmetic which produces every one of her hues, the great principle of light, for ever remains white or colorless in itself, and if operating without medium upon matter, would touch all objects, even tulips and roses, with its own blank tinge- pondering all this, the palsied universe lies before us a leper; and like wilful travellers in Lapland, who refuse to wear colored and coloring glasses upon their eyes, so the wretched infidel gazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him. And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?
The hunt and gore of the whale slaughter can be a little intense. The anthropomorphization of whales in general (in the sense of practicing good or evil, rather than just exhibiting their whale nature) is an archaic tendency of writers back then, which may have been justification for some of the indiscriminate slaughter. The 19th c. reader would more readily relate to this book than a reader of our age, though it seems that Melville gives consideration to a future reader’s more sensitive ears.
Melville on the justification of the slaughter:
Though refusing, from conscientious scruples, to bear arms against land invaders, yet himself had illimitably invaded the Atlantic and Pacfic; and though a sworn foe to human bloodshed, yet had he in his straight-bodied coat, spilled tuns upon tuns of leviathan gore, How now in the contemplative evening of his days, the pious Bildad reconciled these things in the reminiscence, I do not know; but it did not seem to concern him much, and very probably he had long since come to the sage and sensible conclusion that a man’s religion is one thing, and this practical world quite another, This world pays dividends.
but then writing of the whale:
…how nobly it raises our conceit of the mighty, misty monster, to behold him solemly sailing through a calm tropical sea; his vast, mild head overhung by a canopy of vapour, engendered by his incommunicable contemplations, and that vapour–as you will sometimes see it–glorified by a rainbow, as if heaven itself had put its seal upon his thought.
You can download this amazing book from gutenberg.org here