The Whale

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On Today’s Menu:
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** Share some salty hardtack
for a classic American novelist’s birthday.
** Linger to ponder what makes a great book great.
** Savor a last ½ cup smiling over one woman’s fascination with a long-ago era.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .


First Sip:

I have written a wicked book and
feel as spotless as the lamb.

– Herman Melville1


Slice of Cake:

Herman Melville thought it would be his best book yet.
History agrees with him.

But his readers at the time… not so much.

Humpback Whale
Alaska 2014
photo by Justus Brazelton

His first novel, Typee, was a bestseller.
His next two books also sold extremely well.

But Melville very much admired the work
of his fellow author and friend Nathaniel Hawthorn.

Already I feel that this Hawthorne has dropped
germinous seeds into my soul. He expands and
deepens down, the more I contemplate him.

– Herman Melville2

And Hawthorne encouraged Melville to try something more,
to try making his next book an allegory—
instead of just another sea adventure story like his first books.

Melville took Hawthorn’s advice. He began to write a big novel,
full of foreboding and premonitions, symbolism and figurative language.

He titled it: Moby Dick; or, The Whale.
And dedicated it:
“In token of my admiration of his genius,
this book is inscribed to Nathaniel Hawthorne”

Moby Dick was published in 1850.

Immediately, the critics harpooned it.

Over the next few years, Melville’s reputation sank and Moby Dick sank with it.
A New York critic wrote that his books “appeared to be
composed of the ravings and reveries of a madman.”

Moby Dick went out of print—
but Melville kept writing.
He wrote poetry and short stories for magazines
and a novella, Billy Budd.
He even published two more full-length novels.
But nothing sold very well,
and during his lifetime, Melville never recovered his early popularity.

It wasn’t until around 30 years after Herman Melville died that
his work was critically reassessed, and began to gain fans.

Now, of course, Melville’s Moby Dick consistently makes the
lists of greatest books of all time.

HA! ha! ha! ha!
hem! clear my throat!—
I’ve been thinking it over ever since,
and that
ha, ha’s the final consequence.

Why so?
Because a laugh’s the wisest
easiest answer to all that’s queer

I know not all that be coming,
but be it what it will,
I will go to it laughing.

– from Moby Dick
Herman Melville
chapter 39: First Night Watch

Sperm Whale
(same species as Moby Dick—different color, though!)
Kaikoura, New Zealand, in 2003
photo by Steven Ellis


Happy 201st Birthday
** Herman Melville

– born August 1, 1819
New York City


Linger Awhile:

Been thinking this week about what makes Moby Dick a great book to me.

Q: What is the Moby Dick about?
A: What is Moby Dick not about?

Revenge, defiance, madness.
Duty and friendship.
Race, sex, gender.
Fate vs. free will

It’s all here.

My joke when I first read it was that it was clearly written before editing was invented.

But when I think of the novel Moby Dick,
there are 3 passages that I keep coming back to.

Melville takes these three ideas and—
in vivid, unforgettable images—
describes them better than anything else I’ve ever come across.

The three passages describe:
, and the
Arbitrariness of life and death.

Side note:
It took me a long time
to get through most of this novel—
but those last few chapters flew by.

First time I read Moby Dick,
my kids were little, we were living in New Zealand, and
I took a library copy on a family trip up the east coast
of the South Island.

As I read on,
ignoring the beautiful South Pacific out
the train window, Prof B asked, for the the third time,
“Were you planning to help at all with the kids here?”

I cried: “’By heaven, man, we are turned round and round in this world,
like yonder windlass, and Fate is the handspike!’

I can’t stop reading now—It’s the first day of The Chase!

Our youngest came, put his head
in my lap, and fell asleep.
Prof B brought me tea.

And I read on
to Finis.


One of my favorite quotes from any book
is on the first page of Moby Dick.
Our narrator, Ishmael, is describing his discontent and
restlessness and how it drives him to look for work at sea…

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth;
whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul
whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me,
that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from
deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically
knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it
high time to get to sea as soon as I can

– from Moby Dick
Herman Melville
first page


After a whale is sighted from the ship,
three small boats are launched into the sea to give chase.

One of these boats, steered by Stubb, includes poor small Pip—
until he goes overboard.

