The entertaining and insightful companion to Moby-Dick, George Cotkin's Dive Deeper: Journeys with Moby-Dick, explores the Great American Novel's connection to everything from Hart Crane's poetry to Abbott and Costello's comedy routine. Cotkin shared with Tip Sheet a number of areas one single novel has infiltrated our world.
Although Moby-Dick was not an immediate success when published in November, 1851, it resurfaced by the late-nineteenth century. Since then its wake has been immensely powerful, influencing our cultural life in many ways, some quite unexpected. Let’s follow this influence in ten areas of culture.
In music, the English rock super-group Led Zeppelin had a song, “Moby Dick,” which featured a raging and lengthy drum solo by John Bonham – a case of his Ahab-like zeal after the perfect rhythm and improvisation. Rapper MC Lars, a graduate of Stanford, has a rap tune “Ahab,” with lines: “Call me Ahab, what monomaniac/ Obsessed with success unlike Steve Wozniak.” Oscar winning film composer Bernard Herrmann wrote a cantata for Moby Dick while more recently, Jake Heggie has an opera, inspired by the novel.
Consider its influence on humor. The opening line of Moby-Dick is famous. In the hands of comic artist Gary Larson, we view Melville at a desk, beginning his tome, surrounded by discarded sheets of paper. On them are failed titles: “Call Me Larry,” “Call Me Warren,” “Call Me Al.” Phyllis Diller’s overweight nemesis of a mother-in-law was called, “Moby Dick.”
The novel has inspired philosophical reflection. Although Moby-Dick is laden with comedic touches, it is extremely serious. We need to recall the irony of Ishmael, as he sets out in search of adventure in order to quell the “damp, drizzly November” that afflicts his soul. He trades suicide for near death on this whaling voyage of the damned. Albert Camus, who considered suicide the only serious philosophical problem, was a fan of Moby-Dick, writing about Melville and condemning all modern Ahabs for their totalitarianism. If Camus had been Starbuck, he would have acted against Ahab’s tyranny.
Artistic creation has been pushed by Melville’s novel, especially the challenge that the whale shall remain “unpainted to the last.” Jackson Pollock did two paintings with themes related to the novel. Frank Stella, after taking his sons to the aquarium in Coney Island, began a series of artworks in 1985 that concluded in 1997. All of the 138 works have a title drawn from a chapter in Moby-Dick. Recently, a talented but untrained artist Matt Kish, enthused by the novel, decided to do an artwork each day related to one page from his Signet edition of the novel, which ran 552 pages! After two years, working on found pieces of paper, he completed the monumental project and got it published.
Literature naturally looks to Moby-Dick. While some question the value of even thinking about the Great American Novel, almost all would concur that if there be such a thing, then Moby-Dick is a logical contender. Novelists have long turned to it for inspiration and more. Norman Mailer had Moby-Dick in mind when he composed his first novel, The Naked and the Dead (1948), with various characters modeled on those in Melville’s novel, with the forbidding mountain to be climbed a stand-in for the deadly White Whale. Here is a starter roster of novelists, playwrights, and poets that have themes and characters, situations and metaphors, from Moby-Dick: W.H. Auden, Dan Beachy-Quick, Peter Benchley, Ray Bradbury, Anthony Caleshu, Philip Jose Farmer, Anne Finger, Chad Harbach, Charles Johnson, Jack Kerouac, Tony Kushner, Frank Lentricchia, Cormac McCarthy, John Minichillo,Toni Morrison, Jay Parini, Robert Pirsig, and Philip Roth.
The first film based on Moby-Dick was “The Sea Beast,” (1926), a silent, starring John Barrymore. In this film, however, Ahab not only kills the whale but gets the girl! Many other films, most famously one directed by John Huston in 1956 with Gregory Peck as Ahab, have confronted the novel. Perhaps one of the less successful ones featured a comely young woman as Ishmael, who lives to tell the tale. More successfully, in the film “The Wrath of Khan,” Ricardo Montalban plays an Ahab-quoting superman seeking revenge against Captain Kirk. In television, characters from the various “Star Trek” series have had names drawn from the novel. Quite logical, as Spock would have it, since Moby-Dick is about exploring all sorts of regions – geographic, metaphysical, and psychological.
Terror is a key theme in Moby-Dick, as Ahab’s fanaticism leads to the death of everyone but Ishmael. While in prison for acts of terrorism, members of the Baader-Meinhof Gang used the names of characters in the novel as a code to communicate with one another. The leader of the gang, Andreas Baader was Ahab. And their quest, to inspire a revolution was, in the end, as absurd as Ahab’s to vanquish the whale. Another revolutionary, of the Trotskyist variety, West-Indian intellectual C.L.R. James, while imprisoned waiting deportation from the United States in 1952, wrote a book about Moby-Dick, using it as a jump-off point to reflect on the nature of revolution and the power of totalitarianism.
Since the Second World War, academic studies have thrived by turning to the novel. In the days of close readings of the text, scholars as varied as Newton Arvin, Richard Chase, Alfred Kazin, F.O. Matthiessen, and many others have delighted in its metaphor, irony, paradox, and complexity. Even as scholars have moved into post-colonial, race, gender, and feminist studies, Moby-Dick has remained a critical text, thanks to the multinational crew of the ship and its focus on power. Many scholars read the novel as a thinly veiled commentary about race in America in the pre-Civil War years but relevant today. Despite an all-male crew, novelist Sena Jeter Naslund has composed a novel about Ahab’s wife and her adventurous wife.
Finally, the novel remains an ocean of metaphor. When some political figure is referred to as an Ahab, we all know that the remark is not complimentary. When contemplating anything outsize or monumental, it is common to refer to it as a White Whale. Thus, an early advertisement for Kindle boasted that the entirety of Moby-Dick could be downloaded in less than sixty seconds.
How appropriate, then, cultural critic Greil Marcus’s remark that Moby-Dick remains “the sea we swim in.”