Recently, a good friend who for years was the only person who knew my English-teacher-dirty-little-secret remarked that reading Moby Dick is my white whale.
I’ll have to take her word for it.
There. I’ve said it. I’ve probably taken at least eight college courses that included the words “American” and “Literature” in some combination in their titles (add in a time period, or a gender indicator, or another identity marker and they can add up quickly). I probably took a class called “American Literature” in high school, too, judging by the fact that I wrote an essay on John Steinbeck. Somehow, though, I’ve never read Moby Dick.
I do not mean to imply that none of those classes had Moby Dick on the syllabus. I’m pretty sure at least two of them did. I can’t even remember why I didn’t read it—I’m a homework-doer; my parents had to buy me phonics workbooks when I was four so I could do homework before I ever even went to school. I wish I could claim some life calamity tore me away while the boat crashed and rocked on the sea (I’m assuming at some point the boat crashes and rocks on the sea—doesn’t it?) but if that happened, those calamities have been lost in some great ocean of memory; you might say they’ve drifted out to sea without me.
With the exception of Robin Hood and A Brief History of Time, I’ve finished every other book I’ve ever started. I can’t bear not to know how a story ends, even when the story is a sentence long. When my husband picks up the remote a few seconds too early while we’re watching Jeopardy, I lose it. But what happened when he traveled with his wife to London and a cabby told him he looked like—WHO?? Who did the cabby tell him he looked like? I won’t remember in five minutes, but I can’t bear not to know right now.
It isn’t that I haven’t tried to read Moby Dick. I have wandered the streets of that little town on six or seven different occasions. I’ve stopped at The Spouter Inn, and I’ve spent the night in that crowded hammock with Ishmael and Queequeg a whole bunch of times. My problem, I think, begins in Chapter Two. Ishmael reaches New Bedford on Saturday night and is “disappointed upon learning that the little packet for Nantucket had already sailed, and that no way of reaching that place would offer, till the following Monday.” That long weekend at The Spouter Inn (the Hotel California?) does me in every time. I just can never quite make it to the sea (Chapter 21—Going Aboard, I’m guessing?), which, from what I hear, is where the action is.
And lest you think I’ve got an old Eagles song running through my head, I should let you know that Chapter One actually has me singing Jimmy Buffett. (The voice in my sister’s car calls him Jimmy Buf-fay, as in all you can eat seafood at Long John Silver’s on Saturday night. It’s funny every time. A few summers ago we drove from her home near Huntington, West Virginia, to the Finger Lakes in upstate New York, telling the car to “Play Jimmy Buffett” every hour or so just to hear the car say “Ok, I’ll play Jimmy Buf-fay,” followed by, “Playing, Jimmy Buf-fay.” Trust me—it was funny every time. Even on the drive back.)
You probably know the part I’m talking about. Ishmael says, “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; [some other stuff about wanting to knock people’s hats off]…then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.” We’ve heard this before—he’s looking for some changes in attitude, changes in latitude. Right? Am I getting this yet?
It’s not that I don’t know anything about Moby Dick. For the record, I remember taking a test on which I had a choice of essay questions between Moby Dick and some other book that I had duly read and annotated, and I chose to answer the question on Moby Dick. I got an A on that test. I can’t explain that A, any more than I can explain the fact that I often get the chemistry questions on Jeopardy right.
I’m sure a lot of people go through life without ever reading Moby Dick, and I have nothing but respect for them. It’s just that when people learn you’re an English teacher, they make certain assumptions. My insecurity about this whale of a hole in my education grew a few years ago when I started teaching a class called “American Lit.” You can see how that could make for rough sailing.
Mostly, my strategy has been to avoid discussing Melville (“I’m not a big fan,” does a nice job of suggesting you knew the work at one point and dismissed it, without actually making that false claim). When avoidance has failed, I’ve simply changed the subject. There are plenty of other writers about whom I can talk with some semblance of intelligence. It’s pretty easy with a little practice to turn a conversation from whale hunting to big game hunting or bull fighting. See how I did that? A nice bit of showing off with the correct choice of an object pronoun followed by a quick feint toward Hemingway, and no one suspects that the English teacher with whom they are in conversation is a fraud. (I threw that whom in for good measure.)