No one sees Pip land in the ocean.
All three boats are moving so fast after the whale
that Pip quickly finds himself all alone in an immense ocean.

The description of one man alone in the sea is
such a haunting image: the picture of utter isolation.

Now upon the second lowering,
the boat paddled upon the whale; and as the
fish received the darted iron, it gave its customary rap,
which happened, in this instance, to be right under poor Pip’s seat.
The involuntary consternation of the moment caused him to leap,
paddle in hand, out of the boat

When the whale started to run, Pip was
left behind on the sea, like a hurried traveller’s trunk

The spangled sea calm and cool, and
flatly stretching away, all round, to the horizon

He fell so rapidly astern
in three minutes, a whole mile of shoreless ocean
was between Pip and Stubb.

Out from the centre of the sea
the awful lonesomeness is intolerable

The intense concentration of self in the middle
of such a heartless immensity

my God! who can tell it?
Stubb’s boat was now so far away
and he and all his crew so intent upon his fish, that
Pip’s ringed horizon began to expand around him miserably.

By the merest chance the ship itself
at last rescued him

– from Moby Dick
Herman Melville
chapter 93: The Castaway

Arbitrariness of life and death

There’s a short, amazing chapter in the middle of Moby Dick
called ‘The Line’.

This chapter describes how the small boats carry harpoons,
which, of course, are tied to ropes
Miles and miles of coiled rope.
(This enormous rope sits quietly all around the men before the harpoon is launched,
but it will uncoil—quickly and hazardously—after the harpoon is launched.)

The rope becomes
a metaphor for all we cannot know about the future.

Rope wound
and coiled everywhere inside the boats.
When the harpoon was launched,

all that rope uncoiled at a dizzying speed,
shooting forward out of the boat.

The danger for the men was to get
caught in that unraveling line and be taken with it.

Thus the whale-line folds the

whole boat in its complicated coils,
twisting and writhing around it in almost every direction.
All the oarsmen are involved in its perilous contortions… Nor can
any son of mortal woman, for the first time, seat himself amid
those hempen intricacies, and while straining his utmost at the oar,
bethink him that at any instant the harpoon may be darted, and all these
horrible contortions be put in play like ringed lightnings;
he cannot be thus circumstanced without a shudder that makes the very
marrow in his bones to quiver in him like a shaken jelly.

Yet habit—strange thing! what cannot habit accomplish? —
Gayer sallies, more merry mirth, better jokes,
and brighter repartees, you never heard.

So the graceful repose of the line,
as it silently
serpentines about the oarsmen
is a thing which carries more of
true terror than any other aspect of this dangerous affair.

But why say more?
All men live enveloped in whale-lines.
All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught

in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize
the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life.

And if you be a philosopher,
though seated in the whale-boat,
you would not at heart feel one whit more of terror,
than though seated before your evening fire
with a poker, and not a harpoon, by your side.

– from Moby Dick
Herman Melville
from Chapter 60: ‘The Line’


“Half Cup More”

Earlier this summer, my mother-in-law asked me
Why are you so interested in the 19th century?

That stopped me in my tracks.
I don’t know, I said.

I guess most of us go along assuming
that what we find interesting is just intrinsically interesting—
But in this case, I know it’s not.
Plenty of people find older literature obscure and outdated.

So why do I love to read and re-read books from the 19th century?
I thought about it and here’s what I came up with

My parents were older—as were their parents.
(I was born in the 1960s; all 4 of my grandparents were born in the 1890s.)
So that gave me an early interest and connection to history.

By coincidence (I think) my 3 favorite books growing up
were all set in the 19th or very early 20th century.
So in my late 20s, when I started wanting to challenge my reading habits,
the switch from Alcott to Austen and Betty Smith to Edith Wharton
wasn’t too big a leap.

Plus for me, there is something so appealing about
the time travel aspect of reading old books.
I love when there’s a connection between ideas we struggle with now
and ideas they wrote about then.
People are people, after all, then as now.
And I like seeing reminders of that.

