By Eric Williams

“The Battle of Doberdo” by R. A. Hoger (via Wikipedia)

Reconsidering the literary landscape in the wake of the Great War, Lawrence rescued Herman Melville’s now venerated novel from absolute obscurity.

If any book can be called “great,” surely Moby-Dick is one of them. Its reach extends beyond the scholarly jungle of “Melville Studies” and into the world at large, with themes, images and even dialogue showing up in some surprisingly disparate reaches of pop-culture. At least two of Gary Larson’s Far Side comics riff on it, one imagining the birth of the famous opening line and the other positing a car accident between the Whale and the vengeful captain. Ricardo Montalbán’s Khan, a futuristic expression of the archetypal Ahab, uses his dying breath to quote Moby-Dick in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Hell, there’s even a Led Zeppelin song titled “Moby Dick.” Outside of the Bible or Shakespeare, what other piece of literature can be said to have engulfed so much of Western culture?  

Moby-Dick’s influence is so widespread that it seems there must have been a big, whale-shaped hole in the center of the world before 1851, just waiting for the right bit of writing to descend from the heavens and complete the puzzle for us. But at the time of publication, Herman Melville’s magnum opus was met with, at best, ambivalence and, at worst, downright hostility:

Mr. Melville’s Quakers are the wretchedest dolts and drivellers, and his Mad Captain … is a monstrous bore. ... His ravings, and the ravings of some of the tributary characters, and the ravings of Mr. Melville himself, meant for eloquent declamation, are such as would justify a writ de lunatico against all the parties.

Charleston Southern Quarterly Review, January 1852

That’s what you call a bad review. And it wasn’t the only one:

This is an ill-compounded mixture of romance and matter-of-fact. The idea of a connected and collected story has obviously visited and abandoned its writer again and again in the course of composition. The style of his tale is in places disfigured by mad (rather than bad) English; and its catastrophe is hastily, weakly, and obscurely managed. … Our author must be henceforth numbered in the company of the incorrigibles who occasionally tantalize us with indications of genius, while they constantly summon us to endure monstrosities, carelessnesses, and other such harassing manifestations of bad taste as daring or disordered ingenuity can devise.

– Henry Chorley, Athenaeum, October 25, 1851

Herman Melville, 1870 (via Wikipedia)

Sales figures for Moby-Dick tell us that the reviews were not anomalous. In Melville’s lifetime, it sold 3,715 copies; compare this to the sales of Melville’s first book, Typee (more than 16,300 copies) and its equally popular sequel, Omoo (13,300). Both of these were, at the time, regarded as popular works of solid literary merit. Moby-Dick, on the other hand, pretty much ended its author’s career as a famous novelist. After its publication, Melville transitioned into writing short stories and poetry, fading from public view. Moby-Dick was out of print for the last four years of his life, only reissued in small numbers following his death.  

So how did Moby-Dick transcend the collective shrug of most of its contemporary readers to become the cultural and literary force that it is today? Two things came together to give Moby-Dick and Melville a new interpretive context: World War I and D. H. Lawrence.

Australian troops with respirators near Becelaere, Belgium, 1918 (via Flickr)

The four years of World War I killed more than 9 million soldiers and 7 million civilians, and completely reshaped the economic, social and political landscapes of the Western world. It also definitively killed Romanticism; millions dead, ground to bits in the teeth of the first truly mechanized war, left little room for the wooly positivity that had dominated arts and culture in the 1800s.

Both above-quoted reviews of Moby-Dick make it clear that, at the time of its first publication, the work failed as a part of the Romantic tradition. Its characters are too complicated, its narrative too darkly lit, its morals too ambiguously real to fit comfortably within an enlightened Victorian tradition. But in a world of Maxim machine guns and mustard gas? A world of seemingly mad presidents, prime ministers and politicians? In such a context, we can find resonances between the souring of the early 20th century and Ishmael’s narrative of the Pequod.  Even scenes of whale slaughter and processing take on a different flavor in the context of the Industrial Revolution and its climax, the Great War.

Of course, the post-1918 literary landscape was packed with thinkers and artists producing works examining that particular moment in great detail. Melville, marginalized and forgotten in his own time, needed a champion to bring him out of obscurity. Luckily for us, one found him.  

Passport photo of D. H. Lawrence (via Wikipedia)

David Herbert Lawrence published Sons and Lovers in 1913, The Rainbow in 1915 and Women in Love in 1920, an unofficial trilogy that nicely encapsulates Lawrence’s response to World War I and its historical run-up. He had begun to construct his own “Lawrencian” version of what would become known as Modernism, emphasizing symbols and expression as a means of exploring how identity, relationships and authority are constructed. That might seem somewhat underwhelming to us today, but only because our current literary traditions are all branches off the Modernist tree. At the time it was the bleeding edge of a new cultural paradigm.

Following World War I, Lawrence embarks on his “exile,” travelling the world and eventually landing in the United States, consciously searching outside the tradition of the English novel for new perspectives. The result is a series of essays, published in book form in 1923 as his Studies in American Literature. Of the book’s 12 chapters, Lawrence devotes two to Melville; one chapter on his early travelogue novels Typee and Omoo, and a second chapter on Moby-Dick, where, cognizant of the work’s obscurity, he spends much of his ink simply retelling the story. Lawrence interprets Melville’s use of complex narratives, nested imagery, symbolic juxtaposition and stylistic originality as prototypically reinventing the novel — a hidden gem of American literature that, in the face of the horrors and uncertainties of World War I, offered a new direction for the future of English literature.

The sudden, violent shakedown of European power that was World War I was mirrored in the arts and literature. Lawrence decided that, having led us to World War I, the previous generation’s social and moral framework was all genteel hypocrisy and blind nationalism. He sought out a new model of literary exploration and, finding it in America, gave the long-lost Moby-Dick back to the world. Melville and his great book were only relevant in the shattered literary landscape of World War I. As Lawrence writes in Studies in American Literature:

Melville was, at the core, a mystic and an idealist.

Perhaps, so am I.

And he stuck to his ideal guns.

I abandon mine.

He was a mystic who raved because the old ideal guns shot havoc. The guns of  the “noble spirit.” Of “ideal love.”

I say, let the old guns rot.

Get new ones, and shoot straight.

Eric Williams is a recovering earth scientist, living in the sunny, paradisical tangle of traffic and breakfast tacos that is Austin, Texas. His electronic presence can be experienced on Twitter: @geoliminal. He really thinks you ought to read Moby-Dick.

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