The whale almost pulled me under recently when an ambitious student got excited about comparing Moby Dick to Star Trek. I leaned on my more socially respectable ignorance of the TV show (or was it a movie?) to justify my inability to be of much help to him. It bothered me, though, in a grain of sand irritating an oyster sort of way.
A few months ago at a graduation party, my insecurity erupted like seawater from a blowhole. I was engaged in conversation with the head of my school (my boss’s boss, if you want to get technical) our college counselor, my husband, and her husband, who, for some inexplicable reason began explaining why Moby Dick is THE AMERICAN NOVEL. I don’t believe in writing in all caps like that, but it seems the simplest way to express the weight of those words bearing down on me.
I had several choices. I could stay quiet (a challenge if you know me, but I can do it when I dig my oars deep); I could jump up in mid-sentence and ask if anyone wanted me to see if they had cut the cake yet (foiled by the graduate appearing just then—what were the chances?—and asking that very question); or I could come clean. My secret about the whale was throbbing in me like that heart Poe stashed beneath the floorboards, and as Melville says, “Yes, these eyes are windows.” I was sure they knew my secret and had staged this whole conversation, maybe even this graduation and this party, to draw a confession from my tell-tale heart. I took a deep breath and grabbed the whale by its horns, or flukes, or barnacles, or whatever protrudes from that great white preponderance of flesh and metaphor. (Isn’t there some chapter where I’ll learn what protrudes from that great white preponderance along with everything else I ever wanted to know about whale anatomy?)
“I’ve never read it,” I told them, firing my puny harpoon.
I’d like to say a hush fell over the whole party as my students and colleagues lost all respect for me, but I had to speak. “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” as they say. (Not Melville?) I’ve spent too many years sailing away from this damn whale with the same zeal that I’ve heard what’s his name sails toward it.
What actually happened was that the college counselor’s husband said something about how the book is about the relentless, disastrous pursuit of something meaningless. That’s why, he said, the book is THE AMERICAN NOVEL.
“Oh,” I thought. Maybe I should read it. We left the party not long after, but the conversation has dogged me all summer.
Having confessed once publicly, I now find myself confessing all over. I’m like the convert or the new non-smoker who can’t stop telling people things they really don’t want to hear. “Hi, I’m Heather. I’ve never read Moby Dick.” It’s like I won’t be free of this albatross around my neck until I tell my story to some stranger. (A wedding guest, say. I read that one.)
Recently one of my confessors sent me a cartoon. The drawing is of a woman (who looks a little like me if you lose the sensible shoes) lying on her psychiatrist’s couch. “I’m a liar and a fake,” she says. “Moby Dick for Dummies is as far as I got.”
When I was in seventh or eighth grade, we drove from Pittsburgh to Duck, North Carolina, to spend a week with relatives in a rented house on the sea. Those were the days when cars still broke down, and early on, ours filled with fog. When the car was fixed, the sky filled with fog, and it was hard to know just where we were or where we were going. Later there was a storm and a wrong turn or two, and some tense moments as the drive we’d woken before dawn to get an early start on stretched deep into the night.
But we got there. Duck in the late seventies was a quiet peninsula with few roads and beach houses tucked in among dunes and sea oats. What I mean by that is that you can drive up and down the same dark roads for a long time without finding Finisterre, the romantically named house for which we were looking. The other thing I mean by that is that it was dark, and the realty office wouldn’t be open until morning.
I can’t remember how long we wandered lost, searching for the end of the earth, but at some point, for some reason, (perhaps because one or the other of my parents was feeling like knocking someone’s hat off) we stopped the car, got out, and walked onto the beach. It was, as one great American writer I’ve heard about put it, “a very dark and dismal night.”
The reason I remember this moment so vividly isn’t because I saw the ocean, but because I couldn’t see it. The stars were black and the ocean was invisible. We could hear it and smell it and sense it, but all we could see of the huge dark water was a tiny string of foam snaking up the beach.
Melville describes how I felt at that moment (and how I often feel) when he says, “..the great flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open…”
What a line!
I’m on page 53. I’ll let you know if I make it out to sea.