I find it poor logic to say that
because women are good, women should vote.
Men do not vote because they are good;
they vote because they are male,
and women should vote, not because we are angels

but because we are human beings
and citizens of this country

– from a rally speech (1880)
in Concord, Massachusetts3
by Louisa May Alcott

I don’t feel life was better in the 19th century.
And I certainly feel no yearnings for life
without civil rights, modern medicine, and indoor plumbing.
But because things were slower then,
I do like thinking about a pace and depth of life
with less distractions, longer attention spans,
ideas spooling out slowly, and thoughts set out on paper.

Those are some reasons.
But mostly my answer circles back to:
I don’t know why I find the 19th century fascinating.
I just do.

At Mansfield,
no sounds of contention,
no raised voice
was ever heard;
All proceeded in a regular course of
cheerful orderliness;
everybody had their
due importance

The elegance, propriety, regularity
the peace and tranquility of Mansfield,

were brought to her remembrance
every hour of the day, by the prevalence of
everything opposite to them here

Here everybody was noisy,
every voice was loud

whatever was wanted was hallooed for
…nothing was done without a clatter,
nobody sat still, and nobody could
command attention when they spoke.

– from Mansfield Park (1816)
by Jane Austen


Take-Away Box

I, Ishmael, was one of that crew;
my shouts had gone up with the rest;
my oath had been welded with theirs;

and stronger I shouted, and more did I hammer
and clinch my oath, because of the dread in my soul.
A wild, mystical, sympathetical feeling was in me;

Ahab’s quenchless feud
seemed mine

– from Moby Dick
Herman Melville
chapter 41


Thank you for reading!
Kelly J Hardesty

Thoughts? Questions?
Scroll down to the endand you can leave me a note!
Always so lovely to hear from you.

You Can Read More…

notes & footnotes

Quote taken from a letter
from Herman Melville to Nathaniel Hawthorne
November 1851

I found this on a webpage called
The Life and Works of Herman Melville

Here’s more of Melville’s letter:

Your letter was handed me last night on the road going to Mr. Morewood’s,
and I read it there. Had I been at home, I would have sat down at once and
answered it. In me divine maganimities are spontaneous and instantaneous—
catch them while you can. The world goes round, and the other side comes up.
So now I can’t write what I felt. But I felt pantheistic then—

your heart beat in my ribs and mine in yours, and both in God’s.
A sense of unspeakable security is in me this moment,
on account of your having understood the book.

I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb.
Ineffable socialities are in me. I would sit down and dine with
you and all the gods in old Rome’s Pantheon.

It is a strange feeling—no hopefulness is in it, no despair.
Content—that is it; and irresponsibility; but without licentious inclination.
I speak now of my profoundest sense of being, not of an incidental feeling.

From an introduction Herman Melville wrote for
a book of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories,
called Mosses from an Old Manse (1846)

This quote is regularly credited
to Jo March, but it’s not in the book Little Women.
As far as I can find, Louisa May Alcott said this
in a speech at a rally in Concord in 1880.
When the first law passed allowing women to vote in Massachusetts,
Alcott was the first women to register.
(Though even then, only white women could vote,
and only in certain elections, like for school board.)

Hershel Parker in his biography of Melville
quotes the following
in a news report in the New York Day Book
September 8, 1852
The headline read: “Herman Melville Crazy”

Melville’s last book, Ambiguities … appeared to be composed
of the ravings and reveries of a madman.
…Melville was really supposed to be deranged,
…his friends were taking measures to
place him under treatment.
We hope one of the earliest precautions will be to
keep him stringently secluded from pen and ink.

from Herman Melville: A Biography. Volume I, 1819–1851
by Hershel Parker
Johns Hopkins University Press


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© Kelly J Hardesty 2024

3 thoughts on “The Whale”

  1. Reading this book was my path to intellectual enlightenment and satisfaction as an adolescent.
    It was a tough read——but I felt I got it.
    I still remember my favorite quote:
    “Hark ye yet again,——the little lower layer. All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event—in the living act, the undoubted deed—there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. ”
    That was powerful stuff to a 16-year old.

  2. What a wonderful post. Thank you, Kelly! I love the story about the New Zealand train ride. I read it for the first time on my iPhone through the books app. There were many great classics to choose from and I picked Moby Dick. I’m glad your mother in law got you thinking. I wholeheartedly agree with you about a slower pace and depth of life back then. I think of it often.